The news of Bernie Mac's death has his fans learning a new word—"sarcoidosis"—as they grieve over the comedian whose blunt, earthy humor took him from Chicago's streets to Hollywood's boulevards.

Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease that usually hits the skin, the eyes, lymph nodes and lungs. Mac had been treated for the condition, and it had been in remission since 2005. His publicist told reporters he died of pneumonia, and that sarcoidosis had nothing to do with his death.

Still, the unexpected event has drawn attention to the unfamiliar disease.

Sarcoidosis—pronounced (sahr-koi-doh-sis)—occurs when tiny clumps of cells grow in the body's organs. Scientists don't know what triggers the disease. They believe it occurs when the body's immune system overreacts to some kind of a toxin. Research also suggests that the disease runs in families. It strikes folks aged 20 to 40 and is rarely found in those 60 and over.

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The disease may not be as well known as diabetes or high blood pressure, but the ailment hits African Americans particularly hard. Blacks are three times more likely to get the disease than whites, (in the United States, it is eight times more prevalent among blacks than whites) and blacks are apt to be younger when it shows up. African-American women are twice as likely to get the disease than black men, and blacks overall are more likely than whites to die from the disease.

Blacks tend to suffer from a more severe variety of sarcoidosis that is more likely to cause skin lesions and eye inflammation. The complications can be serious. The lungs can become so scarred that patients have trouble breathing. Inflamed tissue can make the eyes chronically red and watery.

The disease is often overlooked or misdiagnosed because its symptoms are so common. Folks might have a persistent cough, shortness of breath and unexplained weight loss. They may also see small, red bumps on the arms, buttocks or face. And they may have pain in the ankles, elbows or wrist, along with small bumps on the shins. Still those symptoms can take years to appear. Or, they may come and go quickly, leading the person to think the problems have vanished.

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The most common way to identify the disease is a chest X-ray. If the case seems mild, a physician may simply monitor the patient because sarcoidosis often wanes on its own. If the disease worsens, a doctor may prescribe a drug like prednisone to ease the inflammation.

Doctors say there is no way to prevent sarcoidosis. But they do recommend some precautions. Folks with the disease should avoid smoke, dust and irritants. They should follow the treatment plan and get annual check-ups once the symptoms disappear.

Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs is a writer based in the Cleveland area.

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