SACRAMENTO, Calif. — She had a chest cold she couldn't seem to shake. Days turned into weeks, and yet it lingered. Over-the-counter medicine wasn't helping.
Friends told Rancho Cordova, Calif., resident Denise Pena, 37, that feeling tired and nursing a weeks-long cold was a consequence of rearing two active children born 22 months apart.
Tired of being sick, Pena finally went to her doctor in January. Diagnosis: bronchitis. She was given antibiotics. A few weeks later, still sick, the doctor gave her a chest X-ray. Diagnosis: pneumonia. She was given stronger antibiotics. Weeks afterward, she went to another doctor and had another X-ray. A CT scan followed.
And, at last, Pena was given a definitive diagnosis: sarcoidosis.
"They tried to explain it to my husband and I," she says, "but it's hard to understand at first."
They quickly learned that this immune-system disorder causes tiny lumps of cells to cluster in the body's organs. There is no cure, and researchers have yet to identify its causes. Often the condition goes into remission and occasionally it goes away with use of the steroid prednisone.
In some cases, sarcoidosis has led to complications — stroke, organ failure — and death.
This disorder was thrust into the spotlight last month when comedian Bernie Mac died of pneumonia at age 50. Though Mac's publicist says his sarcoidosis was in remission, pneumonia is said to be prevalent among patients.
"It affects mostly the lungs, but sarc is called the great mimicker," says Dr. Amit Karmakar, a pulmonologist at Mercy San Juan Medical Center. "Sometimes people don't even know they have it because they are asymptomatic. Or they'll have some nonspecific complaints like fatigue or muscle aches."
In Pena's case, it was fatigue and chest tightness. But her CT scan showed that the sarcoidosis had settled in her lungs, spleen and liver. After three months of taking prednisone, Pena says she feels much better.
For the most part, she doesn't let the condition stop her from playing with the kids."I try to talk myself up," she said. "There are times when you get depressed, but you can't let life go by."