Myths and Misperceptions about Biologics

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Many misperceptions about Biologics

Biologics are a relatively new class of drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA). They are highly complex medications and have many myths and misunderstandings about them. These may contribute to people with RA not getting the treatment that can help them. This slideshow aims to clear up the misperceptions so you can make better treatment decisions.

Biologics are poison

The notion that Biologics are toxic is not true. They are genetically modified drugs that suppress the immune system and therefore RA. The idea that they are poison may have come from people referring to them as chemotherapy to help others understand the seriousness of RA and the treatments. Although Biologics are immunosuppressants, they are not as intense a medication as the type used for chemotherapy in cancer.

Biologics are scary

Biologics are a serious medication for a serious disease and do have the potential for severe side effects. It’s important to face that fact as you consider Biologics, just as you should when considering any medication, all of which also have the potential for serious side effects. It is also important to remember that the serious side effects are rare. Most people do well on Biologics.

Biologics give you cancer

Since Biologics first became available, cancer has been listed as a possible rare side effect. TNF-inhibitors were thought to have the potential for causing lymphoma, but recent research has shown that this is not so, after all. When looking at the pros and cons of taking Biologics, keep in mind that untreated RA brings with it an increased risk of developing lymphoma.

Someone had a bad reaction, so I don’t want to take Biologics

We all react differently to medication. You may do well, while someone else won’t respond as well or may have a lot of side effects. Biologics do have the potential for serious adverse effects, but it’s a potential, not a certainty. It can be scary to read the list of side effects for the medication, but remember that it’s required to list every one that occurred during testing, even if only one person experienced it.

The side effects are worse than the disease

This myth shows a lack of understanding of RA. It’s a systemic illness, the effects of which can be severe. RA inflammation affects the joints and many other areas of the body. Untreated RA can cause problems with your heart, kidneys, lungs, eyes, and much more, as well as reduce your life expectancy. You have to weigh the potential for medication side effects with the certainty of “side effects” of untreated RA.

My body has too many other issues to risk Biologics

Worrying about developing additional physical problems is understandable. Before you reject the possibility of Biologics, you may want to consider the cause of your existing health condition. They could be related to having active RA, as the inflammation can affect many systems in the body. Therefore, treating RA also could end up having a positive impact on other medical issues.

Biologics will make me gain weight

Some people who take Biologics have reported gaining weight on these medications, even though this is not listed as an official side effect. One reason for weight gain can be improved health. Pain and fatigue can affect the appetite, as well as be a drain on the body. However, research also has indicated that Biologics, especially TNF inhibitors, may cause weight gain.

Biologics quickly stop working

Some people do very well on one drug for over a decade or more. In others, the immune system seems to find a way around Biologics within the number of months or years so a particular drug stops working, and they need to try another one. This may happen several times. There are almost a dozen Biologics available and many more in development. Although this experience can be frustrating, there are options for treatment.

Biologics are too expensive for most people

Biologics are very expensive, costing thousands of dollars a year. If you don’t have insurance, there are financial assistance programs that can help fund these medications. Pharmaceutical companies have created support programs that can help with the cost as well. If you qualify, you may end up paying nothing or only a small co-pay amount.

They sound like GMOs

Biologics are genetically modified proteins that target inflammatory processes. You could say that they are not “natural,” but then, neither is pretty much anything else in our world. So many foods and products have additives and preservatives, and fruits and vegetables are no longer identical to what they were thirty years ago. RA is a malfunction of your immune system. To combat that, you need a substance your immune system can’t subdue.

Doctors are pushing Biologics

Doctors may encourage you to take a Biologic, but it’s not because they are “agents of big Pharma.” Simply said, Biologics work. They have had a revolutionary impact, making remission possible, changing RA to an increasingly invisible illness, and increasing life expectancy. By stopping the damage RA can cause, they have allowed people to live largely normal lives, including participating in sports.

Educate yourself

We each decide how we approach living with RA. Ultimately, the decision is up to you and has to feel comfortable for you. When considering Biologics, researching your concerns to find out if they are based in myth or fact can do much to ease your worries. You should also discuss any questions with your rheumatologist to make sure that you feel comfortable with the road you take.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.