Psoriasis, Uncovered

It never occurred to Cynthia McGowen that she could have psoriasis. It’s an autoimmune disease and no one in her family had ever had the condition. So, when she was 26 and noticed the little red spot on her elbow, she dismissed the lesion as a wart. “Then a similar spot appeared symmetrically on my other elbow, raising my curiosity,” says McGowen. “I went to the dermatologist and was diagnosed as having plaque psoriasis. Over the next couple of years, it spread so that it was pretty much covering my elbows, and a couple of years after that, I developed one small spot on my knee, the same size, and then it multiplied.”

Now age 38, this married mom of two and financial administrator for an architectural firm in Houston has psoriasis lesions covering both of her elbows and knees, up and down her arms, and on her ankles and the tops of her feet. She’s also been diagnosed with a second form of the condition, guttate psoriasis, also known as “raindrop psoriasis,” because it appears as little red dots on the skin.

What It’s Like
People often ask McGowen what psoriasis feels like. She thought of a way to describe it that almost anyone can relate to: “Think about the last time you had a sunburn,” she says. “First your skin stings, and then, when it begins to peel, it really itches. And sometimes you peel a little too much and the skin underneath wasn’t ready to be exposed yet, and you feel the pain of those raw nerve endings. That’s what psoriasis feels like. It’s like being sunburned every single day.”

Dealing with the daily discomfort of psoriasis was difficult, but when McGowen noticed that her psoriasis was affecting her emotionally, she knew something had to change. “I never used to think twice about wearing shorts or sleeveless shirts,” she says. “But when my spots started multiplying, all of a sudden I was getting these looks. So, I started covering up. I wore long sleeves. I stopped wearing shorts. I covered more of my body than I ever had. I went from being an outgoing, social person to hiding, not wanting to be seen. My personality was being covered up, not just my skin.”

Reclaiming Her Life
After several years of concealing her psoriasis, McGowen had an epiphany. “I finally said, ‘This is ridiculous. Why am I doing this? I’m not being myself.’ I was unhappy because I had psoriasis, but now I was unhappy because I wasn’t dressing the way I wanted,” she says. “I decided I was going to wear what I wanted to wear and do what I wanted to do. If somebody had a problem looking at me, that was their problem, not mine. And I made a weird discovery: The more you show your psoriasis, the less people see it. Once I started dressing the way I wanted to, even if my skin was exposed, people started noticing me, not my psoriasis. The less you focus on it, the less others notice it, too.”

In addition to coming to terms with her appearance, McGowen also sought out a dermatologist with whom she felt confident and comfortable. “I wanted a doctor who was proactive, who was willing to try different treatments if one wasn’t working and who was willing to help me adjust my treatments when my husband and I were ready to start a family,” she says. “My psoriasis improved during each of my pregnancies, although it flared up right when I was getting ready to deliver.”

Learning as much as she could about psoriasis and then joining and ultimately leading a psoriasis support group also helped McGowen. “A lot of people who find out they have psoriasis are fearful. They think, ‘I don’t want to know.’ In my opinion, educating yourself about psoriasis is one of the best ways to help you feel more comfortable in your skin. Support groups help to educate you and take the fear away.”

The most important support of all, however, comes from her husband. “There are days when my psoriasis acts up and I’m scratching, and he’ll hug me and tell me it’s okay,” says McGowen. “When he sees the worry in my face after another spot appears, he’ll kiss me and tell me, ‘If I could take it away, in a heartbeat I would.’ And every day he tells me how beautiful I am. I’m incredibly lucky.”

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