IBD Motherhood Unplugged: Thriving with Crohn’s on and off the field

She’s an IBD mom who plays touch football and touch rugby in Australia (think rugby—for those in the United States, in touch rugby she kicks the ball). Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease five years ago, she’s thrilled to have reached remission. Bec Simson is a 33-year-old IBD warrior adamant about not letting anything stop her from pursuing what she hopes to achieve. Even though her disease has sidelined her through the years, motherhood and staying active through sports is a reminder of all she’s capable of.

“Some weeks it can be hard to find the time and energy to exercise. I play touch football competitively and socially– it’s like rugby but without the tackling. I play three times a week and then on the weekends I like to do my own fitness to keep up my strength, speed, and agility. I enjoy playing touch football because I use it to catch up with my friends – seeing my mates gives me the motivation to get up off the couch and exercise.”

Getting up off the couch and having not only the motivation to move, but also the energy, can be especially challenging when you live with IBD. Bec’s biggest challenge is trying to juggle work as a teacher, her athletic commitments, and life with her son Jackson, while also trying to find time to rest in between.

Being on immune suppressants and having a toddler who is almost 2.5 has been hard because he brings home many illnesses from daycare which I usually end up getting as well. Some days I am so rundown I just don’t have the energy to keep up with him, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Jackson always knows how to make me smile.”

Reflecting on pregnancy with Crohn’s

Bec had a rough go of it with her pregnancy. Her Crohn’s flared multiple times throughout, resulting in three visits to the hospital due to severe vomiting and diarrhea. She was put on a course of steroids for each flare, which led to her son growing much faster and bigger than expected.

“Ultimately, I had to be induced two weeks early due to Jackson’s size. After 16 hours of labor, I had an emergency c-section. My incision from my c-section ended up bursting open while I was recovering in the hospital after delivery. An ultrasound showed my bowel was so inflamed, it had pushed through my internal stiches and formed a hernia that was sticking out of my stomach. I was rushed to emergency surgery that same day.”

Fast forward to present day and Bec is in remission. Her colonoscopy last month showed no signs of inflammation or ulcers. She credits this to Stelara (Ustekinumab), which she started this past October. So far, the biologic has helped control her disease and improve her quality of life.

Down the road, if she’s still in remission, Bec is hopeful she’ll be able to have another child.

The benefit of a supportive partner 

Bec is grateful for her supportive partner, Nick, who happens to play in the AFL (Australian Football). Not only is he empathetic about her battle with Crohn’s, but serves as someone who keeps her accountable with her workouts and is also passionate about staying in shape.

“We motivate one another to complete work outs and then reward ourselves with food and drink later! When I was younger, I used to overdo my training and push my body to its limit. I became burnt out, rundown, sick, and injured. My main piece of advice for the IBD community is to listen to your body and don’t be afraid to stop and take a break. Rest is just as important as training.”

Managing IBD and competitive sports

Bec says her Crohn’s disease often makes her anxious while she’s on the field.

“I had our State of Origin for ‘Touch Rugby League’ which attracted quite an audience and it was also being live streamed for everyone to see. I was extremely anxious leading into that tournament because I was worried about pooping my pants in the middle of the game and it leaking through my bike pants! I took some Imodium before my game, so thankfully that didn’t happen! However, I felt like I couldn’t play to my potential because I wasn’t feeling my best.”

While she feels fortunate to be in remission, she’s also realistic. She knows the symptoms and flares could return at any moment—and that it’s not a matter of if, but when.

“Sometimes I can be hard on myself when it comes to sport, but I just try and remind myself that I’m a 33-year-old mum with a chronic illness and I am grateful I’m still able to run around the touch field at my age. I can’t change things out of my control, all I can do is just go out there and give it my best shot.”

Follow Bec’s journey on Instagram: becs_IBD_journey

The Patient Experience: What the IBD Community Says About Remicade

It was the first biologic created to treat Crohn’s disease (and later ulcerative colitis). Remicade (Infliximab) was approved by the FDA in 1998 for Crohn’s and 2005 for UC. The medication set the stage for a new way of treating and targeting IBD. A lot has changed in the last 23 years when it comes to treating IBD with biologics (Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Biologic Fact Sheet). As patients we’re “lucky” that more options are available, and several medications are on the horizon. But Remicade remains a tried-and-true treatment option for IBD patients.

A few weeks back, I shared an article on my blog entitled, “The Patient Experience: What The IBD Community Says About Entyvio.” The article featured viewpoints, experiences, and tips/tricks from several people with IBD who are currently taking Entyvio or have in the past. That article and this one have NO affiliation or guidance from pharma. This is strictly created from the IBD patient experience.

The discussion on Entyvio was well-received and from there, I decided to do an exposé if you will, about other biologics, too. When I was told I needed to start a biologic while lying in a hospital bed in 2008, my mind was racing. I felt like I had nowhere to turn. There were only two options at the time. I didn’t know what resource to trust or where to go for information. My hope is that these articles help comfort you as you make these important, lifechanging health decisions, and alleviate a bit of the fear associated with being on a biologic drug long-term. Use these candid quotes to serve as your roadmap to navigate the unknown.

Before we dig deep into Remicade from the patient and caregiver perspective—a reminder that much like the way IBD presents and manifests in each of us, each person’s experience with biologics is unique to them. Remember that your experience could be better and could be worse.

What does anti-TNF mean?

Each biologic is associated as a class of drug. Remicade is an anti-TNF, meaning that the medication blocks a protein in your immune system called TNF-alpha. That protein can cause inflammation in your body. People with IBD produce too much TNF-alpha, which can cause our immune systems to mistakenly attack cells in the GI tract. Anti-TNF biologics work to regulate this protein in our bodies.

The Patient Voice

In this article you’ll hear from those who just started Remicade in the last week to someone who has been receiving infusions for 21 years! Thanks to each and every person who offered input, I wasn’t able to feature everyone’s perspective, but your narrative helped guide this piece.

Amanda Rowe started Remicade nine months ago. She was hesitant to start a biologic, but ever since taking the plunge, she hasn’t looked back.

“I haven’t had any issues. I get pre-meds of Benadryl and Solumedrol because I got slightly itchy during one infusion. It’s a nice quiet time to sleep or I bring my phone and earbuds and watch a show. It’s 2 hours where I get a break from hearing, “Mom, I need…” I currently have no active disease after being in a bad flare for two years. I flared that long because I was afraid of starting a biologic. My GI explained everything to me and calmed my fears about possible side effects and I finally agreed. I just wish I would have started Remicade sooner, so I could have felt the way I do now.”

Phylicia Petit has Crohn’s and has been receiving Remicade infusions since she was a teenager 11 years ago, she’s grateful the biologic has worked well for her.

I’ve had a dosage increase and have added mesalamine for better inflammation control. Other than those changes, I’ve been relatively symptom-free, which is a major blessing! I would highly recommend having home health do your infusions. I haven’t had to take off work for my infusions and it’s so nice to be in the comfort of my home…especially with COVID! It’s also cheaper for insurance. I use Janssen Care Path for financial help. It helps to cover your infusion costs. I fortunately have never had any side effects.”

IBD is a family affair for Kara Cady. She has ulcerative colitis; her dad was diagnosed with Crohn’s as a teen and her little sister was recently diagnosed with UC. She just started Remicade last week.

“I’m still on the loading doses. The infusion process is long! It’s about 3 hours for me. I am able to get mine at my GI’s office. I can bring my laptop and work from there. I was super nervous for my initial dose, but my main “issues” are feeling tired, and having a headache and sore throat after. I’m looking forward to getting on my regular Remicade schedule, as I’ve been in flare for about 6 months.”

Laura Steiner is a nurse practitioner with ulcerative colitis who has depended on Remicade for over seven years.

“I have had to increase my dosage and shorten the interval but continue to stay in remission while on it. I’m usually wiped out the day of and the day after. I get my infusions on Fridays, so I have the weekend to recover. The only downside is many major insurance companies are forcing patients to switch to biosimilars, so after 62 doses of Remicade, my next infusion in June will be Inflectra. I’m hoping it will work equally as well.”

Laura is not alone in this fear and dealing with barriers to care and insurance coverage is a reality for many. While working on this article, a social worker from an insurance company reached out to me and said in the last week alone she’s dealt with several cases of people who have had their Remicade denied. She’s helping them through appeals. Until you’re a person who is dependent on a medication for improved quality of life, where timing is of the essence for receiving it, it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude and the pressure of not being able to receive your medication when you need it and risking a flare spiraling out of control or losing your remission.

Meg Bender-Stephanski was on Remicade to treat her Crohn’s for about a year and half. It worked well for her, but she says the infusions were not only inconvenient but costly, so she ended up switching biologics.

I was going to college in Oregon while my main insurance was based in California, and the out of pocket costs the first few infusions in Oregon were around $18,000. It ended up being cheaper for me to fly home every 8 weeks for an infusion than it was to receive it in Oregon! I also really wanted to study abroad, and it was incredibly difficult to figure out the logistics. Remicade did work well for me and sometimes I have regrets for switching off it for personal reasons.”

Advice for Infusion Days

Kelly Dwyer was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2018, but experienced symptoms for several years prior. She has great advice for gearing up for infusion day and beyond.

  • Take along a caregiver for your first infusion, if you can, just in case you have a reaction.
  • Make sure you make a plan for pre-meds or no pre-meds with your GI before you go to the infusion center, so you don’t get surprised by their policies. Kelly takes Zyrtec the night before, so she doesn’t get drowsy and Tylenol right before the infusion to alleviate the headaches she gets towards the end of an infusion.
  • The first few infusions should be slow infusions, to make sure you don’t have a reaction. Kelly has continued to receive hers at a slow rate (2-2.5 hours) because her blood pressure tends to bottom out when the Remicade is pushed to a higher rate. But for many, a higher rate works and helps the infusion go quicker.
  • Switch arms and spots for your IV. Kelly says she saves her “big veins” for times when the nurses need to do a blood draw before the infusion and have to use a larger gauge needle.
  • Hydrate well the morning of the infusion and bring along a heating pad, as it may help to wrap it around your arm if you’re dehydrated before the IV is started.
  • Openly communicate with your infusion nurses. Let them know if you feel weird or off in any way. Nurses have seen it all and can be very reassuring and helpful, but you need to give them feedback so they can help you and act right away if you’re starting to feel poorly.
  • Your reaction one day may be different the next. Kelly says she doesn’t have consistent reactions each time, so it’s important to be vigilant and always be prepared to expect the unexpected.
  • For Kelly, she doesn’t start to feel the effects of Remicade for a few hours after the infusion. She gradually starts to feel more and more grumpy and tired. She gets a very particular kind of fatigue the day of her infusion. She says it’s a very numbing, all-encompassing, tiring feeling.
  • Be aware of what dosage you’ve been prescribed. Understand there are several variables that your GI can change if the Remicade isn’t working immediately or enough. The interval time between infusions can be shortened, and/or the concentration of the medication can be increased.
  • Remicade is often given with other immunomodulators, like Methotrexate. Talk with your GI about scheduling and timing for the infusions with your other medications.
  • If you’re just getting started on a biologic, your GI will likely tell you to get vaccinated for Shingles and Pneumonia before starting. You’ll also need to do an annual TB test.

Kelly also advises patients to be aware of insurance companies in the United States. Like we touched on at the start of this article, she says many are requiring people to switch from the brand name Remicade to a biosimilar of Infliximab.

“I’m making the switch over at my next infusion in July and my GI and I agreed that we felt confident on the data out of Europe about the efficacy of biosimilars. I recommend everyone with IBD to do their own research and have this conversation with your GI. Be proactive and prepared to discuss options when the time comes with your insurance company.”

Balancing the Logistics of Infusions and Work/Life

Megan Alloway has counted on Remicade to keep her Crohn’s under control for 21 years. She prefers to get her infusions on Friday so she can use the weekends to recoup because it makes her so exhausted.

“While Remicade has been a blessing to me for over two decades, it feels like every time I turn around, it’s time for another infusion.”

An OBGYN with Crohn’s who wished to remain anonymous, has been on Remicade since she was 18. She’s now 35 and still receives her infusions every six weeks. She credits Remicade for giving her a full quality of life and enabling her to stay out of the hospital.

“Since starting Remicade, I have been able to finish college, med school, and residency with my symptoms under control. I’ve stayed out the hospital ever since I started Remicade. My main complaint is how long the infusions take. Different infusion centers have different protocols and requirements, but usually mine take over two hours. It’s annoying to find that kind of time on a weekday and be able to take care of my own patients, but I have to do it for my health.”

Heather Richter agrees the time an infusion takes can be inconvenient, but she’s learned to make the most of the “me” time as an IBD mom with Crohn’s disease.

I’ve learned to embrace the “alone” time. Be persistent at your infusions and if something seems off to you, speak up and make sure you feel like you’re being listened to. My infusion nurse gives me Benadryl and Tylenol beforehand, so if I have the kids taken care of, I find it helpful to nap and rest afterwards.”

Kristi Reppel has been taking on Crohn’s for 18 years. She received Remicade from December 2005 until August 2011. She switched biologics for a lifestyle change and started Cimzia in September 2016. She ended up back on Remicade in December 2016. She currently received 7.5 mg/k every 4 weeks instead of the typical 6-8 weeks.

This biologic works for me. It gets me in remission and keeps me there. I am a lot less symptomatic, thanks to my medicine. The bad part of all this is my veins are scarring over because I only have a few good ones and those are almost gone. The post infusion exhaustion and headache can also be a lot. As an attorney, finding the time to sit through an infusion and schedule it around court room hearings can be rough. I cannot recommend enough about the importance of hydrating with water that has electrolytes like Smart Water around infusion day. It’s made a big difference for me!”

Linde Joy Parcels says Remicade allowed her to reach remission in high school. She had swollen and painful joints, and after starting the biologic, she experienced a complete transformation.

“Unfortunately, I metabolized Remicade too quickly and had to transition to Humira after one year. I loved getting to take a day off school while on Remicade and spent my infusions relaxing with my mom watching soap operas. That was the silver lining for me!”

The Caregiver Perspective—from a wife to moms of pediatric patients

Remicade has been a lifesaver for Rebecca Kaplan’s husband. Before starting a biologic, she says his Crohn’s was not well-controlled. He was on one medication, going to the bathroom 25-30 times a day. By the time her husband started Remicade, the damage had already been done and was irreversible, so they didn’t see the true impact of the biologic until after he had bowel resection surgery.

He’s been on Remicade for 11 years this summer and in that time, he’s been able to graduate with a master’s degree, work full time, work out, play softball, and attend family functions. He’s also put on close to 45 pounds and gone from malnourished and underweight to thriving.

“Remicade isn’t picture perfect – the few days after his infusion I like to say he becomes a toddler who can’t control their emotions. He’s extremely irritable and says it feels like his brain is on fire. He gets sinus infections more often than before (and apparently that’s not uncommon when you are on a biologic), and he still has some symptoms from time to time. But his last colonoscopy showed that he is in deep remission, and I know that he wouldn’t have achieved that without being on Remicade.”

Rebecca waiting in the car (thanks to COVID) while her husband receives his Remicade infusion.

Alexia Anastasia’s 11-year-old daughter started Remicade in February. The list of side effects and hearing a horror story from a friend who “had a friend who had a stroke” made her a nervous wreck. Ultimately, she looked at the research and the long history of pediatric use of Remicade and felt she was making the right decision alongside her daughter’s GI.

“It’s been a game changer. We learned quickly my daughter needs it every 4 weeks after trying to go for 6 weeks. I’m so grateful it seems to be working. Her fecal calprotectin is almost normal from originally being 3,460. Her inflammatory markers are back to normal. I just hope it keeps working and the side effects remain minimal. It’s been a challenging 5 months with this new diagnosis. Now that I can reflect, I’m grateful my daughter’s GI pushed for us to start a biologic immediately. My daughter was withering away before my eyes and now she is back on track.”

Beth Otto-Stapleton’s daughter Penny started on Remicade when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in January 2017 at age four. She was given two infusions a few days apart while hospitalized during her first flare. Unfortunately, that is when Penny suffered heart damage and was diagnosed with heart failure because of the Remicade.

“She now does Vedolizumab infusions instead because it is a different class of biologic. We are thankful as a pediatric patient, Penny can go to a Children’s Hospital for treatments…it keeps the hard parts of the disease there and keeps our home a safe/comfy space. The great part about the infusions is that we also get blood work done and get instant feedback. I always ask the infusion nurse to give her an extra bag of fluids so she’s well hydrated.”

Dermatological Side Effects

While talking with patients about their Remicade experience, skin issues came up in a few conversations. 

Remicade was the first biologic Dana Drengler tried. She says it worked the best and the longest for her. She was in full remission and lived a normal life while on it. Unfortunately, after about 3 years in, she started to develop red spots on her lower legs. They looked like broken blood vessels at first, but then started to spread and get larger, eventually turning into deep and painful ulcers.

“The ulcers covered my lower legs and became super painful, to the point where I couldn’t walk some days. It stumped my doctors, and they only thing they could think of was that it was a reaction to Remicade. They had me stop taking it and within a few months, my legs started to heal. I still have scars 5 years later!”

Mia Frakes has been using Remicade to control her Crohn’s inflammation since 2017, overall, she feels the medication does the trick, but she has what she calls the “oddest side effect”.

“I’ve been dealing with extremely red, dry, and flaky skin in strange areas like behind my ears and my belly button. My GI says she has seen this dry skin in other patients, too. I have to go to the dermatologist, and they give me topical medication to put on the dry areas, which seems to help.”

Madelynn Jessberger was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2008, she’s been on Remicade the last three years. She was receiving infusions prior to getting her colon removed and was put back on the biologic after. Aside from some aches and tiredness after infusions, she also developed a rash.

“I developed psoriasis all over my body and my GI is unsure if it’s a side effect, a separate autoimmune disease, or an extra intestinal manifestation of Crohn’s. I manage the rash with thick creams and topical medicine from my dermatologist. Everyone is different, this is just my experience.”

Pregnancy + Motherhood and Remicade

Alyssa Leggett started Remicade in August 2018. At first, she was getting infusions every 8 weeks. Then, in 2019, two weeks before an infusion she started feeling fatigued and was dealing with urgency, pain, and diarrhea. Because of those symptoms, her infusions were moved to every 6 weeks.

After I gave birth, my doctor wanted to switch me to the rapid rate infusion. I’ve been doing those since November 2020. They’re about an hour shorter and I don’t have any side effects from them. I feel like I can have a more stable life. I still get symptoms from time to time, but I attribute that to the food I eat. Thanks to Remicade, I reached remission and had a healthy, full-term pregnancy.”

Allie Heiman is grateful for how Remicade has helped prepare her body for motherhood.

I haven’t had any side effects from Remicade and have found the infusion to be easiest in my hand with only minor bruising the next day or two. I started in March 2020 and was cleared to start trying for pregnancy in December 2020. After 13 years of negative scope results and being told I was not healthy enough for pregnancy, I could not be more thrilled with the outcome. I am hopeful to be a mom in the future, and grateful that Remicade made that a possibility with Crohn’s.”

Tayler Jansen is an IBD mom of two. Remicade has been amazing! Remicade and Imuran have kept me in remission for the past 9 years and enabled me to have two healthy pregnancies.”

Shakila Almirantearena has identical 5-year-old twin girls. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s shortly after they were born and is currently in remission. Along with Remicade, she takes Methotrexate.

 “I take Tylenol and Claritin at the infusion center to prevent any rash, etc. I usually take the whole day off work and really allow my body to rest. I haven’t had any major side effects. I’m usually tired the next few days and sometimes get a headache the day after my infusion, but Tylenol helps alleviate any pain.”

Christine Renee has had Crohn’s for 20 years, she’s a mom of two teens and a teacher.

“Remicade was a game changer for me compared to the previous meds I was on. I eventually developed antibodies to it, and it wasn’t as effective. My tips for those getting started are to not be afraid. I was so nervous about starting a biologic, but after the way I was feeling and the tests that my doctor performed, I knew it was the right thing to do. I started Stelara a few days ago and I’m hoping for similar results.”

IBD Parenthood Project

IBD Moms

Mamas Facing Forward

Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and NeoNatal Outcomes (PIANO) Study

Remicade and Pregnancy (MotherToBaby)

Other Helpful Remicade “Hacks”

  • Bring a phone charger to your infusions.
  • Dress comfortably.
  • Hydrate well the day before, day of, and day after.
  • Remember your headphones or AirPods so you can drown out the noise and watch a movie or show. Noise canceling headphones for the win!
  • Pack games and books to pass the time or your laptop so you can work.
  • Have someone else drive you when possible, in case you are drowsy from the Benadryl.
  • Pack snacks and drinks. Many infusion centers will also have this available for you.
  • Have a sweater or blanket!
    • Lauren Hopkins has been on Remicade well over a decade and receives what’s considered a “double dose” every 5 weeks. She’s found her sweet spot and has been able to maintain remission. She says, “Refrigerated Remicade mixed with room temperature saline feels COLD pumping into your veins. It shouldn’t hurt, so if it does, say something to your nurse so they can fix your IV.”
  • Have the Infusion Nurse run saline before and after your infusion to help with headaches.
  • Be your own best advocate. Speak up to your care team if something feels off, if your symptoms are persisting, or if you’re dealing with side effects that make your life challenging.
  • Remember if a biologic fails—it’s not on you, you didn’t fail anything, the drug failed you.

Video: What to Expect at a Remicade infusion(Credit: Crohn’s and Colitis Young Adults Network)

Stuff That Works: Insights on Infliximab

59 marathons and counting: How this IBD warrior perseveres despite her disease

When you think of a marathon runner what words come to mind? Grit, resilience, drive, focus, strength…the list goes on. Michelle Ladonne, 34, of Massachusetts, isn’t your typical long-distance runner. Not only was she diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010, but she’s also managed to participate in 59 marathons in 35 states and 3 continents. Yeah. You read that correctly. Incredible, isn’t it?!

Like many of us, Michelle is the first person in her family to be diagnosed with IBD. When she was told she had Crohn’s, she frantically started Googling from her hospital bed. All she remembers hearing the doctor saying are “lifelong” and “no known cure”. She was certain she’d been handed a death sentence. Her life, at age 23, flashed before her eyes.

Going the distance

As time passed, Michelle learned how to listen to her body better. She says she’s become better at determining whether pain is a “routine Crohn’s symptom” or an acute issue that needs immediate medical attention. Finding the balance of when to push through and when to rest has enabled her to feel more in control of her life and her disease.

“I used to think that the ideal was to never let Crohn’s hold me back from reaching my dreams, or to not let Crohn’s become an excuse. But the reality is that I live with a chronic condition, and despite all the determination and effort in the world, sometimes Crohn’s wins, and I need to be ok with backing off, resting, and focusing on my health,” Michelle explains.

She admits—she doesn’t always listen to her body. She’s ran some races while in the middle of a flare or not long after a hospital discharge.

“I think with experience – both with running and managing Crohn’s symptoms – I’ve learned when I can push through the symptoms, or when I will make things worse if I don’t back off. I try to listen to my body and accept that sometimes not running is the safest and healthiest choice – whether that means skipping a training day, missing a race, or twice coming to that realization mid-race and walking off the course.”

A team effort between care team and patient

Michelle recalls her experience running in the 2018 Berlin Marathon while in the middle of a Crohn’s flare, about a month after being hospitalized. She says her GI was not overly excited about the idea of her traveling out of the country to run a full marathon.

“My abdominal pain wasn’t well controlled, and I was underweight after having been on a liquid diet for several weeks. But my GI knew how important it was to me and supported me. I started the race knowing that if I didn’t feel well, I could slow down or walk, and worst case, I would stop. I started at a conservative pace and focused on hydrating and tuning into how my body felt.  I remember seeing my friend cheering at mile 16, and I ran into her arms and exclaimed, “I am doing it!  I’m going to finish this!” 

Crossing that finish line felt like the biggest victory for Michelle. Right after finishing the race, she texted her GI doctor a photo wearing a medal and thanked him for his support. True to form, Michelle’s GI reminded her that beer is a clear liquid, and since she was in Germany, she should have one to celebrate! 

Persevering through Crohn’s and running

Michelle says having the mindset to persevere through life with Crohn’s and running marathons is similar. She says there’s an adage in marathon running, “when your legs can’t run anymore, run with your heart.”

“Miles 20-26.2 of a marathon bring some of the most brutal pain and physical exhaustion imaginable. At that point, you learn to trust that you are strong enough, tough enough, and brave enough to keep moving forward. You learn to push on when you feel like giving up, because forward is the only option,” says Michelle. 

During a recent 22-day hospitalization, she was in more pain than ever before. COVID visitor restrictions left her feeling lonely, anxious, and afraid. She had to draw upon that same reserve of mental strength as at mile 20 of the marathon. She was physically and mentally spent but knew that digging deep and pushing forward was the only option.

“Just like in running marathons, I had to trust in my experience; I had overcome other challenging situations when I wasn’t sure that I could, and this was just one more challenge that I would eventually overcome.”

Michelle’s advice for fellow IBD runners

  • Figure out how nutrition factors into your running – specifically what you eat and drink before you run. It can be different for everyone. Some of it is trial and error. If running a shorter distance, Michelle doesn’t eat 2-3 hours prior. For longer distances, fueling becomes more important, so she’ll eat something soft and “safe”, like white toast with peanut butter and honey.
  • Plan your route in advance and evaluate the bathroom options.  For longer runs, particularly if you are flaring, try to be strategic about running in locations with bathrooms. Think about local parks, gas stations or fast-food places (support those businesses after your run!).  In a pinch, construction porta-potties work, too. 
  • Don’t perseverate on the bad runs. You’ll have them – the days where everything hurts, you are exhausted, and it’s just a miserable kind of slog. Choose to celebrate the victory of having made it out the door. Know that just like Crohn’s, the bad days happen, but so do the really good ones, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile. 

Not allowing Crohn’s to keep her on the sidelines

Michelle is grateful she’s able to run, and do what she loves, despite her disease. She knows not everyone with IBD is able to be physically active. While Crohn’s has sidelined her at times, it’s never completely robbed her of her passion or changed her focus. On the difficult days, Crohn’s has made her even more appreciative of running and the gift that it is to her.

On the days when I don’t feel like running – it’s too cold, too hot, too rainy – I remind myself that I don’t “have” to run, but I “get” to run.  Not everyone is so lucky, and I don’t take that for granted. Having Crohn’s, it is easy for me to think of my body as somehow broken or defective. Running has helped me to appreciate that my body is capable of some amazing things.  Running has taught me to focus less on what my body looks like (the weight fluctuations of flares and steroids can be tough!) and more on what my body is capable of.”

Taking steps to control fatigue

Even though Michelle clearly has magnificent endurance and strength, it doesn’t mean she isn’t familiar with fatigue and that makes even the most basic daily tasks feel insurmountable. If she’s feeling that overwhelming sense of fatigue, she’ll skip a run or lay on the couch with a heating pad and watch Netflix like the rest of us. At the same time, she says it’s important to distinguish between physical fatigue and just not feeling motivated to go for a run. She tries not to let her Crohn’s become an easy out during the long Massachusetts winters, or in the pouring pain, or even after a long day of work.

She currently takes 6MP and is on Entyvio every six weeks to manage her IBD.

Running goals now and in the future

Since 2016, Michelle has been focused on running a marathon in each of the 50 states. COVID put a hold on that goal, but she hopes to get back to traveling soon so she can cross the finish lines in every state.

“During COVID, since I couldn’t travel, I started focusing on running every street in the towns south of Boston. So far, I’ve finished 11 towns and over 4,000 streets. I have enjoyed exploring so many interesting places close to home and seeing all the history in southeastern Massachusetts. I am toying with a goal of running all the streets in Boston – I think that may need to happen!”

Michelle has also been checking off all the Marathon Majors—New York, Chicago, Boston, and Berlin.

She underwent a hemicolectomy—the removal of a portion of her large and small intestines in March 2021 and was readmitted two weeks after surgery with blood clots in her abdomen. At that point, she was diagnosed with a clotting disorder, in addition to endometriosis in her bowel. After 22 days in the hospital, and six weeks off from running so she could heal, she’s started to slowly build her mileage back up as she regains her strength. Michelle ran a 5K a few weeks ago and is running a half marathon later this month. Her main goal—to run the London Marathon in October, and potentially a few other fall marathons. Once she finishes London—she’s planning a trip to Tokyo to complete the Majors.

Michelle enjoys sharing her patient journey—the ups and downs, the blood, sweat, and tears, and everything in between, in hopes her experiences might help others feel less alone and to know that anything is possible.  From weeks in the hospital to completing a 100-mile ultramarathon, she’s done it all, all while living with Crohn’s disease.

Connect with Michelle on Instagram: @run4life262

IBD Motherhood Unplugged: “I have IBD and so does my Mom”

In the spirit of Mother’s Day—today’s article celebrates mother and daughter duos with IBD. Rather than focusing on the hereditary factor of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, this story celebrates the camaraderie, bond, and connection created when a parent and child both share the same disease. While the chance of passing on IBD when one parent has Crohn’s and ulcerative is relatively low according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (between 5% and 20% of people with IBD have a first-degree relative, such as a parent, child, or sibling who has one of the disease), it happens. My hope is that if you dream of being a mom or a dad, you don’t rob yourself of going after that dream because of the fear of passing on your disease to offspring.

As a mom of two (soon to be three!), I am the only one with IBD in my entire extended family. But, I often worry and wonder if my Crohn’s will be passed on to my children. I know this is a common fear many in the community grapple with. Check out these thought-provoking and comforting firsthand accounts from 8 mother-daughter duos that show how families unite in their diagnosis and lift one another up.

Corri Gardner and her mom both have ulcerative colitis. Her mother’s father also had UC. Corri’s mom was diagnosed with IBD while she was pregnant with her. All she knows since being diagnosed herself is having her mom and grandpa to confide in through the ups and downs of the disease.

“My mom has always been there to validate my fears and feelings on such a deep level since she knows exactly what I’m going through. When I was diagnosed, she expressed how guilty she felt over and over again. I always assure her that I would much rather be on this earth, living with UC, than to not be here at all. If someone is hesitant about having children due to their IBD, I would urge them to not make life decisions based on fear.”

Camryn Asham and her mom both have Crohn’s. She says having a parent with IBD helped her feel less lonely and more understood when she was diagnosed. Like anyone with a chronic illness she’s gone through a range of emotions on her patient journey—everything from anger to grief.

“I’ve had the “why me” feeling, but deep down I know it’s not my mom’s fault and there is no one to blame. I know my mom has felt guilty watching me go through traumatic moments and all the ups and downs. I’ve been able to witness my mom get through the highs and lows of IBD, and that reassures me I can get through any flare up or procedure, too. I know I can always count on my mom for help and support when I don’t feel heard or understood.”

Rachel Martin and her mom both have Crohn’s disease. Her mom was diagnosed at age 14, she found out she had the same disease when she was 22. While the diagnosis was devastating for both, Rachel says she finds comfort in knowing that she has someone close to her who can relate.

“I do feel as though my mom feels guilty for passing Crohn’s. I have a twin sister who does not have Crohn’s and it has been hard seeing her live her life without going through everything that I have gone through. Never in my life would I wish this upon anyone, especially my sister, however I wish that I never had to go through this. I never exactly blamed my mom, but I have spent a lot of time wishing I “lucked out” like my sister did. I know that my mom feels bad that I have had a really hard time coping and accepting that I also have a chronic disease.”

Diagnosed prior to a parent

Mary Catherine Kirchgraber was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 10 in 2000. Her mom was diagnosed during a routine colonoscopy when she was 50-year-old in 2013. Since her mom served as her caregiver and advocate since she was a pediatric patient, it’s made for a unique journey and perspective. They both seek medical care through the same GI practice and have been on the same medications. Mary says it’s nice to have someone to commiserate with about frustrations with insurance, feeling poorly, side effects, and more.

“My mom is the toughest person I know and never complains, so she inspires me in a million different ways. I wish she didn’t have to struggle the way I have, but it’s nice to have someone to lean on and ask questions to. My mom has always been my advocate and greatest support. She fought for accommodations at school, taken me to Mayo Clinic, dealt with insurance, and taken me to every doctor appointment and specialist I’ve ever needed. She created binders of medical records for me and often reminds me of my own health history when I don’t remember things from when I was a kid. I am so lucky to have her on my team.”

Sharan Kaur was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2002, her mom found out she had ulcerative colitis in 2017. She says prior to her mom’s diagnosis she felt alone dealing with the day to day struggles of IBD. Sharan says because of her knowledge and experience living with IBD, when her mom began to experience symptoms, she was able to push for their general practitioner to take action immediately and reach a diagnosis. She is grateful to have another family member who can grasp the severity of the disease and who understands how easy it is to go from feeling perfectly fine one day, to barely managing to get out of bed the next.

“I think we find strength in one another. For years, my mom supported me through my worst days and although she didn’t completely understand how things were before her diagnosis, the support was always there. Finding out she had UC broke my heart because she’s always been so active, truly a supermom. I realized then that this would have to change for her as she would probably go onto face the same daily struggles that I do with fatigue. As an adult I’m sure this change in lifestyle is much harder to accept than it was for me.”

Mary McCarthy was also diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 12 in 1995, her mom didn’t discover she had Crohn’s until 2015 when she was 62 (and her dad has UC!). IBD was foreign to the McCarthy family when Mary was diagnosed though. She says her mom had a difficult time coping with having a child with a chronic illness. Even though her mom was well-versed on IBD by the time of her own diagnosis, hearing the news was still difficult for her.

“We deal with it mostly through empathy and humor. Being able to talk openly about the emotional and physical aspects of the disease helps. My parents and I joke about how we are colonoscopy experts and have seen every gastroenterologist in the city of Chicago. My mom knows exactly what I need before colonoscopies, which is often to get some alone time and get in the zone. We laugh about it now. “Mom, I love you, but I gotta get in zone. You can wait in the waiting room now.” My mom has been there for ALL important moments in my IBD journey. We sometimes reminisce about the complete chaos we went through when I was 12. We may have IBD, but we know life must go on.”

Michelle Schienle and her mom were both diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2015, she was 23 her mom was 52. Michelle’s diagnosis was the catalyst for her mom to seek additional treatment from a new gastroenterologist. As we all know it can be challenging to articulate IBD symptoms to those who haven’t experienced them. Michelle knows she can always count on her mom no matter what she’s going through. Even though she doesn’t blame her mom for passing on IBD to her, she did get frustrated that she didn’t recognize the suffering earlier as a child because that was her mom’s “normal”, too.

“Since she was living her life that way, she thought my problems were “normal”, so I had to wait until I was old enough to advocate for myself to get the answers I needed. I wish she wouldn’t feel guilty for passing it on to me, because it’s not her fault. Seeing my mom push through gives me strength. I’ve seen firsthand how she’s successfully raised a family, had a great career, and traveled the world (all things I aspire to do!) and done it with IBD. It’s a relief not to have to explain the pain and worry in detail because we just know what the other is going through. As unfortunate as it is that we both are going through this, having my mom understand what I am feeling both physically and emotionally helps to validate it. If my children are to ever get IBD, I am now confident that I am in the best position to take care of them because I know what to watch out for and how to be proactive about treatment.”

History repeating itself

Both Ellen Jenkins and her mom were diagnosed with Crohn’s when they were 18 and freshman in college at the same school! Ellen says her mom still feels responsible for her being sick, even though she has never blamed her for IBD.

“Growing up and watching my mom live a normal life despite her IBD comforted me when I was diagnosed. I am so thankful to have someone who understands firsthand what I go through. Although no parent would choose to pass Crohn’s on to their child, IBD has made us closer. I have never been upset that I got it from my mom. Instead, I’m thankful to always have her as an advocate in my corner who truly understands the struggles.”

A heartfelt thank you

As an IBD mom, hearing these experiences and perspectives really puts my mind and heart at ease. As you can see, there’s a common thread throughout. Rather than blame their parent for passing on IBD, these young adults look to their parents as a pillar of strength, a source of understanding, and as partners in taking on their illness. Through the pain and suffering there is also gratitude, clarity, and unbelievable resilience. Just how you have grown and evolved as a person after your diagnosis and throughout your patient journey, your child will do the same.

Special thanks to everyone who made this story possible. Your words, your raw emotions, and your candidness are sure to help many and shed light on the incredible dynamic that is created when a parent and a child both battle IBD…no matter what age their diagnosis comes about.

Nori Health helps IBD patients re-gain control: How you can get free early access

This article is sponsored by Nori Health. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.

When Roeland Pater was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease nearly 20 years ago at age 19 there was a lot he didn’t realize and a lot he tried to ignore. He felt like he was on cruise control the first few years after surgery led him to remission. A few years later, his IBD took a turn and so did his perspective on his health.

“I started to realize that everything I did in life was impacting my disease. Suddenly, I couldn’t do whatever I wanted when I wanted. I became cautious of my actions and decisions. I tried to get a better grasp of how my IBD was impacting my life by receiving personalized care, but I was struggling trying to find a way to do that,” explained Roeland, Founder of Nori Health.

He noticed that during his medical treatment, he experienced a lack of support and education between hospital appointments, with little to no focus on quality of life or emphasis on how he was living day-to-day. Like many with IBD, this left Roeland feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and like there was no hope in controlling his condition.

The inspiration behind Nori Health

As a professional in the tech industry, this caused a proverbial light bulb to go off in Roeland’s head. He identified this massive gap in IBD care and decided to dedicate his life to solving the problem, with the goal of helping others. He recognized the need for a digital solution to help people like himself better manage and control their disease through daily behaviors. This is how the concept and mission for Nori Health was created. The company received an investment two years ago, which drove the concept into a real product and an app.

“Research shows that people living with a chronic inflammatory disease typically experience a 30% lower quality of life when compared to healthy individuals. Closing this gap is our mission. We believe this can be done by improving the understanding of the disease and its triggers through education and disease management. We aim to give patients in our program a sense of control over their disease management,” said Roeland.

How the Nori Health app works

The Nori Health app offers an 8-week program for IBD patients, guided by Nori, a digital coach. Through regular conversations (text-based—like WhatsApp) with Nori you receive personalized insights on factors that are proven to impact quality of life, and symptoms like pain and fatigue. These tips can be saved to your personal dashboard, and you can implement them into your daily routine, helping to keep your IBD under control.

“Most apps on the market are focused on a tracking model. This puts a lot of responsibility in the hands of the patient to monitor their daily activities and to discover patterns that might trigger symptoms. We changed this model around to best support the patients. Nori guides the patients through their health journey, with personalized, evidence-based factors. Nori provides the user with actionable tips that can be saved in the app, which can then be easily implemented into daily routines and lead to significant change,” said Roeland.

You can think of Nori as an artificial intelligence chat coach. You will work together to discover the lifestyle factors that impact how you feel and learn about simple changes you can make to gain more control of your disease. The end goal? To have less pain, more energy, and less strain on your mental health. Changes include everything from forming a new hydration routine, to talking to others about your condition, to reaching a point of acceptance of living with a chronic disease.

Main areas of focus include:

  • Stress
  • Hydration
  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Mental Health
  • Pain
  • Low Energy
  • Sleep

“We would like to emphasize the importance of finishing the 8-week program. Just like taking a full course of antibiotics, the true benefit from the app comes from completing the entire course of the program,” said Roeland.

The app is not currently open to the public, but I’m excited to offer 100 of my Lights, Camera, Crohn’s readers direct early access!

Getting started:

  • Download the Nori Health app for iPhone here and Android access here.
  • During registration use access code TEST212 for free access to the full program. 
  • As you are given free access to the app, you will be asked to provide feedback on your progress (this is in-app, and anonymous). The Nori Health team will reach out to you by email to collect feedback about your experience as well.

Hopes for the future 

Nori Health is deeply rooted in recognizing the power of community. The program was not only developed by an IBD patient but created thanks to the input of more than 600 patients in England, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and beyond. By participating in this initial launch, you can continue to provide valued feedback and guidance so that the team at Nori Health can make the appropriate tweaks and further understand unmet needs. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and has shown that patients can be supported throughout their patient journey—whether they are newly diagnosed or a veteran patient.

“We’ve seen an average of 34% improvement in daily management (diet, stress, and exercising on a daily basis) with people who completed the 8-week program,” said Roeland. “Half of the participants whose social lives were compromised due to symptoms, started to reconnect with friends and loved ones. These are the types of improvements and shifts we had aspired to see happen when we created the app.”

By working with patients like himself, Roeland says these valuable insights have changed Nori Health’s focus and influenced them to go much deeper into the factors that improve quality of life.

The Patient Experience: What the IBD Community says about Entyvio

Starting a biologic or switching to a new one after a drug fails you is a stark reality for many with IBD.  I personally have been on the same biologic since July 2008. Lucky for me, my body hasn’t built up antibodies and it’s served me well in managing and treating my Crohn’s disease. Recently, a woman with Crohn’s disease private messaged me on Instagram. She’s been on Humira (adalimumab) since 2006, but she’s no longer responding to it. Her gastroenterologist has advised she start Entyvio (vedolizumab).

Like anyone who deals with a drug failing them, she’s reached a level of comfort giving herself injections and knowing the ins and outs of the medication she receives. Now, 15 years later, she feels a bit like a fish out of water trying to navigate a new biologic and all the unknowns that come along with that transition, especially because she hopes to start a family in the next year.

After hearing from her and wanting to help, I went out on a limb and shared the following on my Instastory—to try and comfort her as she embarks on this new chapter in her treatment. “Hey IBD fam! Let me know if you’re on Entyvio and what your experience on it has been thus far. Looking to get info for someone who has been on Humira since 2006 and is making the switch after losing response to it. Appreciate your help and insight.”

The overwhelming response from the community

Several people wrote me directly about their experience with Entyvio—everything from tips and tricks to minimize side effects to how Entyvio has improved their quality of life or been detrimental to it. The response truly blew me away. We all know, IBD presents uniquely in each of us. So, one person’s experience with a biologic (or anything for that matter in treating Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis) must be taken with a grain of salt. At the same time, there’s a sense of camaraderie in connecting with those who use or have experienced your same therapy.

Since I’ve never been on Entyvio, I learned a lot in the process…and wanted to share my findings from these direct message discussions with you. Entyvio is known for its low side effect profile, as it specifically targets the gut. My hope is that this will help alleviate people’s concerns and help educate the community, should Entyvio be offered up as a possible treatment plan presently or in the future for you. (NOTE: I am writing this on my own accord—with NO affiliation or guidance to pharma). This is strictly created from IBD patient experience.

Infusion: Dosing schedule + timing

Generally, the recommended dosage is a 30-minute intravenous infusion, every 8 weeks. Depending on a patient’s response, this can shift to every 6 weeks or even every 4.

“Been on Entyvio since it was approved by the FDA. It has been very helpful since it targets the gut. I am on supplemental IBD meds, but I like that it’s a fast infusion and has given me my life back. It’s the longest I’ve ever been on a biologic, too.”

“It’s about an hour total to get the IV, wait for the med to be mixed, and have the infusion. I am noticeably tired the day of the infusion, but then bounce back quickly by day two. No other side effects at all. Entyvio has been a lifesaver for me!”

While some people saw improvement after the loading doses, Entyvio is known to react slower than other biologics. While most of us are used to biologics taking 2-3 months to work their magic, several people stated their GI warned them ahead of time that Entyvio could take 8 months to a year to be fully effective.

Side effects: The consensus among those who responded

Headaches/Dehydration/Fatigue

“I take Tylenol and Benadryl at every infusion because I found when I didn’t, I ended up with really bad headaches. I seem to feel better if I exercise for a little bit after my infusion, like walk 20 minutes or do 20 minutes on a bike. Real slow and easy. I often feel tired that day and maybe the next day, but after that I’m pretty much golden.”

“A lot of people get headaches after the infusion—they think from dehydration, so it’s helpful to ask for an extra bag of saline fluids during the infusion.”

“My friend and I both get tired after our Entyvio infusions. We both need a good nap after and then we feel fine. Hydrating the day before, during, and right after the infusion helps a ton.”

Hair Loss/Growth

“I lost a LOT of my hair while on this and had to take a large amount of prednisone for almost a year to get back on track because this medication. Please do research on this one! I did not do much and read a lot of people lost almost all their hair. Thankfully, mine grew back while I was pregnant. It was a big bummer! I’m on Stelara now and it works just as well as Humira did for me before my response to it also declined.”

“Been on Entyvio about 2.5 years and it’s the only drug to get me into remission! Was on infliximab (Remicade) before and became allergic and lost response. Minimal side effects with the Entyvio as well! If anything, I just noticed my hair doesn’t really grow the same.”

Navigating infusions and life

While the shorter infusion time is a plus, nothing beats the convenience of an at-home injection. At the same time, several patients shared the benefit of setting up an at-home infusion, so that’s something to look into versus going into a medical facility to receive your medication.

“I have ulcerative colitis and I’ve been on Entyvio for almost a year now. It’s the first biologic I’ve been on and it has helped a little, but it hasn’t been able to heal my rectum at all. I’m in a teen support group and one of the group leaders has had the same experience. After the starter doses, I was on every 8 weeks, but my drug levels were too low, so we switched to every 6 weeks and that didn’t do anything either. Since my symptoms were increasing, I was moved to every 4 weeks as of November. I honestly wish I were on Humira or another at home injectable only because I’m 18 and want to have a normal life that isn’t tied to needing to be home or to go the hospital every month, but it is what it is. The infusions don’t take long, but I do come home and sleep for the rest of the day. I started a pediatric clinical trial about a month ago since the Entyvio isn’t doing enough, but I still have to stay on the Entyvio.”

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

For guidance on pregnancy and breastfeeding in regards to Entyvio, you can find helpful information at the IBD Parenthood Project and through the PIANO registry study. You can also connect with IBD Moms and Mamas Facing Forward, social media communities comprised of women living your reality.

Prior to planning to conceive, it’s always a good idea to communicate your family planning goals and dreams with your care team. Let your GI and OB know that you’re hoping to get pregnant 6-plus months ahead of time, so they are clear on what your expectations are. That way, you can put your best care plan in place, especially as it comes to staying on top of managing your IBD while you bring a life into the world.

“It was the first biologic that actually showed healing on my colonoscopy. I was on Entyvio my whole pregnancy, and now I’m breastfeeding on it.”

“I have been on all biologics and have had the best response to Entyvio. It put me into a 3.5-year remission (my only remission ever) and allowed me to have my son. Unfortunately, it does not target perianal Crohn’s, so I have had issues over the last few years. After trying Stelara, I had to go back to Entyvio because it’s the only drug that treats my luminal Crohn’s. It really is an amazing drug. No side effects for me, and my immune system is stronger than it has ever been—on the other drugs, I caught a million colds and would get bronchitis and pneumonia several times a year. Since being on Entyvio, I think I’ve gotten a cold a year (maybe?!), it’s a dream!”

“I have been on Entyvio for about two years now and it has been lifechanging. In terms of my ulcerative colitis, it has been day and night, and it has even gotten me into remission! I do feel really tired after my infusion and a little bit into the next day, but since I only get them every 8 weeks, that is a side effect I am more than willing to take on! I was on Entyvio for my entire second pregnancy and that was a breeze compared to my first.”

Be a proactive patient

Like many biologics and prescription drugs, there is a patient savings program available that you’ll want to check out. Learn more about Entyvio Connect here.

Helpful Entyvio-Focused Facebook Communities

Several of the people who responded shared they’ve had positive experiences and found support in Facebook groups geared for those specifically on Entyvio. Check them out:

Entyvio Mommas

Entyvio Warriors

Thanks to everyone who went out of their way to share their experience and help a fellow IBD warrior in need. Having this type of intel is good as gold and extremely beneficial in empowering patients as they make drug and treatment choices.

IBD is Not Your Fault

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.

Here I am as a little girl. Long before being diagnosed at age 21. This little girl did nothing to deserve or cause Crohn’s disease.

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.

This is 21-year-old me. There were moments where I felt very sick while on this Spring Break trip my senior year of college in March 2005. I attributed the abdominal pain to traveling and eating different food in the Bahamas. Little did I know four short months later I’d receive my Crohn’s diagnosis.

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.

Participating in PIANO: Why I choose to be a part of research while pregnant and beyond

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:

  1. 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
  2. Whether the achievement of developmental milestones is affected by medication exposure
  3. Whether the rates of birth defects, adverse pregnancy outcomes and complications of labor and delivery are affected by IBD medications
  4. 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.

The mental health burden of IBD and coping through community and therapy

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.

Parsa with his parents.

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.

Register NOW: IBD Insider Patient Education Program (January 30)

Calling all IBD patients and caretakers, the IBD Insider Patient Education Program is this Saturday (January 30) at 11 am CT. The virtual symposium will include IBD clinicians along with patient moderators. I’m excited to share I am one of three patients who will be speaking and sharing my experience during the live event.

The discussion will include updates from the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress, and we’ll talk about the following topics:

  • Getting the most out of your healthcare visit
  • Future therapies in IBD
  • Holistic Approach to IBD Care
  • Management of IBD Care during the COVID-19 pandemic

I’ll be teaming up with Dr. Brigid Boland, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Diego to talk about the future treatment of IBD. As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s nearly 16 years ago, it’s been extremely comforting to see how many therapies have become available since 2005 and all that is on the horizon. Below is a chart that was shared during the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress that shows all the therapies currently in research and clinical trials. When I started my biologic in 2008, I had two options. With each year that passes, we get closer to a cure and get more and more options to manage our disease if our current therapies fail us.

“I love the idea of designing a program with patient advocates where we are communicating to patients and their families about the latest breakthroughs in research and patient care. There’s never enough time in visits to talk about all the research going on that will impact their care now and in the future.  Ultimately, all the research and future therapies that are being studied are ways to improve patients quality of life and provide a lot of hope for everyone affected by IBD (patients, caregivers and providers),” said Dr. Boland.

As people living with a disease for which there is no cure, it’s in our best interest to stay up to date on all the latest happenings and developments. IBD can feel like a beast of a disease to be up against day after day. When you participate in learning opportunities like this that are right at the touch of your fingertips you empower yourself as you make decisions and grow through your patient journey. It’s like the education saying, “The More You Know.” As you make decisions about how you manage your Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, as you take on flares from a hospital bed, as you navigate life milestones like career and family planning, having resources like this in your arsenal of knowledge will only help you advocate for yourself and collaborate with your care team.

It’s not too late to register! Click here to sign up and can’t wait to “see” you Saturday!