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!

Fears from the frontlines: How an ICU nurse with Crohn’s takes on COVID

She’s an ICU nurse who’s been braving COVID since the start of the pandemic and she has quite the story to tell. Abigail Norville, of St. Louis, is not only on the frontlines as a healthcare worker, but she also has Crohn’s disease and is immunocompromised from her medication. In mid-November, Abigail tested positive for COVID. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, she shares her unique journey through the pandemic and what she wants others to know.

Abigail’s IBD diagnosis story

Diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 16 in 2013, she remembers falling asleep in class everyday and experiencing abdominal pain that would keep her up at night. Teachers started giving her detentions for sleeping in class. After a few detentions, she started excusing herself from class so she could go into the bathroom, set a 10-minute alarm on her phone, and lay her head against the stall wall so she could rest and not get in trouble. Along with that, she dropped 32 pounds in one month.

At the start of her patient journey, Abigail was treated with steroids such as prednisone and budesonide, without a maintenance therapy in place. Before starting biologics, she was also put on Apriso, Lialda, Asacol, and Pentasa. When these medications didn’t cut it, she started Remicade treatments.

“The infliximab infusions greatly improved the disease presence in my intestines, but I was unfortunately experiencing new chronic joint pain, extreme fatigue, and skin rashes. At the time I assumed these were side effects from treatments. I told myself to “pick my poison” and I could keep my intestines or experience these unpleasant symptoms, so I of course continued with the infliximab infusions,” said Abigail.

Unfortunately, after a few years, a rheumatologist diagnosed her with drug induced lupus (infliximab induced lupus), and she was immediately taken off Remicade.

She started Entyvio in early 2020 while working in a COVID ICU and had to hold off the infusions due to the nature of the loading doses. Fast forward to today (Dec. 2020), and she has now finished her loading doses, in conjunction with prednisone and sulfasalazine daily.

Since diagnosis, Abigail has endured three surgeries and countless scopes.

Working in the ICU during COVID while taking on Crohn’s

Abigail currently works in a medical/pulmonary ICU and treats patients with multiple life-threatening comorbidities. Unfortunately for her, this is her first job. She’s a brand-new ICU nurse. While she could have thrown all her years of education and desire to be a nurse out the window to avoid the pandemic, she feels being a nurse is more than a job, it’s an obligation. Her GI told her she was his first patient to request a note to “continue to work” rather than asking for a note to stay home.

“When the pandemic started, many of us thought this would last a few months and we could return to the previous way of life by the end of the year. I remember having a conference call on a Sunday night with my manager stating we were the official COVID unit. I didn’t realize the depth of this pandemic until every nurse and physician stood in a circle one day and agreed that there was no emergency in a pandemic, and we were to always protect ourselves with PPE. Everybody around me was scared but… what were we to do? This was our job. We have bills to pay,” said Abigail.

Abigail recalls how her anxiety regarding her own immunocompromised conditions worsened as she witnessed her patients struggle with COVID and learned of nurses moving into hotels and dorm rooms to protect their families.

“My physician advised me to find a new job, but this was my first nursing job, and I did not want to burn a bridge early in my career. When we intubated my first COVID patient for her to be placed on a ventilator, she made me agree to call her daughter and repeatedly told me she was scared. When this patient did not make it and we continued to see death from COVID, I was worrying myself sick over my own health. The nurses around me were also scared, were quarantining from their families, and I felt out of place saying I needed to work elsewhere when they were also risking their lives.”

Ultimately, Abigail’s GI said she could hold off on receiving her loading doses of Entyvio, but that she would need to start steroids, again. She worked in the COVID unit, taking high dose steroids. Despite this, she was losing weight from the physical labor of working the COVID floor and the worry she felt about how her Crohn’s would act up if she ate while at work.

“I was working and not eating to ensure I did not have to leave a COVID room abruptly to be sick in the bathroom, when most patients were extremely unstable. Time did not permit you to think of your own health when your patient was dying. There were times I found myself in a COVID room for hours and would come out of the room sweating through my scrubs, wanting to pass out, and reminding myself I really needed to eat some food. My Crohn’s symptoms were worsening and my inability to care for myself was impacting the severity of these symptoms. I told myself I had to find a new job that allowed me to start my Entyvio treatments, even if I did not want to. If I do not care for myself, I cannot care for my patients.”

Abigail ended up switching jobs in June and started working at a different St. Louis hospital. Unfortunately, dodging the bullet of treating COVID patients was short-lived in the ICU and she inevitably was back to square one. At this point, she made the decision to start her Entyvio loading doses. She personally felt that no matter what unit she was working on, she was at risk working as a nurse.

Testing positive for COVID

Abigail tested positive for COVID in November. She wasn’t too surprised. Her symptoms pointed right to it. She was scared her chronic conditions would impact how severe her case would be and says she was anxious throughout her quarantine. She landed in the ER once, but luckily was ok and made a full recovery.

“The pain and suffering are real, whether you experience it or not. Watching people die with no loved ones present is happening every day. It’s on us to realize our lives are not the center of the universe. Just because you are not experiencing the effects of the virus, doesn’t mean it is not serious. I don’t know how to explain for people they should care for other people.”

How IBD shaped her career path

Abigail says she’s unsure if she would have ever become a nurse if she did not have IBD.

“My time as a patient has allowed me to understand what it is like to be the patient in a hospital bed, giving me a deep sense of empathy. While I have never found myself in the condition most of my critically ill patients are in, I remind myself that it could be me or a loved one in this hospital bed every day.”

Abigail told herself after her Crohn’s diagnosis that she may have Crohn’s disease, but it does not have her.

“There have been moments where I felt the disease definitely owned me, but ultimately reminding myself that this disease does not define who I am creates a sense of motivation to become who I want despite my health obstacles.”

As of now, Abigail has not received the COVID vaccine as a frontline ICU nurse in St. Louis. She’s anxious to get her first dose as the pandemic battle rages on.

Clinical Trials: How the IBD Community Can Drive Breakthrough Research

Clinical trials are the backbone of medical breakthroughs and the lifeblood for the future of treating diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. When I started on my biologic treatment in July 2008 to get my Crohn’s disease under control, there were only two treatment options on the market. Fast forward to 2020, and now there are 12 biologic treatment options for IBD. This is all thanks in part to clinical trials. This piece has been entered in the Patients Have Power Writing Contest run by Clara Health designed to raise awareness about the importance of clinical trials. I am passionate about educating others on this topic with the hopes of raising awareness about the power of breakthrough research.

It’s promising and hopeful to know that as we speak, according to ClinicalTrial.gov, there are thousands of clinical trials geared towards IBD research underway around the world! Despite the pandemic, recruitment and patient enrollment for clinical trials are still underway. While there may be 12 biologic treatment options on the market, there are still so many patients who build up antibodies to every drug they try and have nowhere to turn. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation finds one-third of patients do not respond to initial IBD treatments. It’s imperative more options become available for our community not only now, but in the future.

Talk it out with your care team

By communicating with your gastroenterologist, you can learn more about the options available and how to find a clinical trial that is tailored to you and fits your needs. By participating, you can help shape the treatment landscape for the future and have a hand in pioneering innovative therapies. Some patients may shy away from clinical trials, thinking they’d be a guinea pig, while others are desperate to improve their quality of life and weigh the benefits as being greater than the risks. It all comes down to the patient population being better informed of what it’s like to be a clinical trial participant and how safety is paramount.

Understanding the safety measures to protect clinical trial participants

Prior to a clinical trial starting, it’s important to understand there are a lot of hoops to jump through. When it gets to the point where patients like you and me participate, the research process on the new treatment has already been going on for more than a decade. According to Clara Health, first the treatment is tested in lab cells and animal studies. Then, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gets involved and must give its stamp of approval for a clinical trial to get underway.

Clinical trial participants can have peace of mind knowing they’ll receive top notch medical attention from start to finish and be observed for any potential safety concerns. Every single potential side effect is documented and shared by the study team so that all participants are aware of any new risks, benefits, or side effects that are discovered during the trial.

When you think of participating in a clinical trial it’s empowering to know you are not only possibly helping yourself, but the entire IBD community. The future of how our disease is managed and treated depends on patients like us to step up to the plate. New treatments and therapies are dependent on us. Treatments can’t be created without us. So often the “what if” looms over our heads as IBD patients, in a negative way. With clinical trials, the “what if” signifies endless possibilities, hope, change, and breakthroughs that could ultimately shift and inspire what the future of care looks like for not only us but future generations who will be up against the beast that is Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation has many resources dedicated to this topic that are sure to put your mind at ease.

To learn more about clinical trials head to Clara Health’s website.

The future of biologics and the changes coming down the pipe

This article was sponsored by SmartTab. All opinions and thoughts are my own.

The future of IBD care and treatment is constantly evolving and there’s a lot of hope on the horizon for the patient community. Think back to the moment your physician discussed starting a biologic for the first time and how daunting it was to imagine giving yourself an injection or getting an infusion for the rest of your life. It’s a heavy burden to bear for many reasons.

This is where SmartTab comes in. SmartTab is a digital medicine company focused on drug delivery and improving patient care, comfort, and compliance. Their main application, the InjectTab, would give people the option of using the current syringe or autoinjector used to give biologic medication or instead have a person swallow a capsule that would deliver the active ingredients to either the stomach or the small intestine. This initiative is making waves in a big way in both the patient, pharmaceutical, and technology industries. SmartTab was recently named a Tech Crunch Disrupt 2020 Top Pick.

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As someone who has been giving myself injections for over 12 years, this is music to my ears. My next question was what this means for those on infusions.

Robert Niichel, Founder and CEO of SmartTab, says, “We will start with the biologics deployed through a syringe and needle and then move to biologic infusions. Imagine if you take that infusion dose and instead take a smaller dose of the same medication as an ingestible capsule once a day. You now have reduced the amount of drug to a daily amount, side effects would go down because you’re not having to process this entire bolus and keep in mind that some of these drugs, no matter what it is, when you have an infusion, whether it’s to treat Crohn’s or receive chemotherapy, your body has to process that out through the liver or the kidneys. It’s stressful on the metabolism and the organs. Our goal, is that one day, regardless of whether it’s an infusion or an injectable, that you’ll take those drugs via an InjectTab capsule.”

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Keeping patients in mind every step of the way

SmartTab is determined to limit the anxiety associated with managing diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. The diagnosis and living with a chronic illness can be challenging to cope with, no matter how many years you’ve had it. It’s exciting to think what the future will hold for the IBD family.

“If physicians could go to people and say, we are going to start you on a biologic, you will take one capsule, every week, that’s a lot less of a burden than finding out you need to give yourself injections or spend hours with an IV getting an infusion. Your compliance goes up, patient outcomes, go up. At the end of the day, we’re trying to figure things out so people can lead better and more comfortable lives,” said Robert.

Getting InjectTab FDA-approved

SmartTab has the technology of the capsule finalized and they are starting a pre-clinical animal study next month. The InjectTab will inject an active ingredient into the side of the stomach.

“We will then do blood draws to collect the different levels of the active ingredients. Once that is complete, we will move on to human clinical trials and then onto FDA clearance, meaning approval of a device. Once we have that clearance, then we can combine our InjectTab with other active ingredients. Then we would seek out strategic partners to combine a prescription drug with our InjectTab. We would then do human studies.”

A lot of the heavy lifting for the actual technology has been completed, now it’s all about the clinical studies. Robert says the good news is that they’re not working on getting a new drug approved, since existing biologics will be used with the InjectTab technology.

“We believe that five years from now, if you take a biologic, you will no longer need to be doing a self-injection, there will be more options than syringes or needles to get your medication. You could just take a capsule. Whether it’s once a day or once a week, it will be as easy as taking your vitamins and moving on with your day.”

The cost benefits of a capsule vs. an injector

Right now, autoinjectors are typically hundreds of dollars. The InjectTab will range from $10-$50 a capsule, so right away there’s a significant cost reduction per use.

Robert says SmartTab is really counting on the insurance companies to look at this and say they’ll reimburse for the technology to deploy the drug because now patients are compliant and have reduced office visits and disease progression that can lead to hospital stays and surgeries.

SmartTab is currently in talks with several pharmaceutical companies, because that is the path to commercialization and making InjectTab a game changing reality for patients. Initially, the capsule technology will be available in the United States and then Europe. InjectTab will be geared towards the adult population first.

Life with IBD can be a tough pill to swallow, but the future possibilities surrounding InjectTab may prove otherwise. As someone who has given myself injections for more than a dozen years, this type of technology blows my mind in the best way. When my GI walked into my hospital room in July 2008 while I was battling an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine and he told me I had two options—Humira or Remicade, I was devastated. I didn’t want to give myself injections and I didn’t want to sit with an IV in my arm and feel sickly. It was a lot to process then and is still not always easy now. Hats off to companies like SmartTab innovating and changing the landscape for the future of IBD and beyond. As a patient, it means the world to me to see the tireless work going on behind the scenes that will change the future for those living with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other conditions.

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Interested in learning more about IBD innovations? Check out the virtual IBD Innovate: Product Development for Crohn’s and Colitis conference November 17-18. Register here.

Click here to learn more about Tech Crunch’s Top Picks for 2020.

Check out my podcast interview about living life powerfully with Crohn’s disease and the future of IBD treatment.

12 years on a biologic: What I’ve learned along the way

It’s been 12 years since I apprehensively went to my GI’s office with my mom, trembling in fear about the what ifs and worrying about the pain of the injection and how my body would respond. One dozen years ago I threw caution to the wind and knew I needed to take the leap. I trusted my physician. There was no other choice. I knew I needed more to control my Crohn’s. I realized my quality of life depended on it. My present life and my future deserved more. IMG-4785

I wish I could tell that frightened 24-year-old girl that a biologic would enable her to fulfill her dream of working full-time in television, that she would go years between hospitalizations, that she would meet the love of her life, travel out of the country, and have two healthy children…all while on a biologic.

This week—I share my 12 tips for navigating life on a biologic and what I wish I knew 12 years ago today.

  1. Needing medication is not a failure. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to “heal their gut” solely with food and that is ok. You are not less than because you need to be on a biologic. You are not giving up or taking the easy way out.
  2. Side effects are unique to each person. Just because one person responded beautifully to a biologic, doesn’t mean that you will. The same goes with horrible side effects. One person’s experience has nothing to do with yours. IBD is unique in each one of us. While some people get a “Humira hangover” and are in pain leading up to their injection, others like me, deal with no side effects whatsoever. Don’t base your experience off anyone but your own and remember to consider the benefit vs. the risk.
  3. Google is not your friend. Prior to starting a biologic or when you are on one, it does you no good to Google and read all the doomsday laundry lists of “what ifs” and horror stories. If you want to educate yourself and truly learn more, communicate with your physicians and connect with fellow IBD patients who understand your reality.
  4. The drug fails you; you don’t fail the drug. Time and time again, I see patients say… “I failed Remicade. I failed Stelara. I failed Entyvio. I failed Humira.” You did not fail anything. This is not a blame game and how your body responds to biologics is completely out of your hands. If a drug doesn’t help limit inflammation and control disease progression, it fails you and you move on to the next.
  5. Have a routine and be compliant. Life gets hectic and being on a biologic must become a part of your routine. It’s helpful to keep track on a calendar or to set up an alert on your phone. I’m old school and write R or L in my day planner…meaning “Right Leg” or “Left Leg”…you’d be surprised, you won’t remember which leg you last injected two weeks ago. I’ve done my Humira injections on Mondays since 2008. I’ve always liked that day of the week because it doesn’t interfere with the weekend and I get it out of the way. No one likes Mondays anyways. Biologics aren’t just something you skip or can forget like a daily multivitamin. For the drug to work you must be compliant and stay on schedule.
  6. You can get pregnant and breastfeed while on a biologic. The most common question I receive from women with IBD is “can I get pregnant on my biologic?” and “can I breastfeed?” …the answer to both of those is a resounding YES. To safely bring a baby into this world, the mama’s health must come first. You need to be a safe haven for your baby and keep your IBD well-managed. By going off your medication, you put yourself at much greater risk for flaring while pregnant and after you deliver. I was on Humira until 39 weeks with my son and 37 weeks with my daughter. To learn more about biologics and family planning check out the IBD Parenthood Project and IBD Moms. IMG_6037
  7. Communicate openly with your GI. Check trough levels every now and then, especially when you’re feeling symptomatic to see if your drug level is therapeutic, if your dose needs to be increased, or if you’ve built up antibodies and need to possibly start a different biologic.
  8. Think about your lifestyle if you’re having trouble deciding which biologic to try. Back when I started Humira in 2008, there were only two biologics for IBD on the market: Remicade and Humira. At the time, I was a morning news anchor and did not share my Crohn’s disease with the public—so choosing to do an injection in the comfort of my home vs. being in public getting an infusion was a no-brainer. Now as a mom of two, I’m grateful for that choice. You can’t beat the convenience of being able to do a 10 second injection on your couch. I have so many friends who spend hours upon hours getting an infusion—having the stress of lining up childcare and allocating that much time and resources to get my medication would be a struggle for me. Let alone needing to get an IV…I know I’m not alone when it comes to having bad veins! I understand you need to go with what your body responds best to and what your physician recommends for treatment…but if the decision rests on your shoulders, I would absolutely choose injection over infusion.

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    Injections at home make chronic illness mom life a bit easier.

  9. Consider yourself “lucky” if you’re starting Humira now. The first 10+ years I was on Humira the injection was very painful. I know of people who had to take anti-anxiety meds just to feel comfortable receiving the injection. In 2018, the Citrate-free (pain free) version was released in the United States. Click here to watch my emotional experience doing an injection with the pain-free formula for the first time, while pregnant. This has been a game-changer for everyone on Humira, young and old. Self-injecting takes some getting used to, but it’s a hell of a lot easier now that you don’t have to deal with any pain. Chalk this up as a big win for the patient community—and if you haven’t made the switch to Citrate-free yet, make sure you do now!
  10. Drown out the Debbie Downers and the naysayers. You are going to come across friends and family who most likely have good intentions…but will question your decision to be on a biologic and offer useless, worrisome advice or stories of their friend’s friend who died from lymphoma or their boyfriend’s dad who had a bad reaction. I remember people questioning me about being on Humira when we were starting our family. We’re already worried enough, having to deal with the background noise can be the biggest pain of all.
  11. Be inspired by the possibilities. We’re all quick to expect the worse or struggle to imagine a life that doesn’t involve daily setbacks. Think of all the good that can come of this and the quality of life the medication can afford you with. Be patient with your body. Be patient with the drug. Be patient with yourself on this journey.
  12. Get preventative screenings. Stay on top of your appointments outside of your gastroenterologist. See your Ob-Gyn and get annual pap smears. See your dentist every six months. See a dermatologist and get an annual full body screening. Talk with your GI about getting “safety labs” every three months to keep a close eye on your results and make sure nothing is out of whack. See an eye doctor annually, even if you think you have perfect vision. Steroids can cause cataracts and IBD can cause inflammation around the eye. If your child has IBD, make sure to stay on top of pediatrician appointments. Being well-informed about all aspects of your health helps protect you from falling victim to any serious side effects.

BONUS: Reward yourself. Let’s face it. Giving yourself an injection or getting an infusion is not the most enjoyable experience. Think about how you can treat yourself when it’s over. Get some ice cream. Get a manicure. Order that cute pajama set online. Lord knows, you’ve earned it. If you struggle self-injecting, stare at a photo of a family member or friend that exudes strength and resilience, they will inspire you to be strong.

I’m not sure what the next 12 years will bring. Will Humira continue to be my go-to? Will there be a different treatment option? Only time will tell, but for now, I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to stay on the same course of treatment for this long and I don’t plan on doing anything to rock the boat. My wish for you is that you’ll find a treatment that works its magic and shows you all that you’re capable of, despite your IBD.