Gemma Mae Anderson, the song writer and singer whose rheumatoid arthritis inspired her first solo album discusses coming to terms with her diagnosis

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Gemma Mae Anderson is from a tiny island within the Shetland Islands in Scotland. When she was 16 years old, along with her classmates Gemma had to move to mainland Shetland to complete her last two years of school. By then, she had been experiencing what she was told were “growing pains” but these became more significant while she was living away from home.

“I worked in a shop at the weekends at this time and found the cold store especially difficult as my hips were stiff and the joints in my hands kept freezing stiff in the cold,” she says. “My friends phoned my mum to tell her I was having trouble opening doors, getting dressed in the mornings and that I couldn’t turn on the shower.” Gemma’s mother immediately made a doctor’s appointment and it didn’t take long before rheumatoid arthritis was diagnosed.

Initial reactions

“I felt confused and scared,” Gemma remembers. “As far as I understood, arthritis was an old persons’ disease. I looked in my mum’s encyclopaedia and found X-rays of hands with severe deformities. “Being ill was an alien concept to me. I had always been sporty and strong and the idea of pain taking this away from me was scary.

“When they told me there was no cure, it felt a bit like a death sentence. The death of the person I currently was. I was going to have to change into a different person. All the sports I loved and instruments I played would have to stop. All the friends I had through these activities would slowly disappear. I was going to have to let go of lots of important things in my life, which felt very unfair and still does.”

Initially Gemma was put on DMARD sulfasalazine, which helped for a while but made her white blood cell count drop too low. Other drugs were tried but when she was 26 years old Gemma’s health took a turn for the worse. “My wrists swelled up so much that I couldn’t lift my hands. The pain was so severe I thought I was dying. I was totally disabled and for more than four weeks had to be fed, washed and dressed. But soon after this flare I started a biological drug called infliximab which I am still on today. It is like my miracle drug.”

Gemma is lucky to have great support from healthcare professionals, family and friends. “When I was diagnosed I went into denial and didn’t want to speak about the fact that I had an incurable disease. It was the elephant in the room that no-one spoke about. The fact that, instigated by my own approach, no one talked about me having rheumatoid arthritis made me feel it was something to be ashamed of. I still feel a bit embarrassed by the fact I can’t do the things someone my age should be able to do.

Looking back at the situation, I think this lack of openness stopped me from coming to terms with the diagnosis.”


Gemma has decided to stop hiding from the fact that she has rheumatoid arthritis. She has finally come to terms with her diagnosis… so to raise awareness of arthritis and funds for research she has decided to release an album of 12 songs – Life – the profits of which will go to charity Versus Arthritis.

“Music plays a huge part in my life,” Gemma says. “I had to stop playing the fiddle soon after I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis but I took up singing. To start with I sang at weddings but I soon joined a band and now write songs to help express and deal with emotions. I find singing is good for the soul.”

Many Shetlanders have donated their time and talents toward creating accompaniments for Gemma’s songs, including Candida Doyle (Pulp keyboard player), who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the same age as Gemma. “If I didn’t have rheumatoid arthritis, I wouldn’t have started singing in the manner that I did and I wouldn’t have written songs to help deal with the emotional trauma that rheumatoid arthritis creates. Every cloud…”

Gemma Mae’s top tip

“The biggest difference I have made to my arthritis is through diet. I stopped eating nightshade family foods (tomatoes, potatoes, courgettes, peppers, aubergines and rhubarb) after a consultation with an acupuncturist and within four weeks was able to stop most of my pain killers. The difference is massive.”

Gemma’s album Life is available for £11.99 from Amazon. Alternatively, go to iTunes, Google Play, Google Music or Apple Music Interview was first published in 2020.

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Image credit: Babs Clubb