Fighting Graves' disease without surgery, radiation

Rosanne Calabrese remembers the day in 2010 when she was diagnosed with Graves' disease.

"I was terrified because I'm supposed to be the example of health," said Calabrese, an acupuncture physician and former fitness instructor.

Graves' disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack the thyroid.

"In the case of Graves' disease, the attack is mediated by an antibody that stimulates the thyroid to make too much thyroid hormone," said Dr. R. Mack Harrell, an endocrinologist with Memorial Healthcare System.

Symptoms of Graves' disease include anxiety, irritability, rapid heart beat, weight loss, difficulty sleeping, a change in menstrual cycles for women and erectile dysfunction in men.

"We diagnose Graves' through a physical exam, blood work and an iodine uptake test. If it takes up iodine, then you know it's Graves'. It's the only type of hyperthyroidism it could be, and in that case, you treat it," Harrell said.

Treatment typically involves the use of drugs to reduce hormone levels and then either radioactive treatment to destroy the thyroid or surgery to remove it.
Against the advice of her doctor, Calabrese refused to take that final step.

"I thought I wanted to keep my thyroid. Whether you believe in God or you believe in nature, one of them gave me a thyroid, and I would just like to hold onto it," she said.

Calabrese utilized nutritional support and detoxing with whole fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. She also underwent alternative treatments such as craniosacral therapy to relieve stress.

Within 16 weeks, she was off medication, and her thyroid was functioning normally again.

"I don't even have antibodies to Graves' disease, which is supposedly unheard of," she said.

Harrell, who did not treat Calabrese, said it's possible for a small percentage of patients to go into unexplained remission, but he cautions it may not last.

"She needs to understand she is at risk for the disease coming back after a bump in the road," he said.

Stress is a suspected trigger for Graves' disease, along with pregnancy, cigarette smoking and genetics.