The pop singer has been out of the spotlight undergoing treatment for lupus, but the question most of us have now is: Exactly what is it?
Selena Gomez has been staying out of the spotlight over the past few months, but not for drug addiction, as some news outlets have been claiming. "I was diagnosed with lupus, and I've been through chemotherapy. That's what my break was really about," Gomez revealed in Billboard.
Our hearts go out to the singer. Being diagnosed with a life-long disease at such a young age can be tough—and unfortunately, it happens more than you'd think, says Jill Buyon, M.D., the director of the NYU Langone Lupus Center. “Outside of family history, the biggest risk factors for lupus are being female, of child-bearing age (15 to 44), and a minority, namely black or Hispanic—and Selena Gomez meets all of these,” she says.
What Is Lupus?
The Lupus Foundation of America estimates that 1.5 million Americans have some form of lupus. However, they also report that 72 percent of Americans know little or nothing about the disease beyond the name—which is particularly disturbing since those polled were between 18 and 34, the group at the greatest risk. (Find out Why the Diseases That Are the Biggest Killers Get the Least Attention.)
Lupus is an autoimmune disease, meaning your antibodies—which are responsible for fighting off infections like viruses—get confused and start seeing your personal cells as foreign invaders. This causes inflammation and, in lupus, damage to multiple organs in your body. As for why your antibodies get confused, well, that’s the million dollar research question.
Because lupus is more prevalent in ladies, at first, researchers thought it had to do with the "X" chromosome or estrogen. But while those both may play a part in the disease, neither is the sole culprit. “There are likely a lot of different factors—hormonal, genetic, environmental—that, for some reason, all crash together once you reach this age range,” Buyon explains. (Does Your Birth Month Influence Your Disease Risk?)
How Do You Know If You Have It?
Because lupus attacks so many different organs and systems, it’s very difficult to diagnose, Buyon says. In fact, it takes nearly six years and switching doctors at least four times, on average, for someone with lupus to be diagnosed from the time they first notice a symptom, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. But it's good to know where to look: In addition to the three risk factors we've mentioned, 20 percent of people with lupus have a parent or sibling who has the autoimmune disorder as well (although it could be undiagnosed).
Some of the more obvious symptoms are a signature butterfly rash across your face (Buyon says some people describe this as looking like they got mauled by a bear), joint pain and swelling, and seizures. But there are also subtle symptoms like sensitivity to sunlight (and even artificial light sometimes!), painless oral ulcers, and blood abnormalities. And you only have to have four of the 11 potential symptoms to be diagnosed. One downside: Because so many symptoms fit under the umbrella of lupus, a lot of people are misdiagnosed with the disease as well. (Gomez, though, has already been undergoing chemo so she probably really does have it, Buyon adds.)
How Does It Impact Someone’s Life?
“There’s a huge uncertainty with lupus as to how you’re going to feel tomorrow—which is a very big part of the disease,” Buyon explains. There’s a chance you can wake up with that butterfly rash across your face on your wedding day. And you can make plans for girls’ night out, but if your joints hurt, you’re not going to want to go dancing (which, if it’s one of her symptoms, will undoubtedly impact Gomez as a performer, whether the public sees it or not). You could sunburn weirdly fast one summer day, but then not experience that again for a while.
You see, lupus can go into remission. Because of this—and the myriad of symptoms—it's important to remember easily dismissed problems and be aware of family history, says Buyon. And while you can treat the symptoms in the short-term with medications and regimens (like the low-dose chemo Gomez has undertaken), lupus is not curable.
Of course, doctors and researchers are working toward that every day. The Lupus Foundation of America works with researchers who are searching for a cure (you can donate here) and real people suffering from the disease, like Gomez. Hopefully one day, we'll have more answers.