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Lupus: Not women only

One man’s story

Karen Miller
Lupus: Not women only
Chris Burton, shown with his family, was diagnosed with lupus more than 10 years ago at the age of 24. PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHRIS BURTON

At 24 Chris Burton had his whole life ahead of him. He was recently married, had a couple of degrees under his belt, and already determined that the ministry was his vocation.

But his path took a sudden and unexpected turn.

A severe bout of pneumonia accompanied by hair loss, joint pain and blue fingers, which is indicative of Raynaud’s disease, was the first indication that something was amiss. Burton thought it was just a bad cold. But three months later pneumonia struck again, this time causing chest pain and clots in his lungs. “It looked like someone spilled M&Ms all over my lungs,” he explained referring to his X-ray.

This scenario is not unusual for lupus. Lungs are often a target for the disease resulting in inflammation, fluid buildup and pain.

Burton spent the entire month of February in the hospital. “They threw the book at me,” he explained, referring to the myriad of tests to determine the diagnosis. He was tested for HIV, cancers and a slew of other conditions. But the antinuclear antibody test, or ANA, told the story. A positive test indicates an overactive immune system, according to Mayo Clinic.

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Yet, in some ways, Burton said he had it easier. It can take years to accurately diagnose lupus, but for him, it took a matter of months.

It didn’t faze Burton that he had a so-called “woman’s disease.” An avid Seinfeld fan, he remembers an episode during which the character George Costanza was convinced he had lupus. He also knew that the singer Seal was afflicted.

Regardless, Burton is not complaining. He recently celebrated an anniversary of sorts. It’s been 10 years since his diagnosis. His last flare was five years ago, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t suffer a hiccup now and then. He took his seven-year-old son swimming recently. Although he took all the necessary precautions and lathered on sunscreen to protect his skin, the sun got the better of him. “I was wiped out,” he explained.

Burton takes it one day at a time. His condition is controlled by the first targeted therapy for lupus (Benlysta). He engages in low-impact workouts every week using rowing machines and a stationary bike. Free weights three times a week let him pump iron, but not too intense, he said. Overexertion can result in a flare.

He changed his diet as well. Although there is no set eating plan for a person with lupus to follow, he sticks to plant-based foods. No meat, no dairy. He prefers purple foods, like blackberries and blueberries.

Burton said he recognizes the value of a support system to help cope with the disease. “It’s critical,” he explained. He credits his wife — six months into his marriage — for her support through his journey. He is paying it forward. He serves as an ambassador for the Lupus Foundation of America. He also developed a local support group.

He has a message for those with lupus. “It’s not a death sentence,” Burton said. “You can live a full and long quality of life. People tend to lose sight of that.”

“It’s not the end,” he emphasized.

Be Healthy Lupus, lupus, lupus in men