When comedian Gina Yashere last toured Britain, she called the show Skinny B*tch. It was a typically indelicate reference to her recent dramatic weight loss, thanks to a strict regime of raw foods.
After shedding 5st, and dropping four dress sizes to a 12, she enthuses about buying skinny jeans and ‘all those clothes I wanted to wear but couldn’t’.
But for Gina, who made her name on the UK comedy circuit in the late Nineties and was a regular guest on the BBC2’s Mock The Week, losing pounds was never the goal.
It was simply a by-product of steps she has taken to conquer lupus, the debilitating disease she was diagnosed with early in 2005.
The illness, a result of the immune system turning inward and attacking itself, affects 30,000 Britons, and can be fatal in severe cases.
Sufferers include singers Elaine Paige, Seal and Lady Gaga.
There is no cure and Gina, 37, falls into the highest-risk group for developing it. Lupus is four times more likely to occur in those of African, Caribbean or Latin descent, and nine times more common in women than in men.
It is often referred to as ‘the disease with 1,000 faces’, and symptoms range from extreme fatigue, joint pain and muscle aches to anaemia, skin rashes, hair loss and organ failure.
When Gina began suffering pain in her hands and knees six years ago, at first she believed she was developing arthritis.
‘I had been feeling tired for months and my joints were aching, but then I woke one morning to find I couldn’t open my hands,’ she says.
‘My fingers were like claws and it took me half-an-hour to try to warm them up by wriggling them before they were back to almost normal.
‘I also noticed my eyes were dry and I would wake at night to find my lids stuck together. I typed my symptoms into the internet and from the search results I decided I either had arthritis or lupus, so
I went to a private doctor who gave me a blood test.’ Like Lady Gaga, Gina had an aunt who was thought to have died from lupus. She was not diagnosed until after her death, aged 58, due to lack of awareness of the illness.
Different: Gina looks almost unrecognisable after her dramatic weight loss which has left her feeling healthier
By the time she was rushed to hospital the condition had destroyed her vital organs and it was too late for doctors to save her.
Professor David Isenberg, director of Rheumatology at University College Hospital, London says the causes of the disease are not fully understood.
‘Lupus can result in a wide range of symptoms similar to arthritis, anaemia or multiple sclerosis, so it can be hard to diagnose.
‘Sometimes it flares up after a viral infection and in many cases it begins with a nasty rash on the face or skin.’ Indeed, at first, doctors believed Gina had arthritis, and she was referred to a rheumatologist at St Thomas’ Hospital, London. Further tests confirmed lupus. ‘Despite what happened to my aunt, I was relieved when I found out because there’s not much you can do about arthritis,’ she says.
‘I knew we had caught it early before it spread to my organs and so I could start taking medication to bring it under control.’
Once lupus develops it usually follows a cycle – the symptoms flare up followed by a remission that can vary in length from weeks to years.
Treatment consists of anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and steroids. For severe symptoms, the drug hydroxychloroquine can be used, which also dampens inflammation but comes with the risk of side effects including nausea and extreme tiredness.
At first steroid injections brought Gina’s symptoms under control, but in the summer of 2005 she suffered a relapse after travelling to the Middle East. According to Prof Isenberg, lupus can be exacerbated by exposure to sunlight.
When Gina returned she was suffering regular migraines, her knees were inflamed and her neck and shoulders were aching. She was given more steroids and hydroxychloroquine.
‘But I hated the side effects, which meant I put on weight,’ she says. ‘I had good and bad days and I was not very good at remembering my tablets so my symptoms fluctuated a lot.’
Finding it painful to bend her knees or even put her arms over her head, she was unable to exercise. Gina’s weight ballooned from 10st to 15st. ‘But then I saw a TV show called Celebrity Detox,’ she says.
Famous sufferers: Both Lady Gaga and Seal have spoken publicly about lupus
‘Everyone was saying how amazing they felt after doing it, so in 2007 I flew to Thailand to the same clinic for a week of fasting and colonics. I lost a stone in a week and felt much better.
‘When I came back I changed my diet to just raw fruit and vegetables and with my symptoms getting easier, I cut down on my medication.
‘Two years ago I stopped taking pills altogether. I am now 9st 7lb and my symptoms have virtually gone. My wrists and fingers still ache sometimes and there are some yoga moves I can’t do, but I have thrown away my raised toilet seat.’
Gina, who moved from Wood Green, North London, to Los Angeles in 2007, doesn’t have her condition monitored in the US because her health insurance won’t cover it.
But when performing in the UK she visits St Thomas’ where doctors check her heart and kidneys, which can be affected by lupus.
Prof Isenberg warns: ‘It is possible for patients to go for years without symptoms.
‘Lupus is always active and there is no proof that diet is an effective treatment.
‘What works for one sufferer might not for another. If a patient has found relief, we can only hope it lasts.’