Back in 1975, when Ned Novsam entered Boston University School of Medicine, he was covered with psoriasis plaques from head to toe. Though he had lived with psoriasis since age 12, he never considered giving up his dream of becoming a physician.
Medical school wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, says Novsam, but where his psoriasis was concerned, he considers himself lucky. He had started seeing a dermatologist who was running an experimental program at Harvard to test a new treatment called PUVA, which combined a light-activated oral medication (psoralen) with ultraviolet light A (UVA) radiation. (PUVA received FDA approval as a treatment for psoriasis in 1982.)
“I was told that the treatment might cause skin cancer later in life,” he says. “At that point, though, I was willing to try anything, no matter what the risks.”
Before entering the PUVA study, Novsam had never felt comfortable letting others see his skin. But at the clinic where the study was taking place, everybody was in the same boat. So when a photographer came around to take pictures of participants’ skin, he didn’t even flinch.
Eight weeks after the start of PUVA therapy, the young medical student’s skin was almost completely clear, and he continued to receive PUVA treatments for the next 25 years with excellent results.
“I had severe psoriasis during my teens. All we had back then were topical treatments, and they didn’t help much. When I think about the many embarrassing moments I experienced in my high school locker room, I realize how fortunate I was to find my way to light therapy in my 20s.”
Then, in 2000, a new-and-improved form of light therapy came along: narrowband ultraviolet light B (UVB), which proved to be just as effective as PUVA but with a better safety profile. Novsam soon got his own home UVB unit, and it worked like a charm. “I no longer needed to take oral medication. And, best of all, I didn’t need to stay out of the sun — a major restriction when you’re on PUVA.”
In recent years, Novsam developed several squamous cell skin cancers, possibly caused by his earlier PUVA treatments, as predicted when he enrolled in the 1975 Harvard trial. “Although squamous cell carcinoma isn’t the deadly type of skin cancer, I had to stop all light therapy. Since 2015, I’ve been taking a biologic drug, and it’s working very well.”
Novsam, a urologist, just retired from his clinical practice in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after almost 30 years. Psoriasis did affect the way he practiced medicine – in a positive way. “My psoriasis may have made me a better doctor,” he says. “Even though I’m a urologist, sometimes I’d see lesions on a patient’s skin and offer an unofficial diagnosis of psoriasis. I knew from experience what to look for, and I’d immediately refer that patient to a dermatologist.”
All along, Novsam has relied on the National Psoriasis Foundation for information and support. He makes annual donations in appreciation of NPF programs and services. And he never earmarks his gifts for particular purposes. “I trust NPF to use the funds where they’re needed most.”
The newly retired physician has no regrets. He weighed the risks and treated his disease with success. “So far, so good,” he says – and you can hear a little smile in his voice when he says it.
“It’s much easier now for many people with psoriasis,” he adds. “For one, they have far more treatments to choose from. But even more important, people today are much more aware of the disease, including its psychological impact, than they were when I was young. NPF has had everything to do with that growing awareness.”
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