Garry Shandling's Death Raises Awareness About Parathyroid Disease


The death of Garry Shandling, apparently due to possible complications from parathyroid disease, has raised awareness of a disease that has plagued many, yet when discovered can easily be cured in most cases. As I wrote last week about my own experience, I found there to be some misunderstanding, even among doctors, about recognizing the symptoms and then deciding what to do about them.

One of the keys to diagnosis is the calcium level that’s measured in a standard blood test. What is considered normal changes as one ages. In my case, a slightly elevated level was considered close enough to normal to not trigger any action. And that’s the experience of many others. In fact, a more knowledgeable expert would and did interpret the numbers differently.

Once I experienced a kidney stone, my doctor looked for its cause and raised the possibility of the disease. Without that it would have been missed. A review of my calcium levels for the past several years by a doctor at the Norman Parathyroid Center in Tampa indicated I had the disease for three years.  

The center has developed an easy-to-use app, Calcium Pro, in which you can enter your test results and it will indicate the risk of disease.

The cure is to remove the overactive gland, which has developed an adenoma or tumor. But because it’s still considered to be a major operation by most doctors, they are reluctant to do it without more certainty of which gland it is. And because the symptoms are often minor, they are willing to wait. Yet the Norman Parathyroid Center, which has a much simpler technique to remove it, doesn't recommend waiting. In fact, they state that if the parathyroid tumor is not removed, it will decrease the life expectancy in all patients by about 5-6 years.

As a result of Garry Shandling’s death, more have posted about this disease, including my friend James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, who wrote:

When I was just about to move to China in 2006, my American doctor said that a blood-calcium level looked high, and we should keep an eye on it. When I was back for a visit a year later, he said it was a little higher.

Test by test, the calcium reading kept going up….. My wife and I traveled all through the hinterland of China in much of 2008, before returning to Beijing for the Olympics. The blood readings kept getting worse. Finally, in early 2009 we came back from Beijing to San Francisco on a medical trip. At the UCSF hospital, a main west coast center for this kind of procedure, I had a five-hour operation, conducted by Quan Duh and his team. They removed what turned out to be a single aberrant PT gland, which turned out to have migrated from my neck to somewhere in my chest. That immediately resolved the problem, and I have felt fine ever since.