Woman refuses to let cell disease define her

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GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — Kim Fischer, 50, didn't know who she was anymore.

Her whole life she'd been an active, outdoors person. She loved to tend her garden and canned all the vegetables she grew. She took her children fishing, camping and hiking. She threw family parties and took vacations.

And Fischer was smart. She worked for the Campbell County School District for 13 years as the secretary of food service and handled a million dollar budget.

Then her body turned on her.

At first, something just didn't feel right. Fischer started getting awful headaches and bouts of nausea in the mornings. As the months went by, her symptoms got worse.

She started breaking out in hives from doing everyday things like taking a walk outside, cooking dinner or soaking in a bath.

She started feeling weak and suffered from dizzy spells. She started to forget things. Her body ached.

The only way to feel any relief was to stay inside, in her pajamas, and rest. Her health got so bad that she had to quit her job.

Fischer spent her days at home looking out the window, watching the world go by.

She was trapped by her own body.

— 4 skin, 1 bone marrow biopsies

At first Fischer couldn't even pronounce the name of the disease. She'd sound it out — Mast-o-cy-to-sis — but hated to even say the word because of what it meant.

The rare disease causes her body to produce too many mast cells. The cells are key in helping the body's immune system fend off illness, but when the body produces too many mast cells, like in Fischer's case, it has the opposite effect.

The cells produce too much histamine, and the result is an extremely weakened immune system and allergic reactions to almost anything.

People with mastocytosis suffer from fatigue, hives and swelling, itching, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fainting, headaches and body aches. The onsets can be mild to severe and can be brought on by almost anything, even stress.

After four skin biopsies and one bone marrow biopsy, Fischer was diagnosed with mastocytosis in 2011. Her doctors told her there is no cure, and medical professionals still struggle to understand how to diagnose and treat it.

The disease likely will progress into leukemia, her doctor said. Fischer will have to be on a chemo pill for the rest of her life.

Weeks after her diagnosis, Fischer still couldn't comprehend what it meant.

"My husband went fishing one day and I Googled it while he was out. I just kept thinking, I must be spelling this wrong," Fischer said. "The more I read, the more I started to understand what I had. I fell apart."

— Strain on everyday life

The disease turned Fischer's world upside down.

She stopped cooking because the smells would make her sick. She stopped wearing makeup and perfume because it caused her skin to break out. She stopped going outside for fear that the heat or cold would trigger an onset.

She constantly canceled plans with family and friends because her health would take a turn for the worse, and it filled her with guilt.

"Every day I feel bad. Every day I have the nausea, the bone pain, the dizziness. My memory, at times, is so foggy," Fischer said. "I did not realize the word histamine could be so deadly, and it really can be."

The illness put a strain on all elements of her life. She separated from her husband. She lost her health insurance when she quit her job. The more stress she had in her life, the sicker she felt.

"It totally shook me to the core. It brought me down to a place where the only place I had to go was back up," she said.

One day, alone in her apartment, Fischer got on her knees and prayed.

"I prayed, 'God, I can't do this. I don't want to do this. I don't want this the rest of my life,'" Fischer said. "The women of my family live well into their 90s, and I just thought at 50, I can't do this another 40 years."

She didn't truly want to die, she said, but she desperately needed some relief.

There was a pad of paper on the table next to her, so Fischer picked herself up and began to draw. She'd never drawn more than stick figures before, but she was willing to try anything to relieve her pain.

Fischer started to feel her body relax and her mind clear, so she kept drawing. She took out a box of colored pencils and added color to her sketch.

Hours later, Fischer felt the most peace she had in a long time.

She had accomplished something, and it was beautiful. Fischer posted her drawing on a mastocytosis support group she is part of on Facebook, and the encouragement poured in.

"I kept going, and I haven't stopped," she said.

— Taking care of Kim

Two and a half years after her diagnosis, Fischer has gone through another major change.

She's learning to embrace instead of fight the new lifestyle the disease has forced her into. She's no longer afraid to say the word mastocytosis. She talks and blogs openly about it often.

She's still drawing, and she said she's getting better and better with each creation.

"The peace that came with it, I cannot explain it. It's an outlet. It's a release," Fischer said.

She has created more than 100 drawings so far.

With the help of a friend she met through her online support group, Fischer started a website to sell her art, promote mastocytosis education and blog about daily life with the disease.

"I am not a Picasso, by any means. My hope is to raise awareness for this and to get more education out there for people in the medical field," Fischer said.

She also hopes to make a bit of money by selling her artwork, since she can't work and is without health insurance. But Fischer also has committed to donate 15 percent of all sales from her website to the Mastocytosis Society.

"The website, I think it's saved my life. It's just like I've found a purpose again, because everything I knew, everything I thought I knew about who I was and the things I did had just stopped," Fischer said. "I want to encourage people to go on no matter what it is that they're facing in their life because there is tomorrow, there is hope. That's how I feel now, and that's why this website is there."

In a strange way, Fischer wouldn't have the renewed self-confidence she has today if it weren't for the mastocytosis, she said. She has strengthened her faith and her relationships, and she doesn't let the little things in life pass her by anymore.

Even though it took months after her diagnosis to find herself again, Fischer now knows exactly who she is.

She's a loving mother, sister and daughter. She is a kind, compassionate friend.

She's learned that the disease is now part of her identity, but it doesn't define her.

The hardest part about being sick is learning that it is OK to take care of Kim.


Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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