I wish when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in July 2005 that I would have had a look into the future to know that the same body that has gone to war with me time and time again would also bring three miracles into the world.
Wednesday, July 14, 2021 my family grew to five and I became an IBD mom to three kids, four and under. Our latest addition, Connor Christopher, completes our crew.
On the day of my scheduled C-section and Connor’s birth, I felt overwhelmed with emotions. So many thoughts and feelings came to mind—from knowing I would never be pregnant again to recognizing that from this point forward I would never feel the deep remission I experience when I carry a life inside of me.
There are so many sharp contrasts in what pregnancy and deliveries have meant in comparison to life with Crohn’s.
The unpredictable nature of Crohn’s but having three scheduled C-sections all go to plan.
The way it feels to head to the hospital for a good reason.
The fact that my Crohn’s comes up as an aside when conversing with medical professionals and my pregnancies and being a mom comes first as my “identity.”
The perspective and strength IBD has given me when it comes to coping with painful pregnancy-related issues like SI Joint Dysfunction, Symphysis pubis dysfunction, acid reflux that required prescription medication, and C-section recoveries.
The incredible pride and joy I feel knowing that the girl who found out she had a debilitating lifelong disease 16 July’s ago, has carried three pregnancies to term and has a family of five to show for it.
If you’re like me and have dreamed of one day being a mom, explore all options to get there and don’t let your IBD hold you back. You are not less than because of your chronic illness, you are more capable than you think. Your body may surprise you in ways you could never imagine. To me–my children are proof of all that’s possible despite chronic illness.
When I was 21 and found out I had Crohn’s disease, one of my greatest fears was the uncertainty of what my future would look like personally and professionally. While the unknown was daunting and overwhelming, I never really allowed myself to think of not becoming a mom because of my disease. Instead, I shifted my focus to recognizing that getting there may take some detours and careful planning.
Thank you for all the well wishes for my family over the years. Your kind words, interest, and prayers, have meant the world to us and helped me to realize that even though I’m an “IBD” mom… I’m so much more.
Let’s face it, when you live with IBD, packing for a hospital stay isn’t anything new. We know what we need and what we won’t. We know the necessities and even with a C-section recovery, it’s nice to have a positive and happy reason to be going to the hospital. But this time around, my hospital bag for delivering my son this week has an addition. Since I’m participating in the Pregnancy in Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Neonatal Outcomes (PIANO) study, my son and I will be getting our blood drawn the day he’s born and cord blood will also be taken.
The blood sample kit includes an ice pack and vials that are labeled “Mom”, “Cord”, and “Baby”. This will measure the level of biologic drug in our bodies…and the coolest part is, I’ll get to know the results, while also contributing to research for current and future IBD moms on biologics. I can’t wait to find out how much Humira is found in our blood samples. The most ironic part of all? My scheduled C-section just happened to land on the same day as my loading dose anniversary of Humira… 13 years ago! Little did I know when I was injecting myself for the first time how my life would evolve to what it is today.
Background on the PIANO study
PIANO is an observational, multicenter study launched in January 2007 with the main focus to look at whether there is an increased risk for worsened maternal and fetal outcomes when a woman takes a biologic or thiopurine (a type of immunomodulator) therapy during pregnancy. Prior to this, lack of safety data has led many women to discontinue their therapy during pregnancy, which can lead to health repercussions to both mother and child.
On delivery day, it will be a team effort. My OBGYN and the nurses will ensure everything is taken care of and then one of my family members will make a stop at FedEx (within 3 days) to ensure our blood samples make their way safely from Missouri to California.
What else is packed in my bag?
This c-section will be my fourth abdominal surgery in less than 6 years, all on the same incision. Knowing what to pack so I can heal and be comfortable is almost second nature at this point.
Comfy nightgowns with buttons so I can easily breastfeed and keep my incision waistband-free
Frida Mom Boy Short Disposable Postpartum underwear (not a fan of those mesh panties from the hospital!), I’ve also heard Depends are great!
Slip on shoes/flip flops (for the shower and walking the halls)
5 masks (planning to be admitted 4 nights, 5 days) and hand sanitizer
Nipple cream (I prefer the Motherlove brand)
High-waisted joggers and a nursing top
Summer dress for the drive home
Outfits and swaddles for baby boy
The results from the blood draws are expected about a month after delivery. I’ll be sure to share an update on my Instagram page (@natalieannhayden). Interested in enrolling in the PIANO study? Please call 415-885-3734 or email PIANO@ucsf.edu.
July has been my least favorite month for the last 16 years of my life. It’s the month I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The month I had an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine. The month I was put on a biologic medication. The month I had a bowel obstruction that led to bowel resection surgery. You get the picture. But now, it’s about to be the month I give birth to my third child. Baby boy is about to flip the script on a month that previously brought dread. Instead, I can focus on celebrating his new life and all his birthdays and milestones for years to come.
As a woman with IBD, motherhood has continually provided me with reminders of all my body is capable of despite my chronic illness. It’s shown me what once may have seemed unattainable, is possible. Motherhood is a constant reminder that my body hasn’t always been at odds with me. That despite the challenges and the pain all these years, it still afforded me the opportunity to carry healthy babies to term. Rather than feeling like my body is the enemy, motherhood has made me think of my body as my ally. We’ll have our ups and downs forever, but for 27-plus months it’s been a safe haven for my children. I’ve enjoyed flawless pregnancies and deep remission. It’s given me a chance to feel like a “typical healthy” woman, if only for a moment. Pregnancy has felt like a security blanket wrapped around me, and is soon to be no more. With that, comes an immense amount of gratitude, as well as anxiety, as from this point forward it’s just me and my Crohn’s…no buffer.
It feels weird going into this month of July not worrying about what could be, but rather being excited about what’s to come. When I was younger and prior to getting married, I avoided making plans in the month of July—especially life changing ones! My wedding, vacations, etc. were all coordinated around this month because I didn’t trust the way my body could blindside me.
Preparing for the shift in health
While I am ready for my son to be here and over the discomforts of pregnancy, a part of me is sad that I’ll never feel this well again. Within days of delivering Reid and Sophia, the gnawing abdominal pain associated with IBD crept back into my life before I even had a chance to bring my babies home. I expect the same will happen this time. While it was discouraging then and will make me feel the same now, I’m hopeful the shift in hormones won’t throw me into a postpartum flare and that I’ll find comfort in knowing from this point forward, every medication, every procedure, and every hospitalization will be done without a life growing inside of me.
Over these last nine months I’ve enjoyed eating popcorn with my kids for the first time, drinking a cup of coffee without a need to use the bathroom right after, and nearly 40 weeks of baby flutters and kicks instead of pain. It’s been a great run. I hope my experiences through family planning, conception, pregnancy, and motherhood provide you with an understanding that IBD doesn’t mean you can’t have a family. While many sadly struggle with infertility, complications, or not physically being well enough to carry a baby, it’s very possible that you can. Whether it’s stories like mine or the opposite, remember each of our journeys is unique. Don’t base your experience and capabilities on someone else, but when something or someone inspires or empowers you to go after what you dream of, hold on to that.
Baby boy will not only complete our family but serve as a constant reminder of all that is possible. While my Crohn’s has brought a great deal of heartache it’s also allowed me to gain a unique perspective and to never take life’s miracles and triumphs for granted.
Starting on a biologic and finding one that helps manage your IBD can be challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally. Nearly 13 years ago (July 14, 2008) I sat in my GI’s office like a fish out of water petrified of injecting myself with four Humira shots. I remember how daunting and overwhelming taking the plunge into life on a biologic was and know I would have given anything to hear firsthand experiences from fellow IBD patients. This inspired me to launch a special series on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s hearing firsthand accounts from people like you and me, living life on biologics. So far, I’ve covered Remicade and Entyvio.
This week—we tackle Stelara (ustekinumab). Stelara is categorized as a human interleukin-12 and -23 antagonist. Patients receive a one-hour loading dose infusion and follow up with an injection every 8 weeks. As you’ll read, some patients receive their injection every 6 weeks, others every 4. Stelara is indicated for Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, severe plaque psoriasis, and active psoriatic arthritis. As a biologic, it joined the IBD game in September 2016 for Crohn’s disease and October 2019 for Ulcerative Colitis.
“I’ve been on Stelara for almost 5 years. I started taking it right when the FDA approved it for Crohn’s disease. I have only good things to say, because it’s keeping me in remission. It’s easy to administer and doesn’t burn like Humira used to (prior to the Citrate-free formula). I stayed on Stelara throughout both my pregnancies. My GI had me skip my last dose both times I was pregnant, and I re-started my injections once the babies were here,” said Ashley Miller.
Patient Advocate and Co-Founder of IBD Desis, Tina Aswani Omprakash, joined a clinical trial for Stelara to treat her Crohn’s disease. She says it took months to work, but it was the first time in a decade of having IBD and enduring more than 20 surgeries that she was able to achieve remission.
“At that juncture, I thought my life would always be in shambles and that I would never be able to rise from the ashes of this disease. But here I am today pursuing advocacy work and going to graduate school part-time. Modern medicine is nothing short of a miracle and I can’t help but count my blessings every single day to have been given another chance at life again. Thank you, Stelara, for making me whole again.”
Click here to learn more about Tina’s clinical trial experience with Stelara.
Making the Switch
Lauren Gregory is an IBD mom and a pediatric hospitalist. Even as a physician herself, she was nervous about switching biologics. Prior to starting on Stelara, she took Humira injections for 8 years. Unfortunately, the Humira induced numerous medication related side effects that really affected her quality of life.
“I was worried that Stelara wouldn’t work and that I would feel even worse. Switching medications ended up being the best decision. I have been in remission since starting Stelara four years ago and feel better than I have since diagnosis. Stelara also allowed me to have a healthy pregnancy and baby!”
Jenna Ferrara recently made the switch from Remicade to Stelara. Last week, she did her first self-injection and says Janssen was beyond helpful throughout the process. Click here to learn about the Nurse Navigator Program. The program provides a registered nurse (in-person) to help support you as you learn to give yourself injections.
“Between the nurse navigator and sending a training nurse to my house, they made it so easy. I was nervous before my first shot, but thanks to the nurse, it was great!! I’m still waiting to see results, but things have been slowly getting better after only two doses.”
“I tried Stelara after Humira failed me and it never helped or worked from the start, but regardless it was sold to me as the best option. My attending at the time even said it was his top choice for patients and would have put me on it from the start if he had been my GI who diagnosed me. I was super disappointed it failed, but now I’m on Remicade and feeling better than ever,” said Julie Mueller.
Erin O’Keefe was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2017 and initially was able to control her IBD with mesalamine. She started Humira in January 2020 and had what was believed to be a drug-related reaction that landed her in the hospital for 2 weeks and the ICU for 3 days.
“After I was discharged, I was started on Stelara, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. My symptoms are minimal, and I have even been able to re-introduce foods that I tended to stay away from. The injection is easy and I’m so happy not to be taking pills daily. Fingers crossed I can stay on Stelara for many years to come!”
“My 15-year-old son started Stelara last fall after a Humira fail (he was on Humira for 4 months when he developed psoriasis). It seems to be working as his markers and symptoms have slowly subsided. He has also put on some much-needed weight. Therefore, his doctors have recommended that he step up to the adult dose. Their aim to fully eradicate the inflammation—his calprotectin is still elevated. While Stelara is approved for pediatric use for psoriasis, it’s not yet approved for Crohn’s…so there have not been any studies.”-Michelle Boas
Hayley Weiss had to switch to Stelara after Humira caused her to get Psoriasis on the bottom on her feet and the palms of her hands. She just celebrated two years of being on Stelara. The 8-week dosing wasn’t doing enough to keep her IBD under control, so she was switched to every 6 weeks.
“I was doing well for awhile on the 6-week injections, but then at about 5 weeks I was getting symptomatic, so my doctor decided to actually give me another loading dose and I kept on with the 6 weeks for a little while until September of last year. At that time, my doctor approved me for every 4 weeks and that is what I have been doing.”
“I switched to Stelara from Humira in February 2019. I feel the best I’ve ever felt in a long time. A lot less breakthrough flares, energy levels are back, and inflammation numbers are lower than when I was on Humira. I haven’t had any negative reactions and have zero complaints!”- Erin Forman Carmiel
Martin R. was on Humira for about a decade. During that time, he calls the drug a “game changer” for bringing stability to his life when it came to managing his Crohn’s disease and reducing the need for steroids and antibiotics.
“After the regular blood tests for the azathioprine which I’ve been taking since 1992, I showed I had developed antibodies to Humira. I chose Stelara two years ago and it seems to have taken over where Humira left off. I don’t have additional side effects and a longer interval between injections, so that’s a bonus.”
After two years of remission, special education teacher, Jasmine Edwards, started flaring, despite being on Entyvio. Previously, Humira and Remicade gave her drug-induced lupus. Now, after just receiving her first dose of Stelara, she’s hoping the fourth biologic is a charm.
“I’m looking forward to the freedom of not having to get monthly infusions at the doctor’s office. I really hope Stelara puts me in LASTING remission so I can get back to a better quality of life. I’ve been feeling well since my loading dose infusion, but I’m also on prednisone. The only side effect I had after the infusion was feeling tired. In four weeks, I will administer my first at-home injection. I’m nervous about giving myself a shot because with Humira I used the pen, but I’m READY for remission, so I’ll try anything!”
Amanda Hart has had two doses of Stelara so far. Unfortunately, her MRI still shows new inflammation.
“I’ve been increased to once every 4 weeks. If there is no improvement in three months with the higher dosage, I’ll be looking for a new approach. I was originally on Humira, but switched due to my symptoms. Sadly, the symptoms on Stelara have been worse and my diet is more restricted then when Humira was not considered effective anymore.”
Alli Butler was previously on Humira, she finds Stelara makes her feel similarly.
“I’m currently taking Stelara, it has worked great for me and got me through my third pregnancy. Hoping it continues to work well through my postpartum experience.”
Tips for Self-Injecting Stelara
Lori Plung has battled Crohn’s disease for more than 40 years. Since that time, she’s been on four different biologics. She credits Stelara as her easiest patient experience.
“Remicade and Entyvio are obviously infusions—they took time and planning to organize appointments at infusion centers and waiting there while being infused. I was on Humira which was nice to have the freedom to inject at home, but I didn’t like the pen model of injecting. I haven’t had any problems with Stelara. I started my loading dose infusion in April 2019 and give myself the injection every 8 weeks. I love that it’s a pre-filled syringe and that I can do the injection in my home.”
Claire Paschall recommends taking the injection out of the fridge so it can warmup to minimize the burn.
“The automatic needle pullback jolts if you take your thumb off once done and it can hurt (so slowly take your thumb off). I feel like it took longer to build up in my system than Remicade and Humira, however I haven’t had any side effects to report. I have been flaring with my rectal disease, but my small intestine disease is in remission.”
Plea for a Pen-Style Injection
Courtney Meyer started Stelara in March and immediately saw improvement with her symptoms. Previously, she had tried Remicade, Humira, and Entyvio.
“It’s so nice not to have to get an IV after the loading dose. The only downside is that it doesn’t come in a pen option like Humira, and I have difficulty with needles, so I get it administered by a nurse in my GI office every 8 weeks. They inject it in the back of my arm, so I don’t have to deal with the usual stomach or thigh injection sites. It’s the most convenient and easiest treatment of Crohn’s that I’ve been on in 15 years! I was able to stop other medications and I’m just on Stelara. No side effects so far.”
Julianne Bossert was diagnosed with Crohn’s more than 25 years ago. She was on Humira for almost 5 years and says it worked great, until it didn’t. She started Stelara in February and is gearing up for her fourth dose next week.
“I feel like I’m on the cusp of getting better, but not quite there yet. I’m about two weeks out of being off steroids that I have been on for a year. So, my crutch is now gone, and we will really begin to see if Stelara is working. My two biggest complaints are the shot itself. It’s not a pen like Humira, which was way easier to administer. The syringe is way scarier, and they show you how to inject it once and then off you go! Awful anxiety. The other complaint is how different the relief is. When I was due for my Humira about two to three days leading up to I was in bad shape…very sick. But I’d get the injection and feel better within an hour. Leading up to Stelara, I feel awful, get the shot, and still feel awful for days. The turnaround time isn’t as quick for me.”
Emily Beaman is an IBD mom of two who initially started on Humira and was switched to Stelara two years ago.
“I will say the only thing I don’t like is the injection. I prefer the Humira pen-style. I have yet to be able to give myself the injection which means I have to rely on my husband to do it. I find it hurts more than the original Humira did for me (the Citrate-free version wasn’t available while I was on it) I really wish they would come out with a pen-style injection. I worry about if I ever had to give it to myself…that I wouldn’t be able to.”
Stelara Tips for the IBDMom (or Dad!)
Brooke Abbott is a patient advocate, single mom, and co-founder of IBD Moms. She shares helpful tips for administering the injection whether at home or at your doctor’s office.
If injecting at home:
Keep an injecting kit. Have a small kit prepped with alcohol wipes, band-aids, and cotton balls or pads.
Prep the night before. Hydrate as much as possible and make sure you have your kit ready and prepped.
Injection day. Make it a relaxing event. Have your injection before a family movie night so you can get some cuddles in after injecting yourself or being injected.
Normalize your treatment. “Practice” with your little ones with a play doctor’s kit. I used to always play doctor and do fake injections, to normalize living like a patient for my little one.
If injecting at the doctor’s office:
Book Appointments to include self-care time. I try to book appointments for my injections early in the day so I can have time after to do something for me. Whether it’s going to grab a coffee and read, meet with a friend, or have a nice lunch.
Take the LO (little one) with you. I am all about including my LO in my patient life. I want him to be able to ask questions and voice concerns. So sometimes when he is out of school, I will take him with me. It’s good for him to hear the progression of the treatment and to see mommy being brave and getting an injection.
Multitask. Try and take all your blood tests and everything at one time. That way you don’t have to make any unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office.
Let’s Talk Side Effects
Overall, the consensus from patients was little to no side effects—which is a HUGE win. Of course, each person’s experience with IBD and with biologics is unique.
Stelara is the first biologic for Shanna Quinn. She started on it in July 2020 following bowel resection surgery. She found starting off with an infusion was a bit “scary” and much preferred giving herself a shot which she says is “so easy.” In her opinion, making the decision to start a biologic was the biggest hurdle, rather than choosing one.
“It doesn’t hurt, although you do have to go slow or else the medication will sting a bit. One drawback is that I get tired afterwards. I’ve learned to take the day and relax and sleep, if needed. I do my shots on the weekend to allow for that. My GI and I discussed a few options before choosing Stelara. I took a test that asked questions about priorities, risks, concerns, etc. The results gave me details about how each biologic stacked up against your concerns and priorities. Take the “IBD&Me” test for yourself here. Knowing you may need to be on a medication for life or knowing it may fail you is hard to wrap your brain around. I hope IBD will get way more targeted and specific regarding treatment options.”
Lyes Mauni Jalali has found the side effects of Stelara to be more draining than Remicade, but not as bad as Entyvio. He says the first three days after the injection he needs considerable rest.
“I have also noticed systemic night sweats as far out as five weeks after the injection. For me, this is unique to Stelara in terms of my individual experience. The silver lining is that Stelara seems to have generated more stability and normalcy from an IBD symptom perspective. My level of disease is quite severe and to date, Stelara has had the best outcome. One drawback however is that insurance companies are less willing to grant physicians discretion to prescribe more frequent injections. My GI has said he faces greater pushback on Stelara specifically.”
Paula Hepburn has been on Stelara for 1.5 years, it’s the only biologic she’s been on thus far. She feels like it’s working well to control her Crohn’s disease.
“The first infusion gave me crazy fatigue for four days and I often get tired after each injection. Sometimes it only lasts a few hours, sometimes into the next day. I feel fortunate to have access to this medication because it helps control my IBD so well.”
Madison Morgan has been on Stelara for 2 years. She started it following an ileocecal resection that involved the removal of 8 inches of intestine. Madison finds the injections to be easy. She does experience some side effects though.
“I get a headache immediately after the injection that lasts about 15 minutes, the worst side effect I’ve had is yeast infections and UTI’s, I’ve never had them until Stelara and have had 6-7 yeast infections in the last two years and 2 UTI’s. A couple weeks before my Stelara injection (once every 8 weeks, 95 mg), my arthritis from my Crohn’s gets pretty bad, but seems to get better after my injection.”
“Stelara has been amazing! Aside from the infusion loading dose, it’s quick and easy and fairly pain free. I have minimal side effects other than sometimes feeling sleepy after my injection, but other times I have crazy energy. Overall, this is the only biologic that has worked for me for more than a couple of years.”-Bethany Lowe
“I’ve found the injections to be almost painless and I’m a huge wimp with shots. It took a few tries to find the right timing and frequency for my shots, but I do them every 4 weeks and approximately 1-3 days before each shot, I start to get some IBD symptoms…so I know it’s working!”-Danielle Fries
Olivia Lippens was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis 20 years ago. She’s an IBD mom of 3. Lucky for her, she was able to get through the first 18 years of living with IBD without being on a biologic. Unfortunately, she experienced a postpartum flare two years ago that is still wreaking havoc on her life.
“I started Stelara about a year ago. It’s super easy to use. The only side effects I’ve felt are being tired for a day or two after the injection. I feel quite lucky that I was able to start Stelara, rather than other options. It’s easy to take because you do it at home, and the side effects are non-existent for me. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been as effective as we had hoped. I do my injection every 4 weeks instead of 8. From a tolerance and side effect standpoint, Stelara has been a good medication for me, but it still frightens me to be on a biologic. I know everybody manages this dance in their own way.”
Krista Cherrix has been on Stelara for one year. She prefers the syringe injection over the Humira pen but has unfortunately dealt with weight issues since starting it.
“I have gained a TON of weight on it and can’t seem to get it to budge even with diet and exercise. I also have not been able to get pregnant so far, which isn’t necessarily the drug, but I got pregnant with my first (pre-diagnosis) without trying.”
“I took Stelara monthly for nearly 2 years and had no side effects. My diarrhea was still frequent and after having an MRI and a colonoscopy, the results showed that I still have significant inflammation in my small bowel. I am going to be starting Humira in hopes of healing the inflammation.”-Marsha Gagnon
Dealing with Insurance and Cost
Shawn Bethea is an IBD patient advocate and author of “My Tummy Really Hurts”. Overall, she considers her experience on Stelara to be good, but wants others to know there have been some hurdles to cross along the way.
“At first, I truly didn’t think the medication would work for me. I was placed on the standard dosing and scheduled to receive my injection every 8 weeks. During the initial weeks I’d feel great! I had more energy and didn’t feel the sharp pains as I usually did (in my stomach area). I wasn’t going to the bathroom as often and even my Eczema seemed to be clearing up.”
However, after those first initial weeks, she noticed a decline. Her energy decreased, her Eczema became bothersome, and her joints would ache. She communicated her concerns with her GI who prescribed injections every four weeks.
“With any high dollar medication comes unique challenges to those of us who don’t live on a Beyonce budget. Between my insurance, the patient assistance program, and copay, the drug was running about $20,000 monthly. When you have insurance and nothing changes like a lapse of coverage or a job change, this is something you can possibly juggle (depending on the level of coverage/assistance, but mine was pretty good). The problem came in when I changed jobs, lost insurance, and had to wait for new insurance to take effect – which was delayed, of course.”
Shawn stopped taking Stelara, due to lack of insurance coverage, everything was impacted. She began to experience joint pain, became extremely tired, and was using the bathroom more—even experiencing extreme constipation.
“Overall, I love Stelara, but I hate the way our healthcare system operates. No drug should run half of someone’s salary monthly. But I subscribe to the system because I simply want to live and be healthy like everyone else.”
Jacquie Persson has been on Stelara since 2019. She started off with the recommended dosage of injecting every 8 weeks, but after 6 months, she was moved to every 4 weeks.
“Since starting Stelara, my Crohn’s disease has been well-managed I haven’t had to take prednisone since 2018, after depending on steroids on and off from 2016-2018. Financially, being on this drug is a little anxiety inducing. The list price is over $20,000 per injection and I’m constantly on edge wondering when or if my insurance will decide to stop covering it. My copay is over $200. I currently have copay assist which brings my out of pocket down to $5, but what if that program were to go away?”
“I started Stelara in December 2016 after Remicade failed me. I had success with small flares here and there. In March of 2021 I had a big flare—my first in about 5 years and was out of work for 2 months. My GI wanted to increase my Stelara from every 6 weeks to every 4, but my insurance repeatedly denied it and just finally approved it about a month ago, thankfully in time for me to be feeling better.” – Mary Fordham
“The dosing is wild! I started at 8 weeks and now I’m moving to six…and I know some people on every 4 weeks. Insurance has a really hard time approving more frequent injections.”-Catalina Berenblum
Click here to learn more about Janssen’s CarePath Savings Program for Stelara.
Success Stories on Stelara
“Stelara has been a Godsend for me. I had an ileocolic resection nearly five years ago and have maintained remission with Stelara and azathioprine since my surgery. The side effects have been minimal. For me, it’s been one of the easier injections I’ve used. It doesn’t sting or burn like Humira did prior to the release of the Citrate-free version. I take Stelara every four weeks instead of the typical eight.”-Jennifer Ryan Carmichael
Amanda Pennwell was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 8 years old. She’s now a mom of 3 and due with her fourth baby this October. She’s been on almost every drug approved for Crohn’s disease. She says she can honestly say Stelara has changed the severity of her Crohn’s the most significantly, with the least amount of side effects and the biggest improvement to her day-to-day life. She started Stelara in April 2019 after flaring with her twins. She was able to get pregnant, have a smooth postpartum experience and breastfeed her third baby while on it.
“Stelara helped me get my life back. This is something I never dreamed my broken body would ever be capable of doing. I’m so thankful that Stelara is continuing to work for me. I have been healthier than ever. I work out all the time and my body feels strong. I haven’t experienced abdominal pain more than a dozen times in the past two years. It’s truly remarkable. Stelara has enabled my husband and I to chase our dreams while raising our babies! I work part-time while staying home with the kids. We our building our dream home and I know I couldn’t keep up with it all if I felt the way I did two years ago. I’m thankful for research and better IBD drugs like Stelara.”
Patient Advocate, Founder & President of Patient Authentic, Lilly Stairs, credits Stelara for saving her life.
“I have been in medically controlled remission for nearly 8 years from all three of my autoimmune diseases – Crohn’s Disease, Psoriatic Arthritis, & Psoriasis. I went from bleeding ulcers in my small intestine and total body arthritis that left me paralyzed in pain to living symptom free and thriving as a solopreneur. I am so grateful for this brilliant medical innovation and only hope that someday all autoimmune patients can have this type of experience on a medication.”
Check out previous biologics that have been featured on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. These articles have NO affiliation or guidance from pharma. All content was created thanks to countless IBD patients sharing their personal patient journeys with the hope of helping others.
Imagine having a dad who’s a gastroenterologist and a husband who is a GI fellow… and having Crohn’s disease. For 32-year-old, Lauren Gregory, that’s her reality. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2008. Lauren is also a doctor herself and an IBD mom! When she’s not taking care of pediatric patients in the hospital, she’s enjoying time at home with her husband, Martin, and 6-month-old son, Connor. In light of Father’s Day, this week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, we share about how the most important men in Lauren’s life have helped her cope and overcome challenges IBD has presented along the way.
Through the eyes of Lauren’s dad
Late one night during Lauren’s college sophomore Christmas vacation from college, her mom called her dad with words he will never forget. She said, “Lauren is having terrible abdominal pain and is on the floor.” After a quick exam and seeing how tender and distended her abdomen were, he knew it was time to head to the closest emergency room. A CT scan showed massive gastric dilation and small bowel thickening. The surgeon was called, and he agreed it was likely Crohn’s.
Lauren was discharged home on a liquid diet with outpatient GI follow up after New Year’s. Unfortunately, her concerning symptoms persisted and her dad called a friend who was a gastroenterologist. He directly admitted her.
“When Lauren was admitted to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis while in college at Wash U, her then boyfriend (now husband) sat by her bedside for days as she underwent scopes and a small bowel series. We knew he was a keeper then. As parents we always worry about our children. As a gastroenterologist, we may worry more when our children have GI issues. We are fortunate to have connections in GI which allowed Lauren to have prompt evaluation and ultimately a great outcome,” said Dr. Bruce Waldholtz.
Navigating love and IBD
Lauren met Martin in college. At the time, he knew he wanted to be a doctor, but he did not know what he wanted to specialize in. During internal medicine residency, Martin was torn between cardiology and gastroenterology. He ended up choosing GI and is about to start a one-year fellowship to get extra training in IBD and nutrition. (Small World Fun Fact: He is part of the same GI practice I go to in St. Louis!)
Martin says Lauren inspired him to choose gastroenterology and specifically focus on inflammatory bowel disease.
“Watching her go through what she did at such an important time in her life was inspiring. I was so grateful to her doctors taking such good care of her. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to help people like her succeed in living a rich, enjoyable, and rewarding life. “
Lauren feels incredibly lucky to have found someone as supportive as her husband. A month after they started dating, she was hospitalized with a partial small bowel obstruction. The fact he didn’t leave her side throughout that vulnerable and scary experience meant a lot to her.
When Lauren was hospitalized for one week during her fourth year of medical school, Martin was going through his second year of internal medicine residency. They were married, but in a long-distance relationship at the time.
“During residency you can’t just take days off, and it is challenging to find coverage. Because of this I did not expect him to be able to visit, but he somehow did. This flare occurred as I was transitioning from Humira to Stelara. I have been extremely fortunate to have stayed in remission since then (2017).
How personal life impacts professional life
“Without question Lauren makes me a better doctor, especially with taking care of IBD patients. I can understand the anxiety behind the questions they have about medications and what to expect because we went through the same thing as a family,” said Martin.
Lauren says her IBD has given her a unique outlook in how she cares for patients as well.
“My experiences with Crohn’s have made me more empathetic towards my patients, and now that I am a mom, I have much for empathy for my patients’ parents. Spending extra time with patients is not always easy given that I work mostly in the emergency room, but I make a point to take the time to listen to my patients and their parents’ concerns and provide reassurance when appropriate. In my marriage, my husband answers my medical questions and has a realistic perspective of what patients go through.”
Gratitude for her dad and husband
“I realize how fortunate I am to have a father (and now a husband too) who is a gastroenterologist who can answer my questions and to help me navigate our healthcare system, especially insurance! When my gastroenterologist decided I needed to start a biologic, and recommended Remicade, my dad pushed for Humira so that I wouldn’t have to worry about scheduling infusions around my college class schedule or worrying about transportation when I didn’t have a car. At the time I had no understanding of how having a chronic disease would affect my life.”
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
For IBD mom, Suzy Burnett, reflecting on the past year and half of living through the COVID-19 pandemic causes her to feel flooded with emotions. She knew having three children under the age of five at age 41, while dealing with the ebbs and flows of Crohn’s disease, would be challenging. She delivered her son, Guy, just as COVID cases were starting to soar. Now, she’s able to look back on how her family adapted and thrived, despite the difficult circumstances of living through a global pandemic with a chronic illness. I’ll let her take it away…
Like many families, we’ve worn masks, stayed at home, literally have seen no one except our wonderful neighbors, and made sacrifices to ensure the safety of ourselves and others. We made the difficult decision not to send our 5-year-old to kindergarten, rather, enroll her in virtual 4k from the confines of our home. Our 3-year-old also didn’t attend preschool a few mornings a week like we had originally planned. We have noticed the lack of socialization has impacted her the most. Our 15-month-old is just now meeting family and friends for the first time. He takes stranger danger to a whole new level, but we know he’ll warm up in due time.
My husband, like so many others, started working from home. What was once thought to be a temporary safety precaution, has become a permanent situation. He continues to work in a room without doors while the wee ones race around playing superheroes. Noise canceling headphones have become a lifesaver. All of us together at home, day after day, month after month. Our bond has grown deeper, and our Burnett Party of 5 has survived. I can honestly say we live fuller, laugh harder, hold each other longer, and love deeper.
Dealing with the lifting of the mask mandate
Just as we were beginning to get used to our personal version of Groundhog’s Day, the mask mandate was lifted. This is a huge milestone, but with that brings excitement along with anxiety. My husband and I are both vaccinated, but our 3 young children will have to continue to wait their turn. To say we’re trepidatious about starting to acclimate back into society is an understatement. We’ve been in our little bubble on Welcome Drive for more than a year. I don’t think things will ever get back to “normal,” per say, but we’re looking forward to what our “new normal” will be. It’s a new beginning, a fresh start to be more present, and we have the opportunity to give precedence to things that matter most in life. Things will be a little different than before, and we will always remember and carry the weight that was and will forever be COVID.
We will continue to have our groceries delivered as well as basic necessities, because it’s unclear who is vaccinated, and I’m not going to rely on the honor system of strangers to keep my kiddos safe. However, I am beyond the moon ecstatic that our girlies will both be doing outdoor soccer and playdates with other vaccinated families. My husband will continue to work from home, but this is a change we welcome and greatly appreciate. It has given us time as a family we never knew we were missing. Our oldest daughter, Lucy, will finally be attending kindergarten…….wait for it….IN PERSON. I am so proud of her. She’s sacrificed so much these past several months. She’s handled herself with grace and class far beyond her years. We’re planning our first family trip in over two years, and I am completely overwhelmed at the mere thought of the happiness this will bring.
Coming out stronger than before
It has been months of peaks and valleys, but our mountain remains strong. On top of enduring the pandemic, we lost our family cat, Miles. He was a furry friend to our littles when they couldn’t see their own friends. My dear Grandma Connors was called amongst the angels, and now she protects us from above. I also recently almost lost my sister due to a post birth hemorrhage, but now she rests safely at home with her baby boy. And I am recovering from a nasty bout of C.difficile. Yes, the one time I left the house I picked up a bacteria from the hospital. Through it all though, we’re stronger than ever before because of our strong family foundation.
My point in saying all of this is that we all go through our own struggles. Life is so unexpected, and often we can’t choose what we’re dealt. We can, however, choose how we handle the storm. We’re so grateful for our health, happiness, and each day we’re given. Take NOTHING for granted because every day is a gift. Everyone has been impacted one way or another these past few years, and now it’s up to you to see where your ship will go as you navigate life with IBD and in general. As the tides of the ocean swiftly change, so will the moments in life. Savor the moments.
Being diagnosed with IBD as a pediatric patient looked different in the 1970’s. For 54-year-old Brett L., the start of his patient journey began when he was only nine. The year was 1976. He started experiencing fevers, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. As he puts it—the symptoms started a year-long quest to find an answer. A quest that involved frustratingly long waits at doctor offices, endless tests, and medical trials. He was ultimately diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis at the age of 10. Now, in 2021, Brett has unique insight and perspective to share with our community.
Patient “Number 1”
As you can imagine, Brett spent many years on high dose steroid and sulfur pills. The side effects of the steroids (moon face, weight gain, bloating, mood swings, and ravenous hunger, etc.) added insult to injury. From 7th through 9th grade, Brett missed nearly 60 days of school each year due to severe flare ups and hospitalizations. By the time he was 13, Brett’s parents were desperate for a cure as his condition worsened. With no relief from traditional medicine, they sought out additional care from holistic doctors, nutritionists, even an angel healer at one point! Nothing helped to manage Brett’s IBD.
“In 1981, I was 14. I’d been battling debilitating and severe flare ups that made me so weak I had to crawl to the bathroom or walk doubled over in pain. Each hospitalization was taking its toll. Over the years, though I was growing, I had lost 30 pounds. It was at this point that my doctor proposed something that had never been performed on a pediatric IBD patient—a total colectomy and “pull through” operation that would leave me fully reconnected and waiting for the ileostomy closure…allowing me to eventually go the bathroom normally again after a recovery period of a year or so. It was risky surgery back then. But not having it was a risk too. I agreed, and we went ahead with the surgery.” said Brett.
Brett was deemed “patient number 1” for this pediatric procedure and his case study was published in medical journals. To this day he remembers waking up from surgery in the pediatric ICU at Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. He recalls counting 18 tubes and lines connected to his body and thinking that he couldn’t believe he chose to do this to himself. The surgery lasted 14.5 hours and the incision ran from his pubic bone to his sternum—the entire length of his abdomen.
Living with an ileostomy as a teen
“I learned to manage the ileostomy with some upsetting and messy mishaps at the very beginning. And in class sometimes the stoma would make embarrassing sounds. I learned to feel it coming and cover it with my hand to quiet it. But without a colon, I was now a healthy 14-year-old. The doctors said that upon examining what was left of my colon, they estimated I had about two weeks left before a fatal perforation,” said Brett.
A year later his ileostomy was reversed, and he was able to go to the bathroom “normally”, again. While he’s grateful for this—it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Brett says he initially had an abscess at the closure of the stoma. Ever since, he has gone to the bathroom more than normal people. In recent years Brett developed a challenging case of chronic pouchitis that at its worst caused pain and had him going 20-30 times a night.
The good news is that “after about 4 years of this, I finally seem to have treated and solved it myself, with psyllium husk powder at breakfast and lunch times, and 3 Lomotil pills with dinner. I’ve also reduced fluid intake during meals and become more careful about not overeating. I learned some of this in my online research about immediate post-op colectomy patients. The doctors had a hard time helping me with this, but I seem to have resolved it myself.”
From past to present
Today, Brett is a healthy 54-year-old man and his pouchitis has never been more under control. Through all the ups and downs with IBD, he’s lived a fulfilling life as a professional singer, and as an executive of multiple companies.
“In my career I’ve been an investigator, a head of marketing and sales, I’ve grown startup companies, and have traveled the world for business and pleasure. I’ve earned an advanced degree from an ivy league school, and I have an amazing 16-year-old daughter who is a gifted, performing singer-songwriter in her own right.”
Brett believes his ulcerative colitis has made him more appreciative of life and the little things.
“I have always been that person who lingers over sunsets, gazes at the moon, and stops and notices the teeny flowers poking through the cracks in the sidewalk, or street art, and the coincidental things one comes across as noteworthy or remarkable. I notice and really drink in the happy, good moments because I know what it’s like to not be able to be out and experience these things. I know I am fortunate to be here to tell my story.”
Here are some helpful nuggets of knowledge Brett would like both those with IBD and their caregivers to know:
Don’t let fear of IBD stop you from living your life and having fun, or asking that person out, or going out with friends, when you are feeling well. As soon as I was feeling well enough to get back out there after a flare up, I lived life to the fullest and played like every other kid. You deserve to be there just as much as every other kid, teen, or adult does. When you are feeling well, try to make the most of that wellness, and not let the fear of what might happen stop you from living.
You are not “less than”, because you have an illness. In fact, you may even have an added level of maturity because of your illness that others do not, because of your need to contend with it, and interact more with adults and medical professionals and present your situation to them in a coherent and meaningful way. Look for the silver linings in everything. Notice the small pleasures, they help you get through the down times.
To parents—your child is a survivor. It takes a lot to keep them down. They will have ups and downs with their IBD. But 2021 is the best time ever to have to live with this diagnosis. Current treatments and even surgeries have changed the game and the patient experience, for the better and the future is even more promising. IBD can be traumatic. Children and adults can benefit from seeing a therapist to help cope with the lifelong nature and complications of the disease.
Four years ago, today, I became a mom. Our son Reid Robert was born and placed into my arms for the very first time. Like any parent, especially one with a chronic illness, those initial moments were emotional and overwhelming in the best way. A wave of relief rushed over me as I lied on the table after my scheduled c-section, grateful my body that had fought Crohn’s disease since 2005, had brought a perfectly healthy baby boy into this world. But I was also nervous about my abilities as an IBD mom and what the journey of parenthood would look like as I juggled taking care of myself and this tiny little human. How would my life with a chronic illness and as a mom play out?
Fast forward four years. I am now a mom of two, with a baby boy on the way (24 weeks tomorrow)! Over these last 1,460 days, I’ve learned and grown a great deal both personally and as an IBD patient. Today—I share that perspective and knowledge with you. Perspective and knowledge, I wish I had when I first became a mom and what I’m continuing to learn along the way.
Fed is best. There is so much pressure on how women choose to feed their babies. It’s ridiculous. I breastfed Reid the first three days and he had formula from that point forward because I was nervous about my biologic. The second time around, I did more research, and chose to breastfeed my daughter. Our journey lasted for six months (my milk supply ran out once I got my period). I supplemented with formula. I’m hoping to nurse our final baby when he’s born in July. That being said—no matter what you choose, it’s your choice. Your baby will thrive. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Drown out the judgement and speak up if someone questions your decision for you and your baby. For me, breastfeeding is a labor of love. I’m not going to act like I enjoy it, because it was hard for me. It’s not something that comes natural for all, and that’s ok. No one is going to ask my kids when they are in elementary school or high school how they were fed or know the difference.
What they see, doesn’t always hurt them. When you’re cowering on the toilet in pain and they’re watching with eyes that speak of concern. When you’re sitting on your couch about to do your injection. When you’re struggling to stand up straight because your abdominal pain is too much. Don’t shield them from your pain. That pain is part of your family story and it’s important you are honest and upfront. It’s those moments that shape their little hearts and their everchanging minds.
Kids roll with the punches. Have to cancel plans or have a low-key day inside watching a movie instead of going for a walk or to the park? —that’s ok. Your children will feel loved and taken care of just the same. Kids are flexible. They don’t need to stick to a rigid schedule to be happy and fulfilled. At the end of the day, it’s your love and support that matters most.
Innate empathy from a young age. With my oldest being four, I can’t tell you enough how many times I’ve been blown away by his empathetic heart. Before he was even two years old, he would kiss my thigh after my injection and walk up to me in the bathroom, give me a hug, and pat my arm or stomach to comfort me. Now, he asks me if I’m hurting or in pain. He knows mommy isn’t always healthy, but that she’s always strong and gets through it. That empathy goes far beyond me—I see it in the way he is with others and it makes my heart feel like it’s going to burst with pride. I credit that aspect of his personality to what he’s witnessed these first few years of life, and for that I’m grateful. I can guarantee you’ll see the same with your children.
Greatest source of motivation. Even though I’ve been in remission since August 2015, my kids still serve as my greatest motivation on the difficult days with the disease. Whether it’s pain, prepping for a scope, or going through a procedure, I keep my eyes on the prize—them. Just thinking of them gets me through everything. They give me so much to fight for, day in and day out. It’s not just about me—it’s about all of us.
The importance of communication. When you become a parent, communication becomes even more paramount in your relationship. If you don’t share when you’re struggling or symptomatic, your partner can’t offer the support you need. Even if you’re not in a full-blown flare, it’s beneficial for everyone involved (you, your partner, and your kid(s)) that you share when your IBD is causing you issues. I always text my husband when he’s at work or simply say, “I’m having a bad Crohn’s day” or if I’m in the bathroom for a long time after dinner while he’s trying to get the kids to bed …and that’s all it takes to get the message across.
Asking for help doesn’t make you weak. You’ve probably heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” …and it really does. You are not failing or less than because you ask or help, need a break, or time for yourself. You will be a better mom if you take time for you. You’ll be better able to keep your disease in check if you have time to relax and de-stress. I’m not always the best when it comes to accepting or asking for help, but as I gear up for three babies four and under, I know I’m not going to be able to do it all on my own and that I’m going to need more out of my village.
Your health can’t go on the backburner. When you’re a mom, your needs often go to the bottom of the totem pole. When you are an IBD mom, they can’t. While I used to try and “brave out” my symptoms until the last possible moment, as a mom, I’ve completely changed. After nearly 16 years living with Crohn’s, I know when my body is speaking to me and now, I listen and address what’s going on immediately. I credit being proactive and sharing with my GI when it feels like my remission may be in question for the reason why I’ve been able to stay in remission all this time. I’ve gone on bursts of steroids, had my trough levels checked for my biologic, and done fecal calprotectin tests through the years when needed. The last thing you want as a parent is to be hospitalized because of your IBD. To me—it’s inevitable. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when. But I do everything in my power to keep myself home and out of the hospital and will continue to do so until that’s no longer possible.
Every “tummy ache” and loose stool from your child is not IBD. When my kids say they have a tummy ache or I seem to think they’re going to the bathroom more often one day than not, I’m immediately worried and concerned. Could it be IBD? Why are they feeling this way? Is it my fault? What do I need to watch out for? All the questions flood my mind and sometimes my emotions get the best of me. Then, my husband normally talks me down and says it’s probably nothing and I need to stop jumping to conclusions. He’s right. Chances are potty training could be causing tummy aches. Or maybe like the rest of the population, they are going more because of something they ate. The chance of passing along IBD to your child (when one parent has it) is only 2-9% (according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation). Remember that.
You are their hero. Of course, there are times I wish I wasn’t an IBD mom…and “just” a mom. At the same time, I credit my disease for much of my outlook on life and how it helps me cope with setbacks, but also celebrate what to many others may be the mundane. My kids don’t see me than less than. When they sit through doctor appointments in the stroller and blood draws, or watch me make faces drinking colonoscopy prep, or count to 10 while doing my shot before they go to bed, they simply see their mama. This is their normal—they don’t know anything different. When I talk to teenagers or young adults who grew up with a parent who has IBD, I always hear the same thing— ‘they are my hero’.
Along with being a hero to your little one(s)…you are also…
Someone who takes unpleasant moments in stride.
Someone who wears the title of “mama” with great pride.
Someone who will never stop fighting for the feel-good days.
Someone who doesn’t allow your illness to rob you or your child of joy.
Someone who goes after their dreams—like that of being a mom—even though your back story may be a bit more complicated.
Someone who is just as worthy as anyone to be a parent.
We’re four years in, Reid. Like everything in life, each moment—beautiful and challenging—is fleeting. Thank you for being patient with me, for understanding me, and for being a daily reminder that I’m so much more than my Crohn’s disease. Being your mom is my greatest title and has been the best chapter of my life story and patient journey thus far.
Prior to receiving a chronic illness diagnosis, it’s incredibly challenging and nearly impossible to fathom ‘forever sickness’. In Tessa Miller’s book, “What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness–Lessons from a Body in Revolt”, she masterfully articulates the highs and lows of life with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From navigating the diagnosis, flare ups, the healthcare system, relationships, and the mental health component, she’s created an invaluable resource that I wish every single person with chronic illness could be handed the moment they find out their life story has taken an unforeseen turn.
As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2005, two months after college graduation, I wish my former self had these powerful words at my fingertips. The overwhelming nature of IBD can be nearly suffocating at times. As I read this page-turner of a book, I felt seen and understood. I found myself nodding my head, because I could relate to so much of her story and so much of her sage advice. I felt like a college student highlighting what felt like the whole page, because it was ALL so important.
Tessa and I are both journalists. We both have Crohn’s. We both randomly grew up in Illinois. I connected with her over social media after reading her New York Times article, “Five Things I Wish I had Known Before My Chronic Illness.” The article had an impact on me, so when I heard she landed a deal with a publisher, I anxiously awaited for this book to drop.
In the beginning of “What Doesn’t Kill You,” Tessa writes, “I became a professional patient, and a good one. I learned that bodies can be inexplicably resilient and curiously fragile. I would never get better, and that would change everything: the way I think about my body, my health, my relationships, my work, and my life. When things get rough, people like to say, “this too shall pass.” But what happens when “this” never goes away?”
Finding the Right Care Team
When you live with a disease like Crohn’s, it’s imperative you trust your gastroenterologist and care team and are confident in how they help you manage your illness. I always tell fellow patients to take a moment and think about who they will feel comfortable with at their bedside in a hospital room when they’re flaring or facing surgery. If it’s not your current doctor, it’s time to look elsewhere. Tessa breaks down the “qualifications” for getting a care team in place. From finding a doctor who explains why they’re doing what they’re doing and why to a doctor who looks at you as a human, not an opportunity.
“Good doctors see their loved ones in their patients; they make choices for their patients that they would make for their own family. Asking a doctor, “Why did you choose this line of medicine?” will reveal a lot about what drives them and how they view their patients.”
The Grieving Process of Chronic Illness
Receiving a chronic illness diagnosis forces us each to go through the grieving process. For many of us, we were naïve and felt invincible before our health wasn’t a given. We’re so used to feeling as though we’re in control of our destiny, that when we lose that control, we spiral, understandably. Tessa interviewed Paul Chafetz, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Dallas. Dr. Chafetz is quoted in the book saying, “We go through life with an illusion of safety, guaranteed health, even immortality. Acquiring a chronic illness pierces that illusion, and this is a loss. Grieving this loss is an integral part of adjusting to the illness.”
Take a moment to stop and think how you coped those first few weeks and months after finding out you had a chronic illness. While acceptance takes time and comes in different stages, Tessa explains how flexibility and willingness to adapt to your new “normal” is even more important.
“Rather than searching for big, sweeping acceptance, then feeling like a failure when it doesn’t come, chronically ill folks can enact small, empowering steps, such as taking required medications, learning everything we can about how our diseases work, seeing doctors regularly and being prepared for appointments with a list of questions, advocating for our needs and wants, figuring out which foods makes us feel good, and going to therapy and/or connecting with a support group.”
In my own patient advocacy and experience living with Crohn’s I can attest to the fact that we all spend a lot of time wishing for our past and worry about what our futures will hold, rather than focusing on the right now. The majority of IBD patients are diagnosed prior to age 35. This leads most of us to experience the big milestones of adulthood (career, finding love, living on our own, family planning, etc.) with a disease in tow and wondering how that disease is going to complicate life or hold us back from accomplishing all we aspire to.
Bringing on the Biologics
Tessa calls herself an “infliximab veteran,” she spends a great deal of time talking with new patients and caretakers, mostly moms of young IBDers, about their fears. Most questions I receive through my blog and social media also revolve around biologics and the worries people have about side effects and whether the drug will fail them or be a success. I feel confident deeming myself an “adalimumab veteran”, as I’ve been giving myself Humira injections since 2008.
As patients we are faced with difficult decisions all the time and must look at the risk versus the benefit. Having health literacy and understanding your actual risk from a biologic is something that should be communicated with you from your physician. Tessa’s doctor explained to her that six in 10,000 people who take anti-TNF agents (Humira and Remicade) get lymphoma. But as patients, all we see on the internet and in the side effect notes are “lymphoma.” Force yourself to dig digger and remind yourself of your alternative—to not feel better.
The Truth Serum of Chronic Illness
One of the superpowers of chronic illness is that we get to see which family members and friends come to the forefront and which fade to the background. Not everyone is cut out to be a caregiver, but you’ll quickly see who has empathy and who genuinely cares. In my own personal experience, it’s helped me get out of relationships with guys who were no where to be seen while I lied in a hospital bed and allowed me to distance myself from friends who couldn’t find the time in their day to check in when they knew I was flaring.
Tessa says that chronic illness forced her to peel back the layers and the isolation wall she put up, too. Chronic illness has shown her that people do more than just hurt each other— “they nurture, they listen, they enrich one another’s lives.” Her IBD also empowered her to be brave enough to put an end to unhealthy relationships that weren’t benefiting her well-being, both with friends and love interests. Her Crohn’s has showed her that not every friendship is meant to support you in the same way.
This is a great piece of advice. As you live with a chronic illness, you’ll come to know which friends you can share your deep dark secrets and worries with, and which you give the high-level cliff notes version of your experience to. Your chronic illness will help you set those boundaries in a graceful way.
Her love story with her husband embodies what those of us with chronic illness deserve, a partner who sees us as more than our disease, but understands the severity and complexity at the same time.
Juggling a Career and Crohn’s
One of the biggest challenges of life with IBD is knowing how and when to disclose your health situation with your employer. You may wonder how the news will be received, if it will jeopardize your chance for promotion, if your coworkers will resent you…the list goes on and on. As someone who worked in the TV industry as a producer, news anchor and reporter for nearly a decade, and as a PR professional and corporate communications specialist, I’ve been lucky that all my bosses have been incredibly understanding of my struggles with Crohn’s, but never used them against me in any way. I’ve always waited until after I have received the job offer and then told my boss in a meeting the first week of work. This alleviated some of the stress on my shoulders and ensured my coworkers wouldn’t be blindsided when I had a flare that landed me in the hospital. By communicating openly, it also to set an expectation that I may not always feel up to par and that I may need more bathroom breaks or to work from home or come in late after doctor appointments.
Tessa so eloquently writes, “You want your boss to understand that while your disease affects your life, you’re still capable of doing your job. Deliver the necessary facts about your illness without bombarding your boss with information—keep it direct and simple. Be clear about how you manage the illness and that although you do your best to keep it under control, it can flare up. Tell your boss what you’ll do if and when that happens.”
Realizing the Power of Pain
One of my favorite analogies that Tessa shares in the book is that each of us carries an invisible bucket, some are heavier than others, and the weight of that said bucket is constantly in fluctuation. She says that as she started connecting with those in our community, she came to realize that her personal pain was no better or worse than anyone else’s. So often we weigh our struggles against those of others, and that’s not helpful to beneficial for anyone.
“Think about it: If a friend came to you in pain, would you tell them that other people have it worse and that their pain isn’t valid? If you did, you’d be a lousy friend—so why do you speak to yourself in such a way?”
Rather than thinking that ‘someone always has it worse’ ask for support when you need it. Don’t downplay your struggles out of guilt thinking you aren’t deserving of help. Give support when you can but don’t forget about the person you see looking back in the mirror, be loving, kind, and patient to them, too.
Leaving the Rest to Imagination
Some of my other favorite excerpts from the book are Tessa’s “Seven Secrets”. The secrets (both big and small) she keeps from loved ones and friends about her experience with IBD. The secrets are relatable. We don’t want to come off as a burden. We don’t want to scare those who mean something to us. We want to hold on tightly to the notion that our illness doesn’t define us, so we often don’t disclose the true reality of what encompasses our illness.
Another section I know you’ll love is “Thirty-Eight Experiences of Joy” where Tessa shares quotes from 38 different people with chronic illness and how they’ve discovered joy despite their illness. I’m honored to be featured in that section of the book.
She understands the power of community and how finding your tribe within your disease space and outside of it is an important aspect of disease management and life fulfillment.
“Connecting with other chronically ill people teaches you how to carry each other’s weight—when to lift when you have strength, and when to share the burden when you have no energy left,” writes Tessa. “I’ve found the chronic illness and disability community to be one of endless empathy and generosity.”
The Gratitude That Comes with Chronic Illness
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book and a perspective that I wholeheartedly share:
“At the beginning of my illness, I was so inwardly focused on what I’d lost that I couldn’t see the gifts illness had given me. Mom, a determined optimist, taught me to always look for the silver lining. Mine is this: Yeah, my body won’t allow for any bullshit—no jobs I hate, no relationships I’m not fulfilled by, no hours crying over wrinkles. Illness made me braver, kinder, and more empathetic, and that gives me way more radical power than the faux control I was clutching to for so long. In the most unexpected way, illness freed me. It compelled me to begin therapy, which kick-started the process of tending my wounds old and new. It made me focus on the present more than the anxiety of the future. And it made me be in my body in a way I never experienced before. Suddenly, I had to mindfully care for my body and brain as best I could and understand that beyond that, it’s out of my hands.”