Aussie woman's stunning diagnosis after 'jaw and feet wouldn't stop growing'

Doctors didn't know what to make of her excruciating symptoms – until an emergency surgery led to a diagnosis.

An Australian woman who spent years enduring excruciating, bodily pains, that saw both her jaw and feet "just keep growing bigger", has described the "overwhelming sense of validation" when she finally received a diagnosis.

Now 32, Sunshine Coast woman Shari Dawson said her symptoms began when she was just 21 years old, first noticing what she described as a series of "confusing changes" in 2012. The Queenslander, who was at the time an avid sportswoman, said she had no clue what was happening to her body when she noticed the differences.

Shari Dawson prior to her diagnosis (left) and more recently (right).
Shari Dawson prior to her diagnosis (left) and more recently (right). Source: Supplied.

"My feet were growing bigger, my rings stopped fitting me, my jaw was changing and enlarging," Dawson told Yahoo News Australia. "I was putting on weight, and I had all these pains in my body. I'd wake up in the morning and I couldn't even open my hands to hold my toothbrush and brush my teeth.

"Even just something as simple as that was such a mission. The weight gain during this time was just something that had never happened to me — I'd always had quite a small frame my whole life."

Aussie woman's decade-long journey begins

Dawson explained she'd naturally had "quite a normal overbite" but she started to notice "my bottom teeth and my top teeth touched when I smile ... Then that just sort of progressed to now having quite a large underbite," she said.

At the age of 22, she remembered looking at a selfie photo taken on a European holiday and being stunned by how much her smile had changed.

Her feet continued to swell, enlarging from a size seven and a half and to a size "10 and a half to 11 — depending on the shoe."

When Dawson sought medical advice, she was given varying explanations from professionals. One dentist told her that her jaw was simply "just developing late, and this is what it was going to look like now".

Doctors puzzled over 'rare disorder'

"I saw a physio and chiropractor," she recalled. "I saw a doctor about my fluid retention and all of them just couldn't tell me what it was, doctors told me that I was confusing fluid retention with weight gain."

"A dentist said to me that my mouth just changed following a tonsillectomy".

Eventually, after years of living with intense daily pains, Dawson was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery in 2020.

"So it was that night that I found out I had a pituitary tumour which had bled and I was getting rushed into emergency surgery because I was told I was going blind in my left eye," Dawson said.

"That's when they diagnosed me with acromegaly — that was the moment to me where everything over the last seven years finally made sense. It was a bit of an aha moment."

Shari with husband Chris.
Shari with husband Chris. Source: Supplied.

Acromegaly is an extremely rare growth disorder that affects between 715 and 3,500 Australians per year, according to the National Institute of Health. It causes the overproduction of growth hormone in the brain’s pituitary gland, resulting in abnormal growth in adults.

Early acromegaly symptoms can include migraines, vomiting, enlarged hands and feet, gaps in between the teeth, a pronounced jawline, thickened skin, and a deepening of the voice.

Dawson said she experienced the vast majority of these symptoms.

"I was told the tumour was is inoperable," she said. "And so I had to start medication to try and bring those growth hormone levels back down — and this particular medication would shrink the tumour over time."

Eventually, diagnosis arrives, surgery follows

The side effects of Dawson's treatment left her "quite unwell a lot of the time", her hair fell out and her heart rate "just plummeted" — resulting in a general "poor quality of life". The Queenslander said she eventually met a woman through the Pituitary Foundation who was on a similar journey to her own, and she put Dawson in touch with her doctor — a game-changing move.

The doctor gave Dawson a "70 per cent chance at success" and she soon underwent surgery to remove the tumour. Dawson was declared in biochemical remission in 2021, which lasted a total of 18 months.

"That was wonderful," she said. "I got to just live a really normal life, I got married, I went on a honeymoon."

Tragically, earlier this year, Dawson found out the tumour had reappeared, and though smaller than it was previously, the news meant she will eventually have to return to the treatment that made her sick, or seek the alternative — radiation — which also presents its own challenges.

Shari with her mother, while she recovers in hospital from treatment.
The Queenslander with her mother, while she recovers in hospital from treatment. Source: Supplied.

Now, determined to have children, Dawson said she's currently "pausing treatment" to embark on her fifth round of IVF, with hopes that she will soon fall pregnant with husband Chris. After giving birth, she'll revisit her options, but says she remains hopeful of the future and is leading the push to raise awareness over the condition, that few know about.

"If I had heard about this, you know, five years ago, maybe I wouldn't have gotten to a point where I no longer produce certain hormones," she said. "I could have treated it earlier. And I would have had a better outcome now.

"If people knew more about it and understood what those symptoms were, then I do think it would greatly impact so many lives and give people better outcomes."

To raise awareness of the rare disease, the Australian Pituitary Foundation is hosting a community yoga and wellness workshop this Saturday at St Kilda Life Saving Club in Melbourne.

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