Living With Giantism: How It Feels to Be Huge

People with giantism describe the social and physical pain.

ByNeal Karlinsky and Eloise Harper
March 11, 2010, 9:37 AM

March 11, 2010 — -- Tanya Angus lived a picture-perfect childhood, filled with horseback riding, swimming pools and dreams of becoming a princess.

The cute little girl grew into a beautiful young woman who was popular, athletic and no different from anyone else in her neighborhood. At 18, she was 5 feet 8 and weighed 140 pounds -- and had seemingly finished growing.

"She was very energetic. She had a lot of friends," said Karen Angus, Tanya's mom. "She was a typical student. She would go from A's to C's."

Karen said Tanya was never the tallest girl in her class. Things have changed.

Watch the special "Help! I'm Turning Into a Giant" on TLC March 14 at 8 p.m.

Between the ages of 18 and 31, Tanya went from 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 140 pounds to 6 feet 6 inches and weighing 430 pounds.

Karen Angus said Tanya is actually 6 feet 11, but her spine has collapsed. Each day for Tanya brings a new lesson in pain. Her body is breaking down under the strain of endless growth.

Tanya's condition is called gigantism, or acromegaly. It's a rare disorder caused by a tumor inside the brain. The tumor causes the pituitary gland to secrete an excess amount of growth hormone, in some cases without ever stopping.

"It's a deforming disease," Tanya Angus said. "I didn't used to look like this when I was 16, 17, 18. About age 20, I started to change. I grew out of my clothes, out of my shoes. I was wearing more makeup. I mean, I wouldn't leave the house without makeup. I called my mom and dad, I was like 'Mom, Dad, people are telling me I'm looking like a man.'"

"I felt like I was Bigfoot, and that's what people would call me. ... I was like, 'People think I'm a monster.'"

What's happened to Tanya Angus in the past 10 years has changed every aspect of her life.

"It's very scary," she said. "I used to have nightmares about being as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and people were scared of me, and they were pointing up at me, saying 'Look, it's a he-she.'"

Karen Angus described how painful it's been watching her daughter go through this.

"It's awful to think of what people can come up with," she said. "It's a mother and father's worst nightmare, to have to see their child go through so much pain, because I don't care if you're 6 or 31, you're always our child, you're always our little girl."

'I Feel Like I Don't Belong'

The condition isn't new. History is filled with examples of acromegaly. People with the condition were often considered freaks or outcasts, and some are thought to have inspired the old stories and legends of giants.

Igor Vovkovinskiy, 27, at 7 feet 8 inches tall, has one of today's most dramatic cases.

"Some days, I feel like I don't belong anywhere on this planet," Vovkovinskiy said. "Everything is too short, too small, not comfortable, not made for me."

Nothing in Vovkovinskiy's life is normal. Both his home and car have been custom-made to fit his huge frame. Chairs are too small, keyboards too tiny -- everywhere he goes doorways are too low.

Igor has hardly ever known what it is to be small, even as a child. He was 6 feet tall by the time he was 7 years old.

If you've ever wished to be just a little taller, imagine life in his size 26 shoes.

"People can be a little bit disrespectful when I'm out in public," said Vovkovinskiy. "They'll yell across the store, or they'll take out their cell phone cameras and start clicking pictures, and sometimes they'll start yelling at their other friends across the store. And it gets a little embarrassing when you find out you're the reason why they're yelling."

Early on, Vovkovinskiy's family recognized their son had a huge problem. It sacrificed everything in search of a cure, moving from its native Ukraine to Rochester, Minn., for treatment.

"You can cure it," said Dr. Todd Nippoldt at the division of endocrinology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. "Surgery can cure acromegaly as long as the entire tumor is removed and there isn't any residual tumor that occurs."

Vovkovinskiy's tumor was removed and his growth has finally stopped.

Tanya Angus' case has proved more complicated.

Her doctors say they are unable to remove the entire tumor from her brain and fear her growth can't be stopped.

"All we do is just slow it down," said Dr. Phil Chen, who has treated Tanya. "There's no way I don't think that we can stop it. ... So far we don't have any way to stop it. We just use experimental drugs and hope, hope something new may come up."

When acromegaly strikes after puberty, as it did for Tanya, it causes the person to grow tall but also generally to grow big, particularly in the hands and feet.

Angus said that her hopes and dreams of a happy, normal life are a distant memory now, like the old pictures that seem more like someone else.

"We don't know what her life expectancy is," said Karen Angus with tears in her eyes. "All her hopes and dreams seem to have disappeared."

'Experimental Drugs and Hope'

These days, Angus hardly walks more than a few feet, and generally she uses a wheelchair. Her mother's specially outfitted minivan is the only path to the outside world. But even it will soon be too small.

"Sometimes we have to use service elevators to get her through into doctor's offices, into bigger buildings," said Karen Angus. "Because they don't make the doors wide enough for a giant."

Her daughter says that at times she can almost feel the changes happening.

"My neck feels even different," she said. "It feels longer. ... I mean, I remember when I used to wear necklaces that were chokers. And now I can't even fit a choker around my neck."

Vovkovinskiy now hopes to grow in other ways. He dreams of a career in law, of helping others the way so many have helped him. And his incredible size has made for a few bright spots -- one in particular he still can't believe.

President Obama called out Vovkovinskiy, a supporter, at an appearance in Minneapolis.

"The biggest Obama fan in the country is in the house," the president said. "Love this guy. Michelle has a picture where she looks like Sasha, thanks to this guy. He's a great supporter, and it's great to see you again."

But while Vovkovinskiy's growth has stopped, his pain is only getting worse. His joints hurt, his back pain is excruciating and normal life is an effort.

"My concern is that my pain is just going to get stronger and stronger, and that even if I do get my college degree that I might not be able to hold a full-time job, because I'm always going to be in pain," he said.

Angus' pain is dulled by heavy medication and one very real concern. She described her biggest fear.

"I guess that I'll leave this Earth really soon," she said. "Or go into a coma and not be able to come back out."

The bigger Tanya grows, the greater the pain and the more distant she feels from the normal young lady that used to be her.

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