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Cushing's disease: Bizarre illness that can strike the healthy

January 24, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Cushing's disease can hit in the prime of a person's life and can make young, active women fatigued, overweight and depressed.

Chondra Hungerford could clean and jerk 200 pounds and bench press 185, but in a matter of months, she went from a 5 foot 6 inch, 120-pound muscle machine to 176 pounds.

"I was trapped in this body of a monster and I was horrified," she said.

She was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, was told she was allergic to her own hair follicles and she should be treated for mental problems.

"I didn't know what I was doing anymore," she said.

Tests revealed her testosterone level was 77 when it should have been 40, and her cortisol level was over 1400; the normal level is 30.

She started researching and found neurological surgeon Dr. Hoi Sang U, who immediately tested her for Cushing's disease, which is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland.

"The life expectancy is very low," U said. "If you can correct it, however, your life completely turns around."

U says several of his patients have been referred to him from psych wards, and finding the tumor can be difficult.

"Some of these patients could have full-blown symptoms and appearance of Cushing's disease, and yet when you do an MRI scan, you don't see a tumor," he said.

U pinpointed Hungerford's tumor. He went through her nose to the base of the skull, where the pituitary gland sits, and removed the tumor.

After surgery, Hungerford did go through cortisol withdrawal because the disease made her levels so high. But four months later and 40 pounds lighter, Hungerford is back at the gym, working to regain her strength and her life.

Symptoms for Cushing's include weight gain, acne or skin infections, purple marks on the skin of the abdomen, thighs and breasts. Patients also experience excessive hair growth on their face, neck, chest, stomach and thighs.


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