Selena Gomez's Lupus Diagnosis Draws Attention to Chemo for Autoimmune Disease

PHOTO: Actress Selena Gomez attends the Polo Ralph Lauren fashion show during Spring 2016 New York Fashion Week at Gallow Green at the McKittrick Hotel on Sept. 11, 2015 in New York City.PlayMichael Loccisano/Getty Images
WATCH Selena Gomez Opens Up About Fighting Lupus

Actress and singer Selena Gomez announced this week that she is battling lupus, an autoimmune disease, and has even undergone chemotherapy treatments to cope with the disease's effects.

Gomez announced in a Billboard interview that she was hurt when people speculated that she had an addiction problem as she secretly sought treatment for lupus.

“I was diagnosed with lupus, and I’ve been through chemotherapy. That’s what my break was really about. I could’ve had a stroke," Gomez said in the interview.

The revelations that she is using a drug more commonly given to cancer patients for lupus may be confusing for those unfamiliar with the disease, but experts say chemotherapy can be helpful way to combat some of the worst symptoms of the disease.

Dr. Joan Merrill, the medical director for the Lupus Foundation of America, said that the drug can help combat the immune system that is in overdrive and causing inflammation in the body.

"What [chemotherapy drugs] do is they kill any of the cells in the body that are rapidly dividing," Merrill explained, noting that when a person has lupus, "the immune cells are rapidly dividing ... to create inflammation."

Merrill, who has not treated Gomez, said lupus patients undergoing chemotherapy often don't take the medication in as high doses as cancer patients, but they can still suffer side effects, including nausea or diarrhea.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease and affects primarily women, with men making up just 10 percent of lupus patients. Chemotherapy or other aggressive immune suppressant therapies are often used if an internal organ becomes inflamed, Merrill said. Symptoms of lupus can include headaches, painful joints, fever, rash, hair loss and extreme fatigue.

"It’s your body thinking it’s being attacked and needs to fight back," Merrill said. "Many of the symptoms of lupus are like a virus."

Lupus affects mainly women between the ages of 15 to 44 and there are 16,000 new cases of the disease diagnosed each year in the U.S., according to the Lupus Foundation of America. Women of color are two to three times more likely to develop the disease than people who are Caucasian. There is currently no cure for the disease.