The More You Know: Let’s Talk About Graves’, The Thyroid Disease Impacting Missy, Wendy And Many Other Black Women

January 3, 2019  |  

Graves' disease

Source: Robin Marchant/Paras Griffin / Getty

The month of January marks Thyroid Awareness Month. To help with awareness, we’ve teamed up with doctors of color to keep you better informed about the conditions impacting our thyroid and overall health. 

We’ve all heard about Graves’ disease, and we know a few of the symptoms attributed to it: Protrusion or a bugging out of the eyes. An enlarged thyroid. Tremors. We saw Missy Elliott talk about being diagnosed after almost getting in a car accident due to intense tremors.

“I couldn’t keep the brake down and almost crashed,” she shared in 2011. At a certain point, it got so bad that Elliott couldn’t “even use a pen.”

And no one has been more of a face for Graves’ and the struggles those who have it face as of late than Wendy Williams. She was ordered to take a three-week hiatus from her eponymous talk show to deal with it following her fainting spell on Halloween 2017.

That’s about as far as most people’s knowledge goes. But Graves’ disease is very common. In fact, it’s the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, making up between 60 and 80 percent of hyperthyroid-related cases. And it impacts both women and men (though it is more common in women). Hyperthyroidism is caused by the body making antibodies that stimulate thyroid hormone production and secretion. This stimulation can cause a goiter, or an enlarged thyroid.

“Graves’ disease is a syndrome that usually consists of hyperthyroidism, too much thyroid hormone, goiter, eye disease (orbitopathy), and occasionally a skin condition called pretibial myxedema,” says Melynda Barnes, MD, Associate Clinical Director at Ro.

There are a number of symptoms associated with Graves’, from the well-known tremors and bulging eyes to lesser-known ones like weight loss and heart palpitations due to hyperthyroidism. Barnes says if you’re experiencing any of these issues, you need to contact a doctor.

“If you notice bulging eyes, or changes in the skin on the front part of your legs, or a bulge in the front part of your neck, you should consult your physician to evaluate you for Graves’ disease,” she said. “Hyperthyroidism is the most common feature of Graves’ disease. Symptoms include anxiety, emotional mood swings, weakness, tremor, palpitations, the inability to be in heat, increased sweating and weight loss despite a normal or increased appetite.”

“Some other symptoms are increased defecation, needing to go to the bathroom more times per day, increased need to urinate, changes in menstruation, decreased or stopped completely in women, and breast development and erectile dysfunction in men,” she added.

In Williams’ case, she admitted that she became so bogged down and busy with work and other responsibilities that she couldn’t hide the fact that her health was spiraling, even though she had known for years about her Graves’ diagnosis. That message is important to share because if you don’t get control of it, or even get diagnosed, the effects can be tremendous.

“If left untreated, Graves’ disease can lead to serious problems with your heart,” Barnes said. “These effects on your heart include inability of the heart to pump enough blood to the body, changes in heart rhythm and changes in the structure and function of the heart. Untreated
hyperthyroidism also can lead to osteoporosis, which increases the risk of broken bones.”

There’s also the possibility that one could develop what is called a “thyroid storm,” a life-threatening condition caused by quick elevation of the thyroid hormone. Those who end up with that condition experience fever, profuse sweating, severe weakness, seizures, severely irregular heartbeat, severe low blood pressure and a even coma.

But things don’t have to go that dangerous route. Once a proper diagnosis is given, your doctor can then set you up with the treatment option that works best for you. Surgery for thyroid removal is selected by only one percent of thyroid specialists, though it is becoming a more common option for those with thyroid eye disease and a swollen or obstructive thyroid. But there are other ways to treat it, including medication (beta-blockers and anti-thyroid meds) and radioactive iodine therapy.

With all that being said, living with Graves’ can be complex, but with the proper treatment to deal with symptoms, you can still live well, as Missy Elliott does. The 47-year-old rapper reportedly opted for radioactive iodine therapy and has cleaned up her diet, and thanks to such efforts, as she put it, “God has Healed me! I’m doing Great.”

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