You did nothing to cause your diagnosis or your disease. Read that again. It’s not your fault. No matter what you may see on social media or hear from friends or family, those of us with Inflammatory Bowel Disease did not live “incorrectly” or do anything damaging that “sparked” our chronic, autoimmune issues to come to life.
I was incredibly disheartened recently by a post on Instagram that in so many words claimed that bad habits in life led to a man’s Crohn’s disease. He made blanket statements about how medication and surgery are not necessary and that it just takes a long time and reflection to reverse the damage he caused on himself after years of smoking, binge drinking, etc. The post was not only on his own feed, but also shared by a community IBD page with more than 8,000 followers. After days of endless comments from those angered by his assertions and claims, the post was taken down and the patient “advocate” made his Instagram private, but the damage was already done.
Hold up—what’s with the blame game?!
You may wonder why patient advocates like me get their feathers ruffled by claims like this. I can tell you why. I, along with so many of my counterparts in the IBD community, work tirelessly to educate and inform not only those with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis about the patient journey, but also caregivers and friends. When misinformation is disseminated it sets the clock back, bigtime. It further stigmatizes our illness, especially when the false statements are said by someone who lives with IBD. Not only does it hurt those grieving and trying to come to terms with their lifelong diagnosis, but it’s a direct attack on those diagnosed as pediatrics and those who did everything by the book (ate well, exercised, got lots of sleep, managed stress, etc.) and STILL got IBD.
If there was a magic bullet or diet that helped “cure” or manage all of us, we would do it. If there was a way to prevent IBD, people would do it. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis aren’t like lung cancer, which is sometimes caused by smoking or diabetes which is sometimes caused by being overweight or liver disease which can be caused by excessive drinking. IBD is complicated and mysterious. There is not a behavior or habit that is associated with possibly “getting it” one day. The two known factors—hereditary and environmental—leave much to the imagination. I personally have no family history. I was a picture of health until the two months leading up to my Crohn’s diagnosis in July 2005. It felt as though a light switch went off and my world went from being healthy and able-bodied to being chronically ill.
You did nothing wrong
If you’re reading this and wondering what you did to cause your disease, the answer is nothing. If you’re reading this as a parent and feel as though you could have fed your child less processed food or breastfed them instead of giving formula or shouldn’t have had your child vaccinated, please stop believing that. I know we all want a reason. We all want answers and some clarity as to the why—but, at the end of the day, does it really matter? Focusing on the why doesn’t help us focus on the how. HOW are we going to get through this? HOW are we going to manage our disease and live a full life? HOW are we going to cope during flares and periods of remission? HOW are we going to navigate the unknown and thrive? HOW are we going to find the right treatment plan? HOW are we going to target our triggers and learn what to avoid? Focus on what you can tangibly do to improve your patient journey and less on the coulda, shoulda, woulda’s, because just like each case of IBD is unique, so is each back story.
Stop the finger pointing and the blame game. Stop making the medical community out to be the bad guys and the adversary. Stop acting as though those who depend on medication and need surgery failed in any way.
Start collaborating with your care team and finding physicians who listen and genuinely care about the approach you wish to take to manage and treat your disease, while also understanding that a holistic and “med-free” approach may not be feasible for your type of disease process. Start getting involved and educating yourself about how IBD manifests and the complicated nature of not only Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, but also the extraintestinal manifestations and mental health aspect that are often not talked about. Even if you’re on medication or have had surgery you can still take whatever measures make you feel better in a complementary way. It’s not all black and white. There’s so much gray area. You can be on a biologic and still try any “elimination diet” you’d like. It’s just a matter of doing what works best for you, without pointing the finger or demeaning others in our community. Start connecting with those who live your reality and lift you up, rather than make you feel like you’re taking the easy way out.
I know that if my 21-year-old self came across posts on social media claiming I caused my Crohn’s and that I could “heal my gut” on my own, I may have believed it. I can tell you nearly 16 years into this, I know without a doubt that is not the case. I am not a failure for taking medication, needing surgery, or trusting my physicians. I credit my 5.5 years of remission to being a compliant, proactive patient who believes in science, educating myself on the facts, and realizing that this disease is bigger than me and a constant learning process. I don’t need to know my why because I’ve done a damn good job of discovering my how’s and you can, too.
Four years ago, today, I became a mom. Our son Reid Robert was born and placed into my arms for the very first time. Like any parent, especially one with a chronic illness, those initial moments were emotional and overwhelming in the best way. A wave of relief rushed over me as I lied on the table after my scheduled c-section, grateful my body that had fought Crohn’s disease since 2005, had brought a perfectly healthy baby boy into this world. But I was also nervous about my abilities as an IBD mom and what the journey of parenthood would look like as I juggled taking care of myself and this tiny little human. How would my life with a chronic illness and as a mom play out?
Fast forward four years. I am now a mom of two, with a baby boy on the way (24 weeks tomorrow)! Over these last 1,460 days, I’ve learned and grown a great deal both personally and as an IBD patient. Today—I share that perspective and knowledge with you. Perspective and knowledge, I wish I had when I first became a mom and what I’m continuing to learn along the way.
Fed is best. There is so much pressure on how women choose to feed their babies. It’s ridiculous. I breastfed Reid the first three days and he had formula from that point forward because I was nervous about my biologic. The second time around, I did more research, and chose to breastfeed my daughter. Our journey lasted for six months (my milk supply ran out once I got my period). I supplemented with formula. I’m hoping to nurse our final baby when he’s born in July. That being said—no matter what you choose, it’s your choice. Your baby will thrive. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Drown out the judgement and speak up if someone questions your decision for you and your baby. For me, breastfeeding is a labor of love. I’m not going to act like I enjoy it, because it was hard for me. It’s not something that comes natural for all, and that’s ok. No one is going to ask my kids when they are in elementary school or high school how they were fed or know the difference.
What they see, doesn’t always hurt them. When you’re cowering on the toilet in pain and they’re watching with eyes that speak of concern. When you’re sitting on your couch about to do your injection. When you’re struggling to stand up straight because your abdominal pain is too much. Don’t shield them from your pain. That pain is part of your family story and it’s important you are honest and upfront. It’s those moments that shape their little hearts and their everchanging minds.
Kids roll with the punches. Have to cancel plans or have a low-key day inside watching a movie instead of going for a walk or to the park? —that’s ok. Your children will feel loved and taken care of just the same. Kids are flexible. They don’t need to stick to a rigid schedule to be happy and fulfilled. At the end of the day, it’s your love and support that matters most.
Innate empathy from a young age. With my oldest being four, I can’t tell you enough how many times I’ve been blown away by his empathetic heart. Before he was even two years old, he would kiss my thigh after my injection and walk up to me in the bathroom, give me a hug, and pat my arm or stomach to comfort me. Now, he asks me if I’m hurting or in pain. He knows mommy isn’t always healthy, but that she’s always strong and gets through it. That empathy goes far beyond me—I see it in the way he is with others and it makes my heart feel like it’s going to burst with pride. I credit that aspect of his personality to what he’s witnessed these first few years of life, and for that I’m grateful. I can guarantee you’ll see the same with your children.
Greatest source of motivation. Even though I’ve been in remission since August 2015, my kids still serve as my greatest motivation on the difficult days with the disease. Whether it’s pain, prepping for a scope, or going through a procedure, I keep my eyes on the prize—them. Just thinking of them gets me through everything. They give me so much to fight for, day in and day out. It’s not just about me—it’s about all of us.
The importance of communication. When you become a parent, communication becomes even more paramount in your relationship. If you don’t share when you’re struggling or symptomatic, your partner can’t offer the support you need. Even if you’re not in a full-blown flare, it’s beneficial for everyone involved (you, your partner, and your kid(s)) that you share when your IBD is causing you issues. I always text my husband when he’s at work or simply say, “I’m having a bad Crohn’s day” or if I’m in the bathroom for a long time after dinner while he’s trying to get the kids to bed …and that’s all it takes to get the message across.
Asking for help doesn’t make you weak. You’ve probably heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” …and it really does. You are not failing or less than because you ask or help, need a break, or time for yourself. You will be a better mom if you take time for you. You’ll be better able to keep your disease in check if you have time to relax and de-stress. I’m not always the best when it comes to accepting or asking for help, but as I gear up for three babies four and under, I know I’m not going to be able to do it all on my own and that I’m going to need more out of my village.
Your health can’t go on the backburner. When you’re a mom, your needs often go to the bottom of the totem pole. When you are an IBD mom, they can’t. While I used to try and “brave out” my symptoms until the last possible moment, as a mom, I’ve completely changed. After nearly 16 years living with Crohn’s, I know when my body is speaking to me and now, I listen and address what’s going on immediately. I credit being proactive and sharing with my GI when it feels like my remission may be in question for the reason why I’ve been able to stay in remission all this time. I’ve gone on bursts of steroids, had my trough levels checked for my biologic, and done fecal calprotectin tests through the years when needed. The last thing you want as a parent is to be hospitalized because of your IBD. To me—it’s inevitable. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when. But I do everything in my power to keep myself home and out of the hospital and will continue to do so until that’s no longer possible.
Every “tummy ache” and loose stool from your child is not IBD. When my kids say they have a tummy ache or I seem to think they’re going to the bathroom more often one day than not, I’m immediately worried and concerned. Could it be IBD? Why are they feeling this way? Is it my fault? What do I need to watch out for? All the questions flood my mind and sometimes my emotions get the best of me. Then, my husband normally talks me down and says it’s probably nothing and I need to stop jumping to conclusions. He’s right. Chances are potty training could be causing tummy aches. Or maybe like the rest of the population, they are going more because of something they ate. The chance of passing along IBD to your child (when one parent has it) is only 2-9% (according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation). Remember that.
You are their hero. Of course, there are times I wish I wasn’t an IBD mom…and “just” a mom. At the same time, I credit my disease for much of my outlook on life and how it helps me cope with setbacks, but also celebrate what to many others may be the mundane. My kids don’t see me than less than. When they sit through doctor appointments in the stroller and blood draws, or watch me make faces drinking colonoscopy prep, or count to 10 while doing my shot before they go to bed, they simply see their mama. This is their normal—they don’t know anything different. When I talk to teenagers or young adults who grew up with a parent who has IBD, I always hear the same thing— ‘they are my hero’.
Along with being a hero to your little one(s)…you are also…
Someone who takes unpleasant moments in stride.
Someone who wears the title of “mama” with great pride.
Someone who will never stop fighting for the feel-good days.
Someone who doesn’t allow your illness to rob you or your child of joy.
Someone who goes after their dreams—like that of being a mom—even though your back story may be a bit more complicated.
Someone who is just as worthy as anyone to be a parent.
We’re four years in, Reid. Like everything in life, each moment—beautiful and challenging—is fleeting. Thank you for being patient with me, for understanding me, and for being a daily reminder that I’m so much more than my Crohn’s disease. Being your mom is my greatest title and has been the best chapter of my life story and patient journey thus far.
Chronic illness can feel all-consuming, especially while you’re trying to balance work and your personal life. According to 32-year-old Allison Wade of Texas, living with ulcerative colitis since 2008 prepared her for the struggle of infertility after living through a four-year flare. Yes, you read that right. Allison was hopeful her and her husband, Nick, could begin their journey to growing their family. Unfortunately, just as she felt the relief of getting her IBD under control, she found out she would be dealing with another condition where there is not a “one size fits all solution.”
This edition of IBD Motherhood Unplugged looks at juggling the mental and emotional struggle of coping with and mourning your body failing you not only with ulcerative colitis, but also infertility, while also being your own advocate for your care plan. As Allison says the question of “WHY” she’s unable to achieve something that women have been doing forever, haunts her.
Allison is a healthcare worker. Her world came crashing down during the pandemic when she found out bringing a baby into this world would be more complicated than she ever thought.
“When I received news that I was in remission after the four-year flare, I was told we needed to get pregnant right away to capitalize on my IBD finally being under control. I underwent an HSG procedure to make sure that I didn’t have any adhesions or blockages in my fallopian tubes due to the chronic inflammation in my colon. We were told everything was normal,” explains Allison. “I also had blood work completed to ensure that I was truly ovulating and that was also normal. We tried for a year and were not successful.”
Allison and her husband met with a fertility specialist in April 2020. The nearest fertility specialist was two hours away, so they set up a telemedicine visit. During the initial consultation they were told it sounded like they were dealing with unexplained infertility.
“My cycles were like clockwork, I was getting positive ovulation tests, my hormone levels after ovulation suggested that I was truly ovulating, there was no reason as to why I had never seen two lines on a pregnancy test.”
The fertility game plan
Allison and Nick set up a game plan with their fertility team that involved three rounds of Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) plus Clomid. If she was not pregnant after that, the next step was IVF. Allison says she felt overwhelmed but was confident that they were going to be pregnant after the first month. Looking back, she says she was naïve to think that way.
“Emotionally, each month is a roller coaster that comes and goes quickly. Each month that passes you feel the gravity of emotions that come with each negative pregnancy test. Financially, it has been difficult because insurance does not cover my fertility treatments and rarely covers my medications. Let me just tell you that every ultrasound and every blood draw adds up. I have to remind myself regularly of how it will all be worthwhile in the end.”
Keeping stress in check
As anyone with IBD knows, managing stress is imperative for helping to keep symptoms at bay. Along with the worry about getting pregnant, Allison has the fear of flaring with her ulcerative colitis.
She explains, “The biggest area of stress has been managing all the appointments and arranging my work schedule on the days I have to unexpectedly drive to Houston for a 15-minute ultrasound. I am very lucky that my job has been understanding through this time.”
Not to mention she also has to take time away from work to receive her Remicade infusion.
“I would advise other IBD women to find ways to manage all the stress and emotions that come along with infertility and chronic illness. I highly recommend seeking counseling services. It is nice to have someone to talk to who is not emotionally involved in the outcome. It is a difficult time for all women, however when you also have IBD, I feel like you are now adding all these supplements, medications, and appointments to your existing list of treatments for your IBD. Find a way to organize everything so that you’re able to manage everything without getting too overwhelmed.”
Utilizing Natural Procreative Technology instead of IVF
After two failed IUIs, Allison knew IVF was on the horizon. She didn’t feel as though all her concerns were being addressed or that her needs fit into the typical cookie cutter approach.
“I felt like we were being rushed to IVF without any real answers as to why my body was unable to conceive. My husband and I were not emotionally or financially prepared to begin the process of IVF, so we decided to get a second opinion and look at other options.”
This is where Natural Procreative Technology or NaPro comes into play. Allison liked that NaPro doctors look to diagnose the root cause of what is causing your infertility, in hopes that you can conceive naturally without the use of IUI or IVF. The success rates are comparable and often exceed those of IVF, without the increased risk of multiple pregnancies or birth defects.
The Creighton Model of FertilityCare System™(CrMS) is the method of observing and charting important biomarkers in the female cycle. The charting and observational work is the basis of evaluation and treatment in NaPro Technology. Allison has been charting her cycles for the last six months.
“When I went to my first NaPro appointment, the doctor spent an hour talking to me in the office and my husband on Facetime. She answered every question and explained that she would be as aggressive as we wanted her to be,” says Allison. “She wanted me to chart my cycles and to get extensive blood work completed after ovulation to look at my hormone levels. She also spoke to me about diet, stress, activity levels, and she started me on several supplements. When I left that appointment, I was so happy because I felt like she was treating me holistically and was going to find the cause of my infertility.”
Keeping her eyes focused on the future
Allison is going to have exploratory surgery next month to look for scar tissue or adhesions that may be the result of chronic inflammation from her IBD, which could be contributing to her struggle to get pregnant. She is due for her Remicade the same week as her surgery, so she must push her infusion back until her incisions are healed. As a woman with IBD, going through infertility, this is the reality that is often not discussed or thought about.
“While I try to remain as optimistic as possible about creating a baby that is genetically ours and that I can carry, our hearts would definitely be open to both surrogacy and adoption. My dream has always been to be a mother and I will do everything that is possible to achieve that dream.”
When Megan Cape of Georgia was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in January 2004 at the age of 14, she didn’t know what the future would hold in terms of pregnancy and motherhood. After years of doctors dismissing her excruciating pain as a stomach bug or a reaction to stress, she finally received an answer. During her initial hospitalization, she had an abscess the size of a softball in her abdomen that was pushing on her spine. She was also going septic. She was rushed to surgery where surgeons removed the abscess and part of her intestine, ultimately saving her life.
Fast forward to her college years and Megan met the love of her life and future husband, Colton. She studied to be a Child Life Specialist, a career near and dear to her heart since she spent so much time in and out of the hospital growing up. One of her worst flares happened on graduation day. She was able to muster up the strength to walk across the stage and grab her diploma, but then had to be carried to the car. That week—CT scans shows she had five strictures (narrowing in the intestine which doesn’t allow food to pass through). At this point, her wedding was less than a month away. Her care team delayed surgery so that she would be able to walk down the aisle.
“On the day of my wedding, I couldn’t even take a bite of food because the pain was so intense. After our wedding and honeymoon, my health declined quickly and got to the point where I couldn’t keep water down. I was throwing up all day and night and my family was taking turns staying up with me. I had at least one ER visit a week, but, somehow, the doctors kept missing how bad things were and would send me home,” said Megan.
She ultimately landed in the hospital for five weeks, as a 23-year-old newlywed. At the time, she wasn’t thinking about children. Megan was focused on getting better and placed faith in God’s hands that when the time would be right, she would be a mom. That was until she went into her GI doctor following the hospitalization and her second surgery. There, she was told she would never have children. Megan was devastated, as you can imagine. This week’s IBD Motherhood Unplugged sheds light on navigating this heartbreaking realization and how adoption changed Megan and her husband’s lives in the most beautiful way.
The unforeseen miracles in the making
Much to Megan’s surprise, three years into their marriage, she got pregnant the first month her and her husband started trying. Unfortunately, they lost that baby. Heartbroken as they were, they were hopeful they’d get their rainbow baby. Each time, getting pregnant happened easily, but time after time, they miscarried.
“Interestingly, God laid adoption on my heart at such a young age. I always knew I wanted to be a wife and a mom, and I always saw myself adopting. But I still felt so many emotions, wondering if and when it would ever be my turn to carry a baby.”
After four miscarriages, they decided to seek guidance from fertility specialists. It was determined that because of Megan’s Crohn’s and past surgeries, the embryos weren’t attaching correctly to her uterus and blood clots were forming, causing her to miscarry. Her physicians believed IVF was her only option, and she was ready to jump in with both feet. Megan and Colton went through all the testing and blood work, but everything came to halt when her doctor conveyed his worries about complications with egg retrieval and such in Crohn’s patients. Megan said the unknown of how her body would respond to IVF in addition to the daunting cost of it all, caused them to re-think their approach to family planning.
Preparing their hearts for something bigger
While in waiting, Megan feels God kept bringing amazing adoption stories in front of her. Stories that reminded her of when she was a little girl and told herself that would be part of her family one day.
“After years of TTC (trying to conceive) and miscarriages, I approached my husband and brought up adoption. I was truly shocked by his response because, without any hesitation, he said, “Let’s do it!” We both had an amazing peace about it and quickly began the adoption process. We had no idea what all goes into adoption and, woah, it’s a lot!”
Megan says adoption was the best and hardest thing they’ve ever done. She credits much of their “success story” to their amazing support system of family and friends who rallied around them to help raise money, to encourage them through the journey, to let them cry on hard days, and celebrate the exciting milestones.
“Nine months into the adoption process, and a month after being an ‘active’ waiting family, we got the call. A birth mom had picked us! She fell in love with us, our story, and our family after looking at our profile book. We were going to have a daughter in 3 short months!” Megan did not include that she had Crohn’s in their adoption profile book, but shared she was unable to have children.
The blessing of Vivian Rose
Megan and her Colton’s daughter, Vivian Rose, was born October 14th, 2019. She is the answer to years and years of prayer, their miracle baby, and the light of their lives.
“Managing a chronic illness when you’re a mom is definitely hard at times! Thankfully, my Crohn’s has been under control since Viv was born and I’ve just had a few bad days here and there. Because of COVID-19, my husband has been working from home for the last year. So, on my hard days, he will take Vivian for a few hours to run errands and such so I can rest,” says Megan. “I definitely think it takes a village to raise kids in general, but, even more so, when you have IBD.”
Since becoming a mom, Megan has taken her health more seriously.
“I don’t ever want Viv to say, “Ugh. My mom is sick again.” And I don’t ever want to miss out on her day-to-day life because I’m not feeling well – as unrealistic as that may be! I have been much more intentional about eating foods that make me feel well and give me energy. I also make sure to listen to my body more and I try not to push myself as much as I always have!”
The main IBD-related symptom Megan has struggled with recently is fatigue—the kind of fatigue where you feel like you could sleep for two weeks straight and still wake up tired.
“I get frustrated with myself, sometimes, because I don’t have the amount of energy other mamas do, but I do my best and I know that’s all I can do.”
The role of faith through IBD and infertility
Megan says she never questioned God’s plans for her life when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s during her teenage years, but infertility made her do so.
“It was, truly, the loneliest and darkest point of my entire life. I had a constant ache in my heart and the sadness I felt was unreal. As one friend after another told me they were pregnant, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was so happy for everyone around me, but it did make it that much harder. I felt so left out and so alone. I remember, so clearly, God speaking two things to me during this time: The age 29 and the thought that I wasn’t going to be left out.”
Megan wishes she could go back in time and tell her 26-year-old self what she knows now.
“I wish I could tell her that everything is going to be okay. I wish I could tell her that 29 is the age she will become a mama to the most perfect baby girl. I wish I could tell her that God has big plans for her family, and he has not forgotten about her, but that His timing is perfect.”
Megan’s advice for IBD mamas in waiting
Megan’s best advice—do not give up. Lean into your spouse because they are not only serving as a caregiver for your IBD, but they are also hurting about the struggle to have a family. If you become an adoptive family, you’ll see that your child is handpicked for you and that the make-up of your family will be knit exactly how it was meant to be.
“We would love to give Viv a sibling, but, at this point, we are just enjoying our girl and soaking up every minute with her! Adoption doesn’t cure infertility – meaning that it is still hard sometimes that we can’t just decide to give Viv a sibling and do so easily! And I will never have a big belly or carry a baby to term. But that’s okay! If God calls us to adopt again, we will do so. We may even go the surrogacy route or Vivi may be an only child. I know, if God wants us to grow our family, it will be made obvious and we will trust Him and follow His lead.”
Megan says she refuses to allow her Crohn’s disease to define her, even though it’s dictated and shaped much of her life journey. Her IBD is the reason she can’t have kids. The reason adoption was laid on her heart at a young age. The reason she’s mom to Vivian Rose. The reason she’s disciplined. The reason she chose her college major. The reason her faith and her marriage are so strong. And the reason she has the perspective and maturity to understand that despite the setbacks and trials placed before her, she still lives a blessed life that she is grateful for.
As an IBD mom I see it as a responsibility and an opportunity to participate in research studies while I am pregnant and as my children grow. I’m currently 20 weeks pregnant (tomorrow!) with my third baby and this time around I’m enrolled in the Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes (PIANO) study. The project was conceived, lead, and executed by Dr. Uma Mahadevan, Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco in 2007.
Since the project launched, more than 1,800 women have participated in the registry. Of that number, over 900 stayed on biologics throughout their pregnancies. I’m thrilled to be a part of this initiative. If my pregnancies and children can provide clarity for a future generation of IBD moms, the extra effort on my part is more than worth it. Thanks to women before me who have been on a biologic and been a part of research while pregnant, I have peace of mind knowing that staying on my Humira is best for me and for baby.
Without studies that indicate how babies in utero respond to medication exposures we would be in the dark about what is best for mom and baby not only during pregnancy, but with breastfeeding.
“There is so much misinformation about pregnancy and IBD including being told not to conceive at all or to stop medication. This is incorrect and dangerous. PIANO was started to provide reliable data for women with IBD considering pregnancy so they and their providers can make an informed choice for themselves and their babies,” said Dr. Mahadevan. “Every pregnant woman with IBD has benefited from the generosity of PIANO moms who contributed their outcomes, good or bad, to the pool of knowledge we have. Every PIANO mom who contributes benefits not herself, but future mothers with IBD. It is an invaluable and precious gift.”
What PIANO measures
There are four main areas the PIANO study looks at:
Whether the level of biologic drug transferred across the placenta to the infant by the time of birth predicts the risk of infection or other adverse outcomes
Whether the achievement of developmental milestones is affected by medication exposure
Whether the rates of birth defects, adverse pregnancy outcomes and complications of labor and delivery are affected by IBD medications
Whether second trimester drug levels can be used to adjust drug and minimize transfer across the placenta to the baby
Since I am just now reaching the halfway point of my pregnancy, I have only had to fill out questionnaires. You are required to do so during each trimester, at the end of your pregnancy, and then at 4, 9, and 12 months post-delivery. Along with that, you can provide follow up until your child is 18, once a year. During this trimester I will also provide blood work and a fecal calprotectin. On delivery day, bloodwork will be taken from me, my baby, and my umbilical cord. Depending on my son’s blood work at delivery, I may be asked for more when he’s 3 and 6 months. If at any time I am not comfortable with him getting his blood drawn, I can always opt out. The cord blood is similar to the baby blood at birth so that is adequate. I can also choose to stop the annual questionnaire at any time.
If a woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy, the PIANO study is also measuring the antibody levels found in the cord blood (on the day of birth) to confirm that the benefit transfers to the baby. Breastmilk will also be measured for the transfer of protective antibody against COVID.
The Findings Thus Far
In a presentation this past fall, Dr. Mahadevan shared findings from PIANO.
“We looked at pregnancy, birth and developmental outcomes in the infants at one year, based on exposure to drug, and found no increase in negative outcomes and no reduction in developmental milestones. Biologic‑exposed infants did have some statistically increased improvement in developmental milestones compared to the unexposed group. Overall, what this study suggests is that women with inflammatory bowel disease should continue their biologics and thiopurines throughout pregnancy to maintain remission, given no evidence of harm, and evidence that disease activity can increase miscarriage.”
The study also found that disease activity can increase preterm labor and birth, all the more reason for women to stay on their medication and not try and go med-free while pregnant.
Looking to the Future
Currently, there is no end date for the study. As long as there is funding, the project will continue. Dr. Mahadevan says with all the new medications coming down the pipeline there is a need for safety data. She says, “The infrastructure of PIANO allows us to study new medications as they come to market, even before they are approved for IBD.”
To participate in the study women must have IBD and live in the United States. Interested in learning more or getting enrolled? Email PIANO@ucsf.edu or call 415-885-3734.
Motherhood is so much more than a word—it’s an expectation and an identity. It’s a right of passage many girls dream of when they think about their future and what their family will look like. But family planning, pregnancy, and motherhood are far from a given, especially for those with chronic illness. As an IBD mom of two with one on the way, I’ve recognized that while my story and my experience may comfort and guide others—it’s only that, one story. I fully understand I am extremely lucky not to have the struggle of infertility or physical limitations to hold me back from having children, despite my Crohn’s.
This week kicks off IBD Motherhood Unplugged, an ongoing series that will be shared periodically in the months and years ahead on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. The series will feature guest posts from women with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis who may not physically be able to carry a child, who battle infertility, who grow their family through adoption and surrogacy, who have children following loss—the list goes on and on. Ultimately, I want everyone to feel seen, heard, and understood. There’s not one cookie cutter approach to becoming a mom or having a family.
The first article is by my dear friend and fellow patient advocate and thought leader Tina Aswani Omprakash. Tina is a 37-year-old woman in New York, living with perianal, fistulizing Crohn’s Disease. She’s endured more than 20 surgeries and lives with a permanent ileostomy. Since she was a child, she thought she could put off motherhood and did so through many years of virulent disease. At one point, as a young adult, she needed to go on a disability and be taken care of by her mom. When she got married to the love of her life, Anand, nearly 11 years ago, the questions started.
“Being of South Asian descent, the nosy, busybody aunties at weddings and cultural events would always find ways to jeer and sneer at the fact that I hadn’t had a child yet. And after I started Stelara 5.5 years ago and tasted remission for the very first time in a decade, I too began to wonder: is it time for me to consider my own child?”
I’ll let Tina take it away and explain her struggles with family planning and finding out pregnancy wasn’t in the cards. Her heartfelt words and openness about feeling excluded from being an IBD mom, shed light on an important topic and aspect of our illness that is often not discussed or talked about. We hope in sharing this—if you are going through the same situation, struggles, or worries, that you know you are not alone.
Genetic counseling, surrogacy, and reproductive endocrinologists, oh my
In April 2016, I went to see a reproductive endocrinologist, who did a transvaginal ultrasound. Based on his medical expertise, he thought he could retrieve maybe three of my eggs, which was incredible news given everything I had been through surgically. He had proposed 2-3 rounds of IVF for hormone stimulation and egg retrieval but there was no guarantee that the eggs retrieved would be viable to be combined with my husband’s sperm. He didn’t think carrying the baby was a good option for me given all the scarring from surgery and fistulae. Moreover, fertility is often affected by j-pouch surgery and later excision. As such, he offered me the option of surrogacy and asked me to seek genetic counseling due to the hereditary nature of my Crohn’s Disease.
Anand and I went through months of genetic counseling, an expensive process that didn’t lend to any substantial findings. Crohn’s, as many doctors have explained to me, is spread out over several genes and one gene cannot be targeted necessarily as a form of gene therapy. That left us both stumped as his family has a history of an autoimmune condition called ankylosing spondylitis and I have various skin and bowel autoimmune conditions on my side of the family.
During this time, we also looked into the surrogacy process. Since the reproductive endocrinologist recommended that I not consider a pregnancy myself given all the surgeries, fistulae, and pelvic cysts I’ve had, we obliged. But considering all the legal and surrogacy fees, we were looking at $100,000 for one surrogate pregnancy (at least), which was an extraordinary sum of money for us. So, we decided to table having a child for the time being and think over adoption, another expensive proposition.
Tick, tock, tick, tock…
Two years passed and we came to realize that there is no easy solution. During that time, the IBD Parenthood Project shared excellent knowledge for women with IBD to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term safely. And I thought, let me ask my GI doctor now about his thoughts. Unfortunately, he reiterated the same thoughts as the reproductive endocrinologist shared: for someone with my surgical and fistula history and aggressive family history of Crohn’s disease, it may be best not to try. He also said the risk of me using hormones for egg retrieval would risk a blood clot in a patient with my history.
Part of me was still in denial that motherhood may never be a possibility. Within weeks of my conversation with my GI doctor, I was diagnosed with mild endometriosis by a premier OB/GYN surgeon in NYC. I asked him, “What do my options for pregnancy and fertility look like now?” And he said very openly and honestly, “Bleak at best. Let’s say you do carry the pregnancy and don’t lose the baby, Tina, will I have to cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby?” After a brief pause, he said, “I would recommend adoption if having a child is something you really want to consider.”
While, on one hand, I genuinely appreciated his honesty, on the other hand, the statement, “cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby” seared through my mind for months after and has left its mark even today. I needed to hear it; I needed my bubble to pop. But the statement no doubt cuts and ravages every minutiae of my being as a woman. Not having the privilege to choose to have a baby was suddenly taken from me in that one fell swoop and it left my head spinning.
Losing Motherhood to Crohn’s Disease
My God-given right as a woman was taken from me in that instant. As if having six fistulae and Crohn’s wreaking havoc on my pelvis and reproductive system wasn’t enough, let’s take Tina down another notch. Let’s take away her right to choose to have a child.
Even though voluntary childlessness is always a choice, now I didn’t even have that choice. Childlessness was thrust upon me like a stab wound in the back. All I was left with were unaffordable options of surrogacy or adoption.
So why not adoption? It’s simply too expensive and I do wonder about whether I’ll be able to even take care of the child given my constant roller coaster of health issues and medical appointments. Hiring full-time help seems out of reach, too.
Include Women Who Aren’t Mothers
That day with the endometriosis surgeon was nearly three years ago. And I’ve done a lot of work in therapy to process much of it. But I can’t say I don’t feel left out every time I see a mom scolding her child or complaining about her child(ren)’s mischievousness because I, like many other women with chronic illnesses, will never be able to experience the joys and sorrows of motherhood.
As happy as I am for my friends with children, there is a deep void I’m reminded of every time someone else gets pregnant, hosts a baby shower, or sends along amazingly cute photos of their child(ren). I will never be able to have that, no, but I wish I could still be included in the mommy paradigm as a cool aunt or as a godmother. But I’m often not, and that makes me feel sad and excluded.
Dealing with the Cultural Aspects
In American culture, it’s hard enough as it is to be a woman of my age without a child, but in Indian culture, you’re really considered a pariah of sorts. I’m often asked the question of when I will bear a child now that Anand and I have been married for so many years. I usually find ways to dodge those questions by changing the subject or by simply saying, “whenever the time is right.” It’s not a conversation I want to be having with acquaintances nor do I want to be fodder for gossip.
But when it comes to my close friends saying, “Tina, gosh, you would have made an amazing mother, you have so much good to impart on to the world,” it feels good and bad all at once. I’m flattered that someone would think I could do a fine job as a mother but saddened by the fact that I will never know that for myself.
Becoming a Mother Hen
Alas, today in 2021, I continue to focus on my advocacy work and my graduate program, in attempts to focus my attention elsewhere. And in the words of my therapist, “if I cannot be a mother to a child, I can at least be a mother hen to my IBD community, helping to educate and guide patients of underserved populations who would otherwise feel bewildered.” I take a lot of solace in that and recognize that I wasn’t supposed to be here today with all the near-death experiences I’ve had with my brand of Crohn’s disease. All I can express is my gratitude for being alive today, for being able to do this work, and for being able to be a mother hen in my own way to my community.
To my fellow IBD women & chronic illness warriors: please know you are not alone. Please know it’s okay to be sad, angry, and terrified. Many of us are struggling deeply with the idea of motherhood as our clocks keep ticking. Do your research, learn what your options are and make the best decision with your specialist(s) regarding conception and pregnancy. And if having a child is not in the cards, that’s okay too. Never forget (and I need this reminder too) – not having a child doesn’t make you less of a woman.
Before the dating world was about swiping right or left, I met my husband online. It’s something I was a little embarrassed about sharing for a long time, especially while being a morning news anchor. The year was 2013, while online dating was becoming more common, it was still a little taboo. At the time, my Crohn’s disease was a secret from the public. Much like the backstory of my health, I wanted to keep my love story under wraps much of the same way.
So, when I signed up for eHarmony on a whim after attending my co-anchor’s wedding, rather than putting my location as Springfield, IL (where I lived and did the news), I told a little white lie on my profile and said I lived in St. Louis. I know, I know…a little shady! But hear me out. I chose to do this to disguise my identity and vowed to myself that I’d be upfront and honest with whoever I spoke with about where I lived from the initial conversation. I also told myself I’d hold off on sharing that I had Crohn’s until I met someone worth my time and deserving of my energy. It wasn’t something I would share over email or on the phone prior to meeting.
Finding Love in Three Days
I was on eHarmony three days before I met Bobby. Yes, three days. I feel incredibly fortunate that after years of dating and not finding the right person that all it took was a couple emails and some phone calls. As soon as Bobby and I started talking I gave him an “out” and said I understood if he wasn’t interested in long distance (90 miles apart), but he said he didn’t care and wanted to meet me. He drove to Springfield on a Wednesday after his workday and took me to dinner. Little did we know that would be our last first date.
From there he visited me the following week and we went out for Mexican. Two dates in, I didn’t feel ready to disclose I had IBD. But as the days turned to weeks and I started feeling closer to him, I knew it was something I had to get off my chest.
Disclosing to My Boyfriend (now husband) That I Have Crohn’s
On our third date (almost a month of talking/hanging out) we went to a boathouse and had lunch outside on a gorgeous St. Louis August afternoon. I was nervous, but at this point in my patient journey (8 years in) I felt confident about my IBD elevator speech. After the appetizer arrived, I let him know I had Crohn’s disease. I explained what it was, how it had affected me, the medication I was on, but more so than what I was saying, I was paying more attention to his verbal and non-verbal cues. I had been with guys in the past who ghosted me in times of major health emergencies. I had been made to feel like my chronic illness was a joke or an excuse. And I wasn’t going to put up with any of that bs again or be made to feel like a burden.
In that moment, Bobby made me feel comfortable and he didn’t seem phased by what I had shared. Not in a dismissive way, but in a way that made me feel like just with the distance, my disease wasn’t reason enough in his eyes to explore other options.
Advice for Navigating Online Dating with IBD
Don’t make your IBD the headline on your profile. While your IBD is a big part of who you are, it’s not your whole identity. It’s not necessary to include you have a chronic illness on your dating profile unless you feel so inclined. Personally, I wouldn’t give someone the privilege of knowing that side of you unless you feel they are worthy. At the same time, if you have an ostomy and you prefer to share photos of yourself like that on your profile—more power to you!
The cliff notes version of your health story will do. When you decide to share that you have IBD with your partner, don’t be doomsday. Don’t go on…and on…and on…about how debilitating and horrible it’s been and how miserable you are. Give a high-level elevator speech that “dumbs it down” a bit. You don’t need to downplay how hard it is but allow your partner to take some initiative and educate themselves and ask questions when they have them. How you share and present your illness to someone who may have never heard of IBD will have a lasting impact.
Don’t settle. Trust your gut. If a partner is making you feel uneasy or unhappy, don’t make excuses for them. Read between the lines on a person’s dating profile—see if you think their personality traits and interests will compliment you and your needs. Not everyone is nurturing and empathetic. If you see red flags that your partner lacks in those areas, think about whether it’s going to be a healthy relationship for you to be a part of.
No need to be shy! When we’re battling our health, often the thought of being vulnerable and open with a stranger can seem overwhelming. IBD is complicated and the stress of a new love interest can make us feel a bit out of control. But it can also be an exciting, sweet distraction from health challenges. Love gives a sense of normalcy. Just because you have IBD doesn’t make you unworthy of deserving love. Think about the type of partner you want holding your hand as you battle a flare from a hospital bed.
Love doesn’t need to stop because of the pandemic. I’m an old married woman now (ha), going on eight years since I was on eHarmony and matched with Bobby, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are so many sites and apps these days, I don’t even know all it entails. Gone are the days of only eHarmony, Match, and Plenty of Fish. 😊 If you’re feeling lonely and isolated like so many of us during this pandemic, and you’re single with IBD, don’t feel like you have to press pause on finding a connection or your person.
What IBD’ers Have to Say About Finding Their Match
Erica: “My husband and I met on Coffee Meets Bagel in 2017. We texted three weeks before meeting. I told him I had Crohn’s after texting a couple of weeks before we met. I had to reschedule our first date because of a health issue and didn’t want him to think it was because of him. I also felt like he should know what he was getting into.”
Michelle: “I met my husband in 2015 when Hinge came out! I was having a flare and threw up on our first date! I met him when I was going through getting diagnosed and he was so supportive through it all.”
Christine: “Disclose early on! I disclosed at about two months of dating with my fiancé and I felt like things could go further. I think it’s something the other person should be aware of. Not everyone is ready for that you need to know that you will be supported through that journey! We connected through Facebook! Sounds crazy, but here we are!”
Sarah: “Dating/meeting people is so hard nowadays and then throw in a chronic illness and it doesn’t make things easier! Personally, I prefer to be up front about my UC because if the person is going to like me or if this is going to work out, they are going to have to be on board with my UC, too! Whether I like it or not, it’s a part of who I am.”
Ryann: “I met my husband in 2017 and I told him on our second date. Our friend set us up and she had already shared that I had IBD with him. Previously, I had told other guys on our first or second date. One guy came back and apologized for being so weak and not contacting me again after that date. I didn’t reply, more because I didn’t blame him, but also because I found him to be incredibly dull! This was back in the beginning days of Tinder!”
Natasha: “I like to share early (in or around the first date) about my health so I don’t develop an attachment if they aren’t comfortable with chronic illness. Usually, it leads to a good conversation either way. Recently, I shared about my Crohn’s over text message and the guy was very inquisitive and only wanted to learn more, about me and about Crohn’s! I also have a pic of me with my ostomy in my dating app profile. It’s subtle, but if you know it’s there or know what an ostomy is, you’ll know immediately what I have.”
Payge: “My Tinder profile pictures had me with my bag and my current boyfriend googled what it was before he messaged me. He told me when he knew what it was, he instantly thought ‘I want to take care of this girl’…that’s how it went for me!”
Allison: “You don’t have to share any more than you’re comfortable with—if you want to disclose in your profile, great! If you wait until date number five, that’s okay, too! There are no hard fast rules for when or how you should share your story with someone. It’s YOUR story and every situation is different. Anyone who responds negatively or acts as if your illness will be a burden is NOT worth your time. The right person won’t care. Remember—nobody is perfect. Your vulnerability might allow the other person to share something they’re also trying to figure out the right time for. I’ve been online dating for five years now, met my current boyfriend on Hinge in September.”
Prior to receiving a chronic illness diagnosis, it’s incredibly challenging and nearly impossible to fathom ‘forever sickness’. In Tessa Miller’s book, “What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness–Lessons from a Body in Revolt”, she masterfully articulates the highs and lows of life with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From navigating the diagnosis, flare ups, the healthcare system, relationships, and the mental health component, she’s created an invaluable resource that I wish every single person with chronic illness could be handed the moment they find out their life story has taken an unforeseen turn.
As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2005, two months after college graduation, I wish my former self had these powerful words at my fingertips. The overwhelming nature of IBD can be nearly suffocating at times. As I read this page-turner of a book, I felt seen and understood. I found myself nodding my head, because I could relate to so much of her story and so much of her sage advice. I felt like a college student highlighting what felt like the whole page, because it was ALL so important.
Tessa and I are both journalists. We both have Crohn’s. We both randomly grew up in Illinois. I connected with her over social media after reading her New York Times article, “Five Things I Wish I had Known Before My Chronic Illness.” The article had an impact on me, so when I heard she landed a deal with a publisher, I anxiously awaited for this book to drop.
In the beginning of “What Doesn’t Kill You,” Tessa writes, “I became a professional patient, and a good one. I learned that bodies can be inexplicably resilient and curiously fragile. I would never get better, and that would change everything: the way I think about my body, my health, my relationships, my work, and my life. When things get rough, people like to say, “this too shall pass.” But what happens when “this” never goes away?”
Finding the Right Care Team
When you live with a disease like Crohn’s, it’s imperative you trust your gastroenterologist and care team and are confident in how they help you manage your illness. I always tell fellow patients to take a moment and think about who they will feel comfortable with at their bedside in a hospital room when they’re flaring or facing surgery. If it’s not your current doctor, it’s time to look elsewhere. Tessa breaks down the “qualifications” for getting a care team in place. From finding a doctor who explains why they’re doing what they’re doing and why to a doctor who looks at you as a human, not an opportunity.
“Good doctors see their loved ones in their patients; they make choices for their patients that they would make for their own family. Asking a doctor, “Why did you choose this line of medicine?” will reveal a lot about what drives them and how they view their patients.”
The Grieving Process of Chronic Illness
Receiving a chronic illness diagnosis forces us each to go through the grieving process. For many of us, we were naïve and felt invincible before our health wasn’t a given. We’re so used to feeling as though we’re in control of our destiny, that when we lose that control, we spiral, understandably. Tessa interviewed Paul Chafetz, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Dallas. Dr. Chafetz is quoted in the book saying, “We go through life with an illusion of safety, guaranteed health, even immortality. Acquiring a chronic illness pierces that illusion, and this is a loss. Grieving this loss is an integral part of adjusting to the illness.”
Take a moment to stop and think how you coped those first few weeks and months after finding out you had a chronic illness. While acceptance takes time and comes in different stages, Tessa explains how flexibility and willingness to adapt to your new “normal” is even more important.
“Rather than searching for big, sweeping acceptance, then feeling like a failure when it doesn’t come, chronically ill folks can enact small, empowering steps, such as taking required medications, learning everything we can about how our diseases work, seeing doctors regularly and being prepared for appointments with a list of questions, advocating for our needs and wants, figuring out which foods makes us feel good, and going to therapy and/or connecting with a support group.”
In my own patient advocacy and experience living with Crohn’s I can attest to the fact that we all spend a lot of time wishing for our past and worry about what our futures will hold, rather than focusing on the right now. The majority of IBD patients are diagnosed prior to age 35. This leads most of us to experience the big milestones of adulthood (career, finding love, living on our own, family planning, etc.) with a disease in tow and wondering how that disease is going to complicate life or hold us back from accomplishing all we aspire to.
Bringing on the Biologics
Tessa calls herself an “infliximab veteran,” she spends a great deal of time talking with new patients and caretakers, mostly moms of young IBDers, about their fears. Most questions I receive through my blog and social media also revolve around biologics and the worries people have about side effects and whether the drug will fail them or be a success. I feel confident deeming myself an “adalimumab veteran”, as I’ve been giving myself Humira injections since 2008.
As patients we are faced with difficult decisions all the time and must look at the risk versus the benefit. Having health literacy and understanding your actual risk from a biologic is something that should be communicated with you from your physician. Tessa’s doctor explained to her that six in 10,000 people who take anti-TNF agents (Humira and Remicade) get lymphoma. But as patients, all we see on the internet and in the side effect notes are “lymphoma.” Force yourself to dig digger and remind yourself of your alternative—to not feel better.
The Truth Serum of Chronic Illness
One of the superpowers of chronic illness is that we get to see which family members and friends come to the forefront and which fade to the background. Not everyone is cut out to be a caregiver, but you’ll quickly see who has empathy and who genuinely cares. In my own personal experience, it’s helped me get out of relationships with guys who were no where to be seen while I lied in a hospital bed and allowed me to distance myself from friends who couldn’t find the time in their day to check in when they knew I was flaring.
Tessa says that chronic illness forced her to peel back the layers and the isolation wall she put up, too. Chronic illness has shown her that people do more than just hurt each other— “they nurture, they listen, they enrich one another’s lives.” Her IBD also empowered her to be brave enough to put an end to unhealthy relationships that weren’t benefiting her well-being, both with friends and love interests. Her Crohn’s has showed her that not every friendship is meant to support you in the same way.
This is a great piece of advice. As you live with a chronic illness, you’ll come to know which friends you can share your deep dark secrets and worries with, and which you give the high-level cliff notes version of your experience to. Your chronic illness will help you set those boundaries in a graceful way.
Her love story with her husband embodies what those of us with chronic illness deserve, a partner who sees us as more than our disease, but understands the severity and complexity at the same time.
Juggling a Career and Crohn’s
One of the biggest challenges of life with IBD is knowing how and when to disclose your health situation with your employer. You may wonder how the news will be received, if it will jeopardize your chance for promotion, if your coworkers will resent you…the list goes on and on. As someone who worked in the TV industry as a producer, news anchor and reporter for nearly a decade, and as a PR professional and corporate communications specialist, I’ve been lucky that all my bosses have been incredibly understanding of my struggles with Crohn’s, but never used them against me in any way. I’ve always waited until after I have received the job offer and then told my boss in a meeting the first week of work. This alleviated some of the stress on my shoulders and ensured my coworkers wouldn’t be blindsided when I had a flare that landed me in the hospital. By communicating openly, it also to set an expectation that I may not always feel up to par and that I may need more bathroom breaks or to work from home or come in late after doctor appointments.
Tessa so eloquently writes, “You want your boss to understand that while your disease affects your life, you’re still capable of doing your job. Deliver the necessary facts about your illness without bombarding your boss with information—keep it direct and simple. Be clear about how you manage the illness and that although you do your best to keep it under control, it can flare up. Tell your boss what you’ll do if and when that happens.”
Realizing the Power of Pain
One of my favorite analogies that Tessa shares in the book is that each of us carries an invisible bucket, some are heavier than others, and the weight of that said bucket is constantly in fluctuation. She says that as she started connecting with those in our community, she came to realize that her personal pain was no better or worse than anyone else’s. So often we weigh our struggles against those of others, and that’s not helpful to beneficial for anyone.
“Think about it: If a friend came to you in pain, would you tell them that other people have it worse and that their pain isn’t valid? If you did, you’d be a lousy friend—so why do you speak to yourself in such a way?”
Rather than thinking that ‘someone always has it worse’ ask for support when you need it. Don’t downplay your struggles out of guilt thinking you aren’t deserving of help. Give support when you can but don’t forget about the person you see looking back in the mirror, be loving, kind, and patient to them, too.
Leaving the Rest to Imagination
Some of my other favorite excerpts from the book are Tessa’s “Seven Secrets”. The secrets (both big and small) she keeps from loved ones and friends about her experience with IBD. The secrets are relatable. We don’t want to come off as a burden. We don’t want to scare those who mean something to us. We want to hold on tightly to the notion that our illness doesn’t define us, so we often don’t disclose the true reality of what encompasses our illness.
Another section I know you’ll love is “Thirty-Eight Experiences of Joy” where Tessa shares quotes from 38 different people with chronic illness and how they’ve discovered joy despite their illness. I’m honored to be featured in that section of the book.
She understands the power of community and how finding your tribe within your disease space and outside of it is an important aspect of disease management and life fulfillment.
“Connecting with other chronically ill people teaches you how to carry each other’s weight—when to lift when you have strength, and when to share the burden when you have no energy left,” writes Tessa. “I’ve found the chronic illness and disability community to be one of endless empathy and generosity.”
The Gratitude That Comes with Chronic Illness
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book and a perspective that I wholeheartedly share:
“At the beginning of my illness, I was so inwardly focused on what I’d lost that I couldn’t see the gifts illness had given me. Mom, a determined optimist, taught me to always look for the silver lining. Mine is this: Yeah, my body won’t allow for any bullshit—no jobs I hate, no relationships I’m not fulfilled by, no hours crying over wrinkles. Illness made me braver, kinder, and more empathetic, and that gives me way more radical power than the faux control I was clutching to for so long. In the most unexpected way, illness freed me. It compelled me to begin therapy, which kick-started the process of tending my wounds old and new. It made me focus on the present more than the anxiety of the future. And it made me be in my body in a way I never experienced before. Suddenly, I had to mindfully care for my body and brain as best I could and understand that beyond that, it’s out of my hands.”
When you live with chronic illness, you experience a wide range of emotions and personal experiences that shape you. Life can feel like an uncertain rollercoaster ride, you never know when the next twist or turn is going to happen. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, 21-year-old Parsa Iranmahboub, candidly shares the mental health burden that IBD brings upon a patient. Diagnosed with Crohn’s when he was only eight years old, Parsa shares the perspective of what it’s like to be a pediatric patient who has grown into adulthood. He’s currently a student at UCLA and the Education Chair for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s National Council of College Students.
Parsa explains the psychosocial component of life with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis by breaking it down to anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness. He recently spoke about this at the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress as well as on IBD Patient Insider and his powerful words resonated with me and I know they will with you, too. Here’s Parsa’s breakdown of the IBD patient experience:
Anxiety: Being a bathroom disease, there is often the anxiety of whether a patient has easy accessibility to a restroom when they are out. But there can also be anxiety related to a patient’s diet. When I was younger, I was placed on a low sodium diet due to one of my medications. If I wanted to eat out with family or friends, there would be this anxiety of whether I could even eat anything from the restaurant. There’s also the anxiety that stems from extra-intestinal manifestations. I have a history of developing fistulas. And during my sophomore year of college, my labs were not looking too good, I was flaring a little bit, and I began to worry if this meant I would develop another fistula. I began to wonder how I would deal with a fistula as a college student. How would another flare up affect my grades and my ability to get my work done? I lived in a communal style dorm, so how would a sitz bath even work? Essentially, with anxiety there can be this fear of the disease taking over my life and how can I constantly accommodate it.
Embarrassment: Embarrassment can arise in numerous forms. For one, there’s the poo taboo. But there can also be embarrassment from when you are flaring. From when you are losing weight, when you no longer look healthy, when you now look “sick.” There are the side effects from medications. From when you begin to gain weight, develop acne, and now have that dreaded moon face. Let’s not forget the impact of extra-intestinal manifestations. In 6th grade, I had surgery for a perianal fistula. After the surgery, I had to wear tighty whities with a maxi pad to help absorb the pus. It would be an understatement to describe how much I began to despise physical education. Not because I had to exercise and run around. No, I was always too active of a kid to hate PE. But because we had to change into our uniforms during the beginning of class. And I was embarrassed to be in the locker room. I was embarrassed that everyone else would look cool with their boxers, but here I was with my tighty whities and a maxi pad. And it might sound ridiculous, almost like a scene taken from the “Diary of the Wimpy Kid”, but to my sixth-grade self, looking cool and being like everyone else mattered.
Guilt: There is often the guilt of feeling like a burden for others. That others have to not only be flexible with you but that they need to make accommodations because of you. “Oh, you all want to go hiking, well I can’t because there’s no accessible bathroom.” “Oh, you all want to eat at this place, actually can we go somewhere else where I can better tolerate the food?” There can even be instances where you feel guilt for believing that you no longer are a good friend. That since you have to refuse to hang out with friends because of fatigue or pain, your friends probably think you simply don’t enjoy hanging out with them. But there can also be guilt from a non-compliant label. When I was younger, I would receive weekly injections. Soon, I began to throw up after every injection. My doctor switched me to the pill version, but it would still make me feel incredibly nauseous. So much so, that I would refuse to touch the pills. Instead, I would take the pill container, open the lid, slowly pour the pills into the lid, pour too many, attempt to pour the extra pills from the lid back to the container, and once again pour too many pills back. It was a whole process. But I simply refused to touch the pills.
Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise that eventually I became non-compliant. Consequently, I switched medications and soon developed acute pancreatitis. At the onset of my symptoms, I was out of the house and had to call my dad to pick me up because I was continuing to throw up blood. And in the car, I told him “Dad, I think I’m going to die.” Thankfully, it was an over exaggeration. But at that moment, it wasn’t.
Now that I reflect on the moment, not only do I feel guilty for putting myself through that situation, but for also putting my family through that. I can’t imagine being a father and hearing your son tell you those words. And all of this happened because I couldn’t get myself to take those stupid pills. So, not only was I labeled as a non-compliant patient, a patient who was too immature to take his medications, but I was now also a patient who had “hurt” his family.
Loneliness: IBD is an invisible disease. You might look at a person and not realize they are living with a chronic illness. The invisibility is both the disease’s blessing and curse. There have been so many instances where I’ve been happy to have the ability to put on a mask and pretend that everything is okay. That my friends and peers do not have to associate me with a “disease,” a connotation that I despise so much that I often introduce my chronic illness as Crohn’s and not Crohn’s disease. However, because of the invisibility, the disease can feel extremely isolating. You might not know anyone else who can relate to your experiences/feelings. In fact, despite being diagnosed at a young age, for almost a decade I refused to share my story with friends and those close to me. It wasn’t until I met an IBD patient for the first time who was my age that I began to realize the importance of a shared community.
Dr. Tiffany Taft , PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, spoke alongside Parsa during that Crohn’s and Colitis panel about Mental Health as it relates to IBD. As a Crohn’s patient of 19 years herself, she offers a unique perspective for her patients. I asked her when an IBD patient expresses these feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness how she helps people deal with the struggles.
“The first thing I do is simply listen and reflect to the person my understanding without advice or judgement. It’s important to let someone tell their story before interjecting with any sort of interpretation or the like. Then, I start with some education about how our thoughts affect how we feel and how we behave. And that these thoughts are often on autopilot or may feel like they’re on an infinite loop and impossible to turn off,” explained Dr. Taft. “My goal is to help the patient understand their thinking and learn to slow it down and take a step back from their thoughts to be able to evaluate them, and maybe either change them or not let them have as much power.”
She went on to say that from there her and her patients tie their thoughts into other symptoms like anxiety, shame, or guilt, to see patterns and opportunities for change.
“It’s not an easy process, but most people can succeed. Loneliness has been harder during the pandemic. Social distancing has created a lot of isolation without an easy solution. I encourage staying connected via video chat, texting, and social media (so long as it’s not stressful!) People say that online interactions aren’t as fulfilling, and that’s probably true. But if I shift my thoughts from this negative lens to a more positive perspective, then it can help offset some of that loneliness until we can all be together again.”
The Decision to Open Up
It takes time and patience for many of us to come to terms with our diagnosis and decide how we want to present our experience to the world. For both Parsa and me, it took us a decade to take off our proverbial masks and share our reality with those around us. Parsa says he decided to share his patient journey at the end of freshman year of college after he joined a research lab at the UCLA Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. He met someone for the first time who was his age and had IBD.
“When I was talking with her, this sort of light bulb just sparked. I realized I could connect with this person in a way I couldn’t have connected with anyone else before. She truly understood the challenges I was facing or had faced. Not from a scientific or “oh, I see” perspective, but from a “oh, I know cause you’re not alone” perspective. This connection was essentially my first exposure to the IBD community, and slowly, I began to become more involved in the community.”
The Power of Connecting with the IBD Community
Parsa went from forming his first spin4 team to joining the National Council of College Leaders to becoming more involved with his local chapter in California. He then started a local support network for college students on the UCLA campus. His advice for patients and caregivers—find a support network within the IBD community.
Foundation of National Council of College Leaders (NCCL)—this group of college students from across the United States volunteers with the Foundation to provide a distinct voice for young adults with IBD. Members also connect on how IBD affects them as students, athletes, and partners in a relationship, the intersectionality that stems from a patient’s identity, and tips for having an ostomy bag, reducing stress through coping mechanisms, and applying for accommodations at school.
Parsa also co-founded IBDetermined at UCLA, a student organization geared towards providing a support network and advocacy-centered space for UCLA students with IBD.
“Even though there are some amazing national and local support groups, we noticed that there was a gap for local resources that focused specifically on the intersection between being a college student and an IBD patient. Hence, we wanted to create that more local space, where individuals could address their specific questions/concerns/thoughts relating to being an IBD college student at UCLA. It’s a space where our members can learn about accommodations that are available through our university’s Center for Accessible Education, can exchange tips and advice for navigating schoolwork and college life with IBD, can express their frustrations about the disease or the lack of university resources, and can share where the best and cleanest bathrooms are located on campus.”
Parsa says growing up with Crohn’s made him responsible at a young age. He learned about resilience. He learned to embrace the obstacles he has hurdled and to keep on pushing through even when he couldn’t immediately see the light at the end of the tunnel. Parsa says he learned to appreciate the time he felt healthy enough to live life not controlled by a chronic illness. Through the years he’s realized you can still be fortunate through a misfortune. This belief has given him a strong appreciation to make the most of the opportunities that come his way and refuse to take the easy way out.
Well, the cat’s out of the bag. I’m 14 weeks pregnant (tomorrow) with a baby BOY! We will be family of five in mid-July. Since as long as I’ve remembered, I’ve envisioned my life with three children, I just never thought it would happen in the middle of a pandemic! Bobby and I feel extremely fortunate with all the outpouring of love, support, and congratulations during this exciting time for our family. As an IBD mom, I feel constant gratitude that my remission has held strong these 5-plus years and enabled me to have healthy, uneventful pregnancies. So far, out of all four of my pregnancies (miscarried between Reid and Sophia), this one has been my “easiest”. Aside from too many migraines to count, the nausea and fatigue in the first trimester were minimal and I feel great most days.
While I plan to be transparent and share content over the next six months about my experience being a high-risk pregnancy during these crazy pandemic times, I also want you to know I’m cognizant of the fact that pregnancy announcements, and pictures of baby bumps can be a trigger for our community. I am empathetic to the fact that family planning can look differently for those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Because of this—I’m excited to announce I’ll be launching a special series on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s entitled “IBD Motherhood Unplugged”.
IBD Motherhood Unplugged topics will include (but are not limited to):
The decision not to have children due to IBD
Being told you can’t carry a child and coping with that loss
IBD pregnancy after loss
Single parenting with IBD
Biologics and pregnancy/breastfeeding
The list goes on…
If you want to share your experience of navigating family planning or motherhood with IBD, please reach out. I already have several women lined up, ready and willing to share their personal journeys. I’m anxious to share their brave and resilient words with you.
My advocacy focus has always been to be the voice I so desperately needed to hear upon diagnosis and through all of life’s milestones. I want you to feel seen. I want you to feel heard. I also want you to remain hopeful that pregnancy and motherhood is possible for most women with IBD, we all just get there in different ways.