DEAR DR. DONOHUE: For quite some time, my fingers were swelling. I had a hard time removing my wedding ring. My hands were quite sensitive to cold. Then my skin began to tighten, and I had trouble bending my fingers. My family doctor had me see a rheumatologist, who diagnosed scleroderma. I would like to know how much time I have left. Will you tell me? My doctor won’t. – A.A.

ANSWER: “Scleroderma” is Greek for “hard skin.” Its earliest signs are swollen fingers and extreme sensitivity of fingers to cold, known as Raynaud’s phenomenon.

In time, the skin hardens and becomes so taut that it’s difficult to bend the fingers. The facial skin can tighten to the point that it’s hard to smile.

Internal organs are also affected. Joints can swell and hurt. Involvement of the esophagus makes swallowing difficult. If scleroderma affects the stomach and intestines, bloating, nausea, pain and diarrhea are the consequences. Scar tissue in the lungs makes people gasp for air on slight exertion and develop a dry cough. Kidney failure often occurs, and it used to be the No. 1 cause of death in this illness.

Although there is no cure drug, there are medicines that offer some protection to internal organs. For example, ACE inhibitors – a blood pressure medicine – do so well in protecting the kidneys that kidney failure is not the threat it once was for scleroderma patients.

Your doctor isn’t dodging your question about life span because he’s trying to be difficult. The course of scleroderma is quite variable. The five-year survival rate is around 70 percent, and the 10-year survival rate, 55 percent. Many live much longer than 10 years. Precise predictions are impossible.

The Scleroderma Foundation should become your and all scleroderma patients’ best friend. Contact the foundation at 1-800-722-4673.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: How come there’s so little information on male breast cancer? I have a friend who has it. When I tell people this, they look at me in disbelief. Will you get the word out that men do get breast cancer? – E.D.

ANSWER: Since male breast cancer is so much more rare than female breast cancer, there’s less publicity for it. For every 100 cases of female breast cancer, there’s only one case of male breast cancer.

The average age for it to appear is the late 60s. Much as in women, the chief sign of it in men is a breast lump that may or may not be painful. Sometimes the nipple bleeds or leaks fluid.

Mammograms are as useful in making the diagnosis of breast cancer in men as they are in women. If there is any doubt about the nature of a breast lump, a biopsy provides the answer – just as in women.

The breast cancer booklet focuses on female breast cancer, but the general principles in it apply to men as well as women. Readers can order a copy by writing: Dr. Donohue – No. 1101, Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Enclose a check or money order (no cash) for $4.75 U.S./$6.75 Can. with the recipient’s printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My eye doctor has told me something I have never heard of. I would like your opinion. He said I have crusty eyelids and that I need to massage them every morning with a wet, warm washcloth. My eyelids don’t appear crusty to me. What do you make of this? – M.F.

ANSWER: The doctor must have seen scales on reddened lids when he examined them with a bright light and a handheld scope. In time, you would have seen the scales too, and you would feel like there’s grit in your eyes. After a night’s sleep, the lids would become stuck together. It’s blepharitis (bleff-uh-RIGHT-us), and it’s common. The warm compresses loosen scales from the lids. In more advanced cases, people then have to gently scrub their lid margins with a cotton-tipped applicator saturated with a dilute solution of baby shampoo.

Your early treatment of this condition should bring you victory over it. If left too long, it can become chronic, and you’d have to treat it for a longer period of time.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I thought you would like a letter from someone in good health.

I am 80. I don’t eat much red meat. I live mostly on vegetables, juices and fruits. I eat most of my vegetables raw. I don’t use sugar or salt. My blood pressure is normal. My cholesterol is 156 (4.0). (A number below 200 – 5.18 – is excellent.) My heart rate is 80 beats a minute.

I have never had a cold since I was a child. I have never had the flu. I have never been to a doctor for any sickness in my life. I do not need glasses to read.

I play golf three times a week, and I bowl five times a week. I take care of my own home and do all the yardwork myself. Is there anything wrong with my stats? – G.T.

ANSWER: Is there anything wrong with your stats? Are you kidding?

I print your letter to show people that good health and old age are not mutually exclusive. Your program is admirable, as is your diet. You have found the Fountain of Youth.

You have to give some credit to the genes you were born with. They play a major role in people’s health.

Maybe never having seen a doctor for sickness has kept you in the pink.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from

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