Photo Credit: Glennis Smitherman
Glennis Smitherman, a mom of three, is a retired telephone-company worker. She is the founder of the HOPE psoriasis support group in Cleveland.
Some people might say that Glennis Smitherman is lucky. She wasn't diagnosed with psoriasis until she was in her early 50s, later than many people begin having symptoms. "It started on my feet, with painful skin that cracked, peeled and bled," Smitherman recalls. "One doctor told me it was ringworm. Another said I had athlete's foot, and another didn't know what it was, but she knew it wasn't a fungus. She referred me to a dermatologist—the minute I walked in the office, he diagnosed me with psoriasis."
Over the next two years, Smitherman tried ointments, creams and light therapy, but the psoriasis kept spreading. It traveled up her legs, then onto her arms, her torso, her neck, her face, her ears and her scalp. "It was everywhere," Smitherman says. "And it was extremely painful. I would get up an hour earlier than normal to make time to dress for work. The clothes, particularly panty hose and bras, would irritate me to no end. When I came home, I would have blood on my clothes from my skin bleeding, and in the morning, my sheets would be a mess from the ointments and the blood."
The Sting of Rejection
Her physical pain and discomfort were only half of the problem. "I worked as a telephone operator, and people who I had thought were my friends made it clear that they didn't want to come near me or sit in my office or touch my keyboard. I had to sterilize my office whenever I was leaving. It was so embarrassing," she says. "I would explain to them that I wasn't contagious, but it did no good. I was an ugly sight, I admit it. My own son said that if he had met me as a stranger, he wouldn't come near me."
Smitherman's condition took a toll on her romantic life, too. "I had been dating a man for a while when I had my first flare on my feet. When I told him about it, his response was, 'I never want to see it.' We broke up and I haven't dated since. It's been five or six years."
Gaining Control and Helping Others
But Smitherman is a doer, not a victim. She took steps to get better, starting with finding the right medication. After two years of trial and error, her doctor prescribed a medication that sent her psoriasis into remission for a year. Then, Smitherman was dealt another blow: She was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to go off all her medications. When she did, her psoriasis came back worse than ever, and she found herself battling breast cancer and raging psoriasis simultaneously. She finished her chemotherapy, regained her strength, and recently, her dermatologist prescribed an injectable medication (adalimumab), which has put her psoriasis in remission again.
"A lot of people fear the side effects of medication, and they have reason to," says Smitherman. "But side effects are problems that could happen; they might not happen. I would advise people not to be afraid. Try different medications until you find something that works for you."
Smitherman also has some advice about dealing with the isolation of psoriasis. "Don't try to manage psoriasis alone," she says. "When I was first diagnosed, I felt like the only person in Cleveland who had psoriasis. My doctor suggested I start a support group. And with the help of the National Psoriasis Foundation, I did. It has been incredibly helpful knowing that there are other people who feel the same way I do and are dealing with the same problems. Find somebody who cares about you and who will listen. Don't try to do it by yourself."