Struggling with the physical and emotional burden of fistulas

Did you know that at least one third of patients with Crohn’s disease experience a fistula during their patient journey? For those who don’t know, this complication happens when an abnormal passage develops between the bowel and nearby organs, such as the bladder, vagina, rectum, or skin. Fistulizing disease is complicated and unfortunately remains somewhat of a taboo topic of discussion.

This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from 36-year-old Lisa Mason who transparently shares her experience living with multiple abscesses and fistulas through the years. Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at only 5 years old, and later diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, she has more than three decades of experience facing IBD head on. Lisa is passionate about showing others this topic is not off limits and something that needs to be discussed more often. My hope is this article will serve as a resource to educate, comfort, and inspire.

Dealing with IBD as a pediatric patient

“By the time I was 10, my only option was to have surgery to remove my entire large intestine. Having my colon removed entailed three surgeries, four hospital stays, a temporary ileostomy, doing school from the hospital, and re-learning how to use the bathroom after the ileostomy was reversed. I thought my disease was gone, but it turns out having your colon removed is NOT a cure.”

For nearly 20 years Lisa felt she functioned as a healthy person who went to the bathroom 10-15 times a day. She had pain and abdominal discomfort off and on and was used to getting up to use the bathroom three times during the night. She attributed all this to the fact she didn’t have a colon. Then, in 2013, her symptoms took a turn for the worse.

“I noticed a “bump” near my vagina. Soon there was a second bump. I started with my primary care doctor who diagnosed it as a Bartholin cyst. I went to an OBGYN, who said they couldn’t do anything. After a second OBGYN opinion, I was prescribed antibiotics, which didn’t do anything.”

Lisa met with eight doctors to try and find someone to help her. Lisa saw a GI doctor who ordered an MRI but couldn’t see a direct tunnel to her GI tract and told her the issue was not IBD-related. For almost four years she had pus and blood constantly draining from the new “holes” by her vagina and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t find a medical professional to diagnose her correctly.

“Between 2013 and 2016, I had these abscesses/fistulas with no diagnosis. I was very fortunate that the abscesses made their way to the surface of my skin.”

“In sickness and in health”

Lisa got married in August 2016 and the week after her wedding, her fistula “blew up” to a huge abscess.

“Finally, a new OBGYN doctor suggested I see a surgeon who specializes in OBGYN oncology. I had three abscesses removed through surgery. Within one week of the surgery, the abscesses came back. The surgeon said, “this has to be IBD-related.”

So, Lisa went to a new colorectal surgeon. Between 2016 and 2018, she continued to have abscesses and drainage and would take antibiotics as needed.

“Luckily, they mostly drained on their own. When they couldn’t drain, I would be at home in excruciating pain for a few days until they made their way to the surface of my skin. During this time, both my GI doctor and Colon and Rectal Specialist (CRS) thought “things aren’t bad enough” to start biologics. Surgery wasn’t really an option since the fistulas were so close to my vagina. And since they continued to drain, the risk of infection was lower.”

The battle to get started on a biologic

In late 2018, Lisa’s GI doctor began the steps to get her started on Remicade. After doing all the medical testing for the insurance company, her GI decided her symptoms weren’t significant enough to start biologics. A year later, the fistula grew to an abscess the size of a large marble, again.

“For about four days, I couldn’t move without being in a lot of pain. The GI doctor and insurance finally agreed it was time to start Remicade.”

In August 2020, Lisa developed an entirely new fistula (this time the fistula was on her butt cheek). After several rounds of Flagyl and Cipro, the infection wouldn’t subside. All the antibiotics caused a C. diff infection, creating even more challenging symptoms.

“Finally, when the fistula moved closer to the skin’s surface, my CRS opened the fistula during an office visit so it would drain. I am lucky that I avoided surgery to install a seton.”

When antibiotics don’t get the job done, the next step is often seton surgery. A seton is a procedure that involves a thin rubber surgical-grade drain that goes through the fistula tract so that the cord creates a loop that joins up outside the fistula. The hope is to prevent the formation of an abscess.

At this point the game plan was to start Humira, which failed her as well.

Onto the next…biologic

Lisa then started Stelara in October 2021 and so far, it is doing the trick.

“My latest fistula has never been better! It still gets a little inflamed, and I still wear gauze every day, but it has come a long way! My other fistulas are not active. I still have one fistula that is a direct open tunnel that stool leaks out of. That fistula will always be there, but it is not irritated or inflamed. I am still working with my doctor on symptom remission. I am currently on Budesonide to help with my symptoms, and that’s working. I hope to wean off Budesonide in the next month or so.”

As Lisa comes to grips with these struggles, she says past medical trauma haunts her. Every doctor’s appointment and every procedure takes her to an unhappy place. She brings her husband or her mom to every appointment and seeks help from a therapist, but still has a tough time coping.

As a scientist, Lisa has used her career expertise to improve her communication with her care team. She has a system for tracking her symptoms, sharing the trends, and writing down her questions.

“Advocating for yourself to your doctors takes practice. Over the years, I’ve learned to track all my symptoms from number of bowel movements, diet, menstrual cycle, stress levels, etc. I created a system that works for me. Before I go to the doctor, I write down a timeline showing trends in my symptoms. I write down all the details to show the big picture. I think this has helped me communicate more effectively with my doctors and has helped create a treatment plan that works for me.

For ideas on how to communicate with your doctor to better advocate for yourself, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation has a great resource page on “Partnering with Your Doctor.”  

Worries and wants for the future

Despite having IBD for as long as she can remember, as she tries different biologics and forges ahead Lisa says she’s “re-learning” what it means to have a chronic illness.

“The hardest part is knowing that it’s possible I may not get to be a mom. I may not be able to have a baby because of possible scar tissues blocking fallopian tubes, having active Crohn’s, higher risks of miscarrying, a low AMH score (a fertility test that measures a woman’s ovarian reserve), past medical trauma, and my age. And if I can have a baby, I don’t know if I should. My body has been through so much already physically and mentally. Should I have a baby if I am going to be sick off and on my entire life? The thought of passing this disease on to my child is heart wrenching.”

While IBD has put a halt on Lisa’s family plans it hasn’t stopped her from completing seven half marathons and raising more than $30,000 for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation through Team Challenge!

“Besides meeting other people with similar issues, I learned to talk about this disease openly. For most of my life, I would only talk about IBD on a “need-to-know” basis. I am forever grateful for Team Challenge, but in all my experiences with the IBD community, fistulas are commonly experienced by patients, but aren’t talked about enough.”

For anyone struggling with fistulas or IBD, Lisa recommends connecting with others who may going through the same thing.

“With social media, we have more opportunities than ever before to connect with people with similar struggles. I also recommend connecting with IBD non-profits. For me, The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (CCF) has been an extremely valuable resource. Between Team Challenge, Take Steps, support groups, and educational seminars and resources, there is something for all patients and caregivers. Currently, I am serving on the Patient Advisory Taskforce for CCF, and it gives me hope for future treatments and a cure someday.”

When you are struggling with your IBD, be sure to rely on your support system, like your family, and know that things will get better. Look for the little things that bring you joy even when you are feeling sick. My go-to list includes sitting outside, spending time with my family and my pets, and writing down a gratitude list.

Despite the unexpected setbacks and flares through the years, Lisa is grateful for the full life she has been able to live. She has an amazing husband, a supportive family, a career she loves, and has had opportunities to camp, hike, and travel abroad multiple times. She’s even been to Africa on multiple occasions. Ironically, her husband had to have half of his colon removed from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (he’s healthy now!), so between the two of them, they don’t have a full large intestine. Lisa says they take ‘No Colon, Still Rollin’ very seriously!

Lisa advises people to lean on their support system and know that things will get better. When she’s feeling unwell, she tries to do activities that bring her joy such as sitting outside, spending time with her family and pets, and writing a gratitude list.

Connect with Lisa

Lisa is part of a private Facebook group “Abscess/Fistula Support for Women” which she finds to be extremely helpful.

Instagram: @birdbrain82

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lisa.mason.1420

Twitter: @lisamason127

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