'Seabiscuit' author puts a face on chronic fatigue syndrome By Kathleen Fackelmann USA TODAY In Seabiscuit: An American Legend, author Laura Hillenbrand tells the true story of an undersized horse who overcomes a string of failures on the track to become a national sensation. To write that 2001 best seller, Hillenbrand had to beat some tough odds of her own: a battle with chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS. Now Seabiscuit has become a hit summer movie. The movie's popularity has given Hillenbrand a newfound opportunity to tell the world about her 16-year battle with an ailment that made her world spin. In media interviews after the book was published and now with the movie's release, Hillenbrand has described writing the book while having bouts of dizzy spells so bad that she had trouble reading the lines on her computer. Her candid views have cast a much-needed spotlight on CFS, which afflicts an estimated 800,000 Americans, says Jon Sterling, chairman of the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America. Hits to the group's Web site soared by 50% after Hillenbrand starting giving interviews, he says. Soccer star Michelle Akers and Olympian Amy Peterson also have spoken out about the syndrome and its effect on their lives and careers. Experts hope that the attention will add urgency to the search for the cause of this debilitating syndrome. "There is no known cause and no known cure for chronic fatigue syndrome," says Eleanor Hanna, a CFS expert at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. That lack of progress on the research front means many people with CFS go from doctor to doctor before they are diagnosed. For Hillenbrand, the struggle began with a case of food poisoning in college. Instead of a quick recovery, she found that she continued to have symptoms that sapped her energy and made it difficult for her to concentrate or even write more than one line a day when the symptoms were at their worst. People with chronic fatigue often have a host of symptoms that can make it difficult to hold down a 9-to-5 job, says Nancy Klimas, a CFS researcher at the University of Miami. In addition to nausea, fevers, chills and dizzy spells, she says, many patients experience severe sleep deprivation, a problem that can cause short-term memory lapses. She says about half her patients have had to quit their jobs because they simply couldn't work through the symptoms. Some researchers believe that a viral infection kicks off the syndrome. But after the initial infection clears, patients might still have a chronic, smoldering infection, one that can't be picked up by lab tests, says Ronald Glaser of Ohio State University in Columbus. That low-level infection might be enough to trigger the production of cytokines, immune system chemicals that can cause flu-like symptoms, he says. That's just one theory, and researchers are still working to solve the medical mystery. Klimas says the syndrome probably is caused by a variety of factors, including a genetic vulnerability. Researchers do know that women are three times more likely than men to get the syndrome. And although it most often strikes people in their 30s and 40s, it can afflict children or teenagers. Hillenbrand was just 19 when she became sick. Because so little is known about chronic fatigue syndrome, doctors are forced to treat the symptoms rather than the cause. But Klimas says treating the sleep disorder, the pain and episodes of depression can dramatically increase quality of life.