Dear Runaway Bride: Please Get a Thyroid Test

An Open Letter to the "Runaway Bride," Jennifer Wilbanks

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On April 26, 2005, 32-year-old Georgia native Jennifer Wilbanks was about to marry her fiancé, John Mason. Instead of going ahead with the wedding, Wilbanks disappeared, and after a costly search, she reappeared, claiming she'd been abducted. Her claims were debunked, and it turned out she had disappeared as a way to get out of her wedding, earning her the media label: "the runaway bride." At the time, there were many things about Jennifer Wilbanks' situation that made thyroid patients wonder whether she was herself suffering from a thyroid problem. These questions led to the following letter.

Dear Jennifer:

By now, we've all seen your picture. Your startled looking expression, with the whites of your eyes showing above and below your pupils. Your neck, with a suspicious looking thickness. And of course, your behavior -- a thirtysomething woman who has supposedly found the man of your dreams, planned a huge, lavish wedding, and then decided on the spur of the moment to cut your hair, hop a bus to Vegas, and call in claiming you'd been kidnapped, only to later reveal to the world that it was a case of cold feet.

I can't tell you how many emails I've received from concerned thyroid patients around the country who are worried about you. And I'm worried about you as well. Because we all have one thing on our minds when it comes to your case: Could you have Graves' disease? Could your thyroid be overactive -- a condition known as hyperthyroidism?

Because, from what we can see, you appear to have classic risk factors and symptoms.

First, there's the major stress of planning a wedding with 600 invitees, and a whole slew of bridesmaids. Major life stress is commonly known trigger for onset of Graves' disease. One study found that stress actually increased the occurrence of Graves' by almost 8-fold. In another analysis, a severe emotional stress was seen as the primary precipitating factor in the develop of Graves' disease in 14 percent of the patients studied.

And getting married is stressful. On the Holmes and Rahe Life Change Scale -- the famous ranking of the stress "value" of various life events -- a wedding is right up there with death of family or friends, going to jail, and getting fired.

Second -- your eyes. One of the more common symptoms of Graves' disease is eye involvement, known as Graves' Ophthalmopathy, or sometimes called thyroid eye disease. Swelling in the orbital tissues causes the upper eyelids to retract, pushing the eye forward -- called proptosis or exophthalmos -- which makes the whites of the eyes visible above and below the eye. Jennifer, there are some characteristic, observable signs, which include:

  • A bulging or wide-eyed look
  • A startled expression, noticeable stare

(If you want to see what this looks like, check out this illustration of what the eyes typically look like when thyroid eye disease is involved. It looks quite a lot like many of the pictures we've seen of you.)

Third, there's the issue of weight. Many people who are hyperthyroid lose weight, and are quite thin. The media says you're 5 feet 8 inches tall and weight 123 pounds. That sounds pretty thin. Actually, according to most body mass index calculators, you're right at the edge between low-normal, and underweight.

Finally, there are various thinking, mood and anxiety-related symptoms in Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism. Changes in your thinking are common in Graves' disease. Many people feel confused, and describe their thinking as disorganized. Some people experience symptoms of depression: a constant sad or "empty" feeling, hopelessness or pessimism, guilty feelings, and a sense of helplessness. Graves' patients may withdraw emotionally, and lose interest or pleasure in activities and hobbies that you once enjoyed.

Did you know that mood swings are also more common for Graves' disease patients? People with undiagnosed Graves' disease report major swings in mood and emotions, even to the extent that they feel they are behaving erratically or overemotionally, or even exhibiting signs of psychosis.

Some people report feelings of uncontrollable anger, irrational anger or feel aggressive for no reason.

Anxiety is also very common, and some people report feeling restless, irritable, on edge, nervous, or inexplicably frightened. You may find yourself worrying all the time, and can't stop worrying. Some people start having panic attacks, even getting incorrectly diagnosed as having panic disorder.

These are only a few symptoms of Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism. I don't know if you have any family history of thyroid problems or autoimmune diseases. If you do, then you're definitely at risk of Graves' disease. And I don't know if you're losing weight unexpectedly, or having a high heart rate and palpitations, or insomnia, or diarrhea, or patchy dry skin, or feeling overheated all the time. But if you are, these are also common symptoms, and make it even MORE critical that you get to the doctor right away to have your thyroid tested.

I don't know what's going to happen to you in terms of this whole wedding situation, and I'm sorry you had to deal with this, especially in the public eye. But you can't face the future if you're not feeling well. So in the meantime, do yourself a favor, and please get a thyroid test.

Live well,

Mary Shomon

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