Forecasting the weather and life with IBD: What this meteorologist has to say

On the last day of 8th grade most kids are anxiously awaiting summer and moving onto high school, but for Candace Monacelli, that wasn’t the case. Instead, June 7th, 2007, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 14.

As you can imagine, a lot has transpired since that monumental day. Candace now works as a morning meteorologist and reporter in Grand Rapids at WXMI-TV. She’s been at her current station for five years and has worked in the TV business for seven. This week she shares how Crohn’s has impacted her life but didn’t rob her of her hopes and dreams of working in TV news.

When it comes to going after your dreams and following your career aspirations, I see a lot of Candace in myself. We recently connected on Instagram and realized the parallels of our experience. Despite my Crohn’s diagnosis, I went on to work in TV news 3 months after finding out I had Crohn’s. I worked on morning shows for 7 years, she’s a morning meteorologist. We both do/did what we could to be the bubbly/happy on-air morning gals, while facing major battles and pain internally. We both encountered serious hospitalizations and bounced back to be on camera shortly thereafter. Being on steroids is hard enough…going on camera while on steroids and being judged by keyboard warriors and unkind strangers is a whole different story.

A walk down memory lane

My family and I had never heard of Crohn’s disease before and knew nothing about it or what my life would look like moving forward. I was sick for months prior to my diagnosis. My parents and I learned along the way, but my mom was my right-hand lady at every doctor’s appointment trying to figure out my illness. My parents were just so happy to have a name and a cause to me being so sick, they just described it as my stomach not being normal and we would figure this all out together. Then, I was put on steroids which resulted in weight gain and being bullied.”

Aside from hurtful words from her peers and juggling life as a teen with doctor appointments and colonoscopies, Candace says her disease at the time was well-managed with 6mp. When she moved onto college, she dealt with the challenge of wanting to live life like a typical student. By the time she was ready to enter the real world she not only graduated from college but also onto biologics (Humira).

Life in the TV spotlight

While in high school Candace discovered she loved public speaking and visited a local television station—she was hooked. Since she was already a decade into her patient journey, she didn’t second guess going after her dream of working in TV news as a meteorologist and reporter.

“Everyone thinks of Crohn’s as a pooping disease and while it is so much more than that, it is still a factor of the disease. The hardest part of my job is the limited time or access to a bathroom. Either I am covering something in the field with no restroom nearby or I have two minutes during a commercial break to hurry to the bathroom and be ready to go on air again. There’s been some interesting behind the scenes moments, but luckily, I am open with my crew and choose to be lighthearted about the bathroom aspect.”

Over the years, Candace has learned how to read her body and know when she can’t push through or make it on air.

“When the light goes on, it’s showtime. No matter how I am feeling… there’s been many days where I feel terrible but must put on a smile because I look perfectly healthy and it’s my job to come off that way. Being in the public eye with IBD can be pretty taxing some days.”

Juggling surgeries, abscesses, and fistulas

Up until this story—Candace has not spoken openly about her struggles with abscesses and fistulas. As a public facing person, discussing this private and often taboo topic is something that takes a lot of guts to be open about.

“Abscesses and fistulas make you feel so broken and constantly worried that if someone finds out the truth, they will instantly think you are the dirtiest person on this Earth. My palms are sweating, and I feel like I could puke, knowing strangers will now know this about me. But I am sharing in hopes to help that one person that is feeling just as alone as I do somedays.”

Even after five surgeries, Candace still has problems with abscesses and fistulas and somedays are better than others with numerous new challenges in her life.

“Sitting for a long time is now my own personal Olympic sport because it’s painful some days. I used to consider myself a runner, but that is now off the table for me, and my bathroom breaks are different. It’s been a scary learning curve trying to figure out how to handle something so foreign, that is now very much a part of every aspect of my daily life.”

Candace joined specific Facebook groups for her condition, as she desperately searched for others going through the same reality. More than anything else her family and friends are really what get her through.

“Every single person close to me has helped me know I am not alone and helps me get through difficult days, whether it’s a simple ‘how are you feeling?’… or crying with me on the bathroom floor.”

Going back on air after surgery

The first surgery to treat her abscesses and fistulas was an emergency and was unexpected. Candace was back on air four days after being discharged from the hospital.

“It sounds just as crazy as it was, but I am a stubborn Italian and never let Crohn’s win, so I somehow went back to work. My parents and boyfriend (now husband) weren’t happy with me, but I insisted on returning to the job I love. I remember having to practice getting in the car and making sure I could handle driving around my neighborhood the day before, since I leave for work at 2 in the morning.”

Candace remembers waking up that day, knowing what she just went through, and what it felt like to go back on camera in front of thousands of people who had no clue what she was enduring.

“I remember talking to myself on the ride to work thinking “what are you doing Candace you are a mess.” That first day back was mentally very hard to smile and pretend I felt like a million dollars when I did not. No one wants to watch the “sick” meteorologist on air so I couldn’t be that girl. Behind the scenes was an interesting hot mess as I had to put a blanket down to lay on the floor to work or just take a break since I couldn’t sit – I had to lay down at work for a month or more after each surgery.”

Candace learned her lesson and she didn’t rush her recovery after more recent surgeries.

“I found that allowing myself to heal and rest is not letting Crohn’s win but doing what is best and needed for myself in that moment. The stubborn Italian in me still struggles with giving myself time and grace, so it’s a work in progress.”

Being an open book with viewers and the community

Candace’s viewers know she has Crohn’s disease. She decided to openly share her experience with IBD to spread awareness and help make a difference.

“If I can share my story and experiences to reach one person and make them not feel so alone, then it’s one thousand percent worth it to me. I’ve also covered and shared numerous stories of IBD warriors within my community and get media coverage for all the Crohn’s and Colitis foundation events every year. The more awareness the better and I am blessed with a perfect platform to help make that possible.”

Advice for fellow IBD warriors

Candace has this advice for anyone worried about their futures—whether it’s a parent with a child who has IBD, or someone diagnosed at an early age.

“Where there is a will, there’s a way. Everyone has a cross to carry in life and our cross just happens to be IBD. In a weird, twisted way, this disease makes you strong enough to conquer whatever you put your mind to. We see people with IBD be professional sports players and movie stars, to everyone in between, including little old me… every IBD warrior can do whatever they dream to be one day. We are warriors fighting a battle every day, whether it’s big or small. Even when you yourself or someone you care for is sick or having a tough day, we need to know better days will happen again – just like the weather it can’t always rain forever…. You will feel better one day.”

I asked Candace what she would tell her younger self if she could go back to when she was diagnosed in eighth grade. Here’s what she said:

IBD will challenge you more than you can ever imagine but will also make you into the strong person you love. The life God gave you is tough, but it’s nothing he knew you couldn’t handle. It’s a battle you won’t ever lose. One day you will get everything you prayed for, even through everything Crohn’s throws your way.”

Candace is in remission in terms of her colon, but her rectum is still problematic and causing active disease. She gets Remicade infusions and avoids eating too much dairy, spicy foods, and salads. Candace drinks one cup of mushroom coffee most days and eats a mostly plant-based/Mediterranean diet.

Finding love with IBD

Candace met her husband on Match while working in her current TV market. She says they fell in love fast, and the rest is history!

“We moved in together, he proposed, and we had to postpone our wedding because of COVID. Now, we’re finally married and have a new house and a puppy. Life is good! My husband is the most loving and caring man helping me through all things Crohn’s. He is a saint straight from the heavens being right there by my side through everything. He has even spent one of his birthdays with me in the hospital for a surgery. He pushes me when I’m in a hole and feeling sorry for myself to help me realize my worth and remember that Crohn’s doesn’t completely define me.”

Connect with Candace

Instagram: @CandaceM_wx

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Struggling with the physical and emotional burden of fistulas

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

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

Dealing with IBD as a pediatric patient

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

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

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

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

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

“In sickness and in health”

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

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

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

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

The battle to get started on a biologic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto the next…biologic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worries and wants for the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect with Lisa

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

Instagram: @birdbrain82

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

Twitter: @lisamason127