“I have a 28-year-old daughter with a pituitary tumor and Cushing’s disease and I need you to operate on her.”
Lydia, a 28-year-old Florida resident, wife, and mother of two, first noticed a drastic increase in her weight around Easter of 2022 in a family photo. She was shocked by how different she looked despite not making any drastic changes to her diet. “While those I loved would say ‘you look beautiful’, to me I looked like a completely different person,” recalled Lydia.
When Lydia asked her mother, Jeanne, if she had noticed her weight gain, her mother observed that some days Lydia’s face looked swollen. They both recognized that this was not normal, and decided, like many pituitary patients, to make an appointment with a primary care provider. “I remember her saying to me ‘something is wrong with me’ and ‘something is not right’”, recalled Jeanne.
Lydia’s weight gain was most noticeable in her face and around her abdomen. “She was exercising all the time and trying to watch what she ate and cut down on sugars,” said Jeanne. “But she kept putting on more weight. We knew something was not right.”
Lydia scheduled the first of what would be many doctor appointments hoping for answers. Her primary care provider recognized that her rapid weight gain was abnormal and ordered standard blood work. When that blood work came back normal, her doctor referred her to an endocrinologist and to her OBGYN.
In addition to her weight gain, Lydia had begun developing other symptoms including excessive sweating day and night, severe acne, hair loss, hair gain on her face, insomnia, thin skin, and brittle nails. “The worst symptom was the constant feeling of fight or flight,” recalled Lydia. “I always felt on edge and was letting things bother me.” Lydia would later learn that this feeling was caused by the drastic increase of cortisol in her body.
When Lydia first met with her OBGYN to address her weight gain and the overall feeling that something was wrong with her body, her concerns were quickly dismissed. “He told me ‘You’re almost 30 and you’ve had two kids, no wonder you feel the way that you do,’” said Lydia. “He blew me off and told me that I needed more diet and exercise. He didn’t order other tests.”
A couple of months later, Lydia went to see an endocrinologist. Despite watching her calories and exercising almost every day of the week, she had gained more weight and felt more miserable. When her labs came back, Lydia’s cortisol levels were so high that the endocrinologist thought there had been a lab error. A 24-hour urine test confirmed that Lydia’s cortisol levels were off the charts. “I was in full panic mode at this point,” said Lydia.
Lydia could not get back in to see her endocrinologist in a timely manner, so she ended up back at her primary care provider’s office. Her primary care provider suggested that it could be a tumor on her adrenal glands and that it was probably not in her brain since she was not experiencing headaches. A CT scan of the adrenal glands came back clean. “I remember telling my primary care doctor ‘I just don’t feel normal’”, recalls Lydia. “His response was ‘everyone’s normal is different’ and I told him ‘I’m not normal for me.’”
At this point, Lydia was desperate for answers. “All these doctors were telling me it could be in my head or because I was almost 30,” said Lydia. “I kept getting shut down. I told friends and family that there was something seriously wrong with me and no one was believing me.”
Finally, a friend sent Lydia information on another endocrinologist in Florida. “He was the first doctor to care about me,” said Lydia. “He said, ‘I’m so sorry you’ve been treated like this. Everyone you have seen before me is an idiot.’” More specific bloodwork and an MRI confirmed that Lydia had a macroadenoma, a benign tumor in the pituitary gland, and Cushing’s disease. After the diagnosis, Lydia was told that she would need to have the tumor removed. “He told me, ‘Find where you want to go and I’ll refer you,’” said Lydia.
Lydia and her mother Jeanne began searching online for the right pituitary tumor surgeon. “Once I realized how serious it was, we started researching different doctors,” recalled Jeanne.
Both Lydia and Jeanne spent time researching different doctors, but could not find a doctor that had experience treating Cushing’s disease. “We researched all kinds of surgeons to find the best one,” said Jeanne. “Then we found Dr. Oyesiku. He understood Cushing’s disease. That was important to me.” Jeanne is the one who found world-renowned pituitary tumor surgeon, Dr. Nelson Oyesiku. “I called him and said, ‘I have a 28-year-old daughter with a pituitary tumor and Cushing’s disease and I need you to operate on her,’” said Jeanne.
Dr. Oyesiku has performed over 4,000 pituitary tumor operations and is currently the Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at UNC Health. “Cushing’s is a rare disease so not many surgeons have a lot of experience with the various technical nuances required to achieve a high likelihood of cure and reduce the incidence of re-operations and complications,” said Dr. Oyesiku.
Since Lydia lives in Florida, her initial consultation with Dr. Oyesiku was over Zoom. “I Zoomed with another local neurosurgeon and I was going back and forth,” said Lydia. “Dr. Oyesiku told me that he looks at the whole picture and what the tumor is doing to you. He said that he wanted to get the tumor out and then cure the Cushing’s disease.” Jeanne was also with her daughter during the initial Zoom appointment with Dr. Oyesiku. “I couldn’t find anyone else that had that background knowledge for Cushing’s disease,” said Jeanne.
Dr. Oyesiku ordered more labs. “He told me ‘I want to measure twice and cut once,’” recalled Lydia. “That phrase is something my dad always said growing up and that felt like fate. So that made my decision for me and made me want to see him.”
After her initial consultation with Dr. Oyesiku, both Lydia and her mother felt confident that they had found the right surgeon. Lydia met with Dr. Oyesiku in December of 2022, then had her surgery on January 23, 2023. “I called UNC and made sure that I could go in with her and stay while she was recovering,” said Jeanne. “We had contacted a different hospital early on, and I would have had to drop her off and not see her until after her surgery and only during visiting hours.”
Patient coordinator David Baker, who also played an important role in Lydia’s care, helped Lydia and Jeanne find a local hotel for them to stay in before surgery at a discounted rate. After surgery, UNC Health endocrinologist Dr. Atil Kargi spoke with Lydia and her mom to help them understand the severity of Cushing’s disease and the importance of monitoring Lydia closely. “Dr. Kargi and David Baker really helped us to truly understand Cushing’s disease,” said Jeanne.
Jeanne was impressed with the level of patient care that Lydia experienced during her surgery at UNC Health. “Lydia had her own nurse that would text me or call me to let me know how things were progressing.” Jeanne said. Jeanne explained that the same nurse was with her daughter going into the surgery and when she woke up after the surgery. She was also able to stay with Lydia in the hospital while she recovered from the surgery. “UNC was such an uplifting place. All these residents, they all love what they’re doing,” said Jeanne.
Lydia stayed in the hospital for six days so Dr. Oyesiku and the endocrine team could monitor her levels. “I was in the normal range, and then I started to tank,” said Lydia. “I had read that a lot of patients are sent home right after surgery. If they would have sent me, I would have been adrenally insufficient.”
Lydia also expressed gratitude for ENT surgeon, Dr. Brian Thorp. “During my surgery, Dr. Thorp also repaired my deviated septum,” said Lydia. “Even after surgery when I was home miles away in Florida, he was always available to me. I appreciate Dr. Oyesiku and everyone at UNC,” said Lydia. “I can’t imagine going anywhere else for this. Dr. Oyesiku truly saved my life.”
After her discharge, Jeanne drove Lydia back to Florida. “Dr. Oyesiku followed-up after surgery with the Cushing’s disease treatment,” said Jeanne. “Our local endocrinologist could not believe how fast she recovered.” Jeanne also noted that she was always able to get ahold of Dr. Oyesiku, Dr. Thorp, or David Baker to answer her questions. “You feel like you’re their only patient,” said Jeanne. “We are 8-9 hours away, and it didn’t feel like it.”
After Lydia weaned off of her medication, she started to lose weight, her face changed, and her body started to feel “normal” again. “My biggest symptom that I am thankful went away was my literally going crazy feeling,” said Lydia. “I am very thankful that I was able to catch it early enough so that this awful disease didn’t leave me with any lifelong complications.”
Lydia, like many pituitary tumor patients, still has lingering feelings of anxiety and frustration with the long road from initial symptoms to diagnosis. It takes the average pituitary tumor patient 5-8 years to be properly diagnosed. Lydia and her mother were extremely proactive and still spent 18 months looking for answers. Lydia went to her primary care provider, her OB, a second OB, and two endocrinologists before she had a proper diagnosis. “Cushing’s disease can mimic many other vastly common medical disorders and is often misdiagnosed or mistaken for something else such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, infertility, depression, or autoimmune disorders,” said Dr. Oyesiku. “Making the diagnosis requires expert clinical acumen supported by sophisticated medical tests, and many of these tests have to be repeated to confirm the diagnosis.”
Because Cushing’s disease is so rare, many of the providers that initially saw Lydia dismissed it. After her surgery, Lydia returned to her OB office in Florida for her annual exam and was seen by the OB that told her that her symptoms were “all in her head”. “I told him, ‘Remember that you blew me off? I had a brain tumor that caused Cushing’s disease,’” said Lydia. “He told me that in all his years practicing, he had never had a patient with an endocrine disorder caused by a pituitary tumor.”
Lydia’s story and other pituitary tumor patient stories serve as a reminder that while Cushing’s disease is rare, it is worth ruling out when a patient complains of these symptoms. “Part of the problem is that people just do not have access to good doctors,” said Jeanne. “If we had not had that endocrinologist, I don’t know how much longer it would have taken. It makes me sad that other women and even men can have it for so long because they cannot figure out what is going on.”
Both Jeanne and Lydia are thankful that the surgery was a success, but the symptoms and long road to a diagnosis left Lydia with a few emotional scars. “I’m fine and healthy on paper, but still battling the mental aspects and the toll it took on me,” said Lydia. “Sometimes I feel resentful because it took away a year and a half of my life. I feel very blessed to be on the other side of this disease, but I’m ready to not be a patient anymore.”