Ignorance is not bliss: Get health screenings outside of your IBD

It’s often said managing IBD is like having a full-time job. Along with the regular visits to the gastroenterologist, all the blood draws, scopes and scans, we also have to juggle taking and ordering medication (dealing with insurance!), listening to the symptoms our body is speaking to us throughout the day, knowing when we need to slow down…and the list goes on.

One aspect of taking care of our overall health that is often not discussed is the importance of staying on top of all the other preventative health checks—seeing the dentist two times a year, getting a vision screening, having a well-woman visit, and getting a full body skin check by a dermatologist, to name a few. pexels-karolina-grabowska-4386466

As we all continue to navigate the choppy waters of this pandemic, being proactive with medical care has been a bit more challenging. Appointments may have been canceled or delayed. The stress of going somewhere for an in-person appointment may seem risky to you, but it’s imperative we all stay on top of our most important job of all—staying as healthy as possible. Because even if your Crohn’s is in remission, your disease, and the medication you take to treat it, can put you at greater risk for other health issues.

Did you know?

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, women with IBD, especially those on immunosuppressants may be at increased risk for cervical dysplasia and abnormal pap smears. Meaning, we’re at a greater risk for abnormal growth of cells on the surface of our cervix that could potentially lead to cervical cancer. Get those pap smears! I visited my OB-GYN and had my well-woman visit a few days ago.

The same goes for seeing a dermatologist. Those of us on immunomodulators or immunosuppressive therapies may have an increased probability of developing malignancy, including non-melanoma skin cancer. I went to the dermatologist this past week for a full body screening. I had a small atypical mole removed from my back that I wasn’t even aware of. Even though atypical moles are not always skin cancer, having these types of moles can be a risk factor for one day developing melanoma. I’ll admit, I haven’t been the best about staying on top of this aspect of disease management. The last time I had been to a dermatologist was 2005, because I was dealing with acne from the prednisone I was taking.

Although medications that manage Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are the most significant contributor when it comes to our risk of skin cancer, it’s believed having IBD alone can also lead to an increased risk of melanoma.

It’s recommended by the National Cancer Institute, that people with chronic illness be extra vigilant about sun protection. My dermatologist recommends wearing an SPF of at least 30 and having a yearly surveillance of my skin done.

Some researchers believe our faulty immune systems fail to detect cancerous tumors in our bodies and that the increased inflammation can make us more susceptible to certain cancers.

Dental, vision, and IBD

IBD can also make your dental health bite. Studies show people with IBD are at an increased risk of getting cavities and oral infections. While it’s not completely clear why this is, it’s believed our immune systems along with steroid-based drugs and even the acidity of our mouths, can cause our teeth to be weakened. dentist-4275389_1920

As someone who was forced (haha, by my mom!) to get braces, twice, I have always taken great care of my teeth. But, when I was pregnant with my son Reid, I did develop an abscess on my gum over my molars that luckily went away after he was born. It was unclear at the time if this was more pregnancy or IBD related. I know the thought of going to the dentist seems daunting since it’s such an invasive appointment where you can’t wear a mask while you’re in the chair, but when I went in for my cleaning last month, I felt completely at ease by all the safety protocols in place.

Whether you’re blind as a bat like me, and always get an annual vision screening to update your prescription and order contacts or if you have perfect vision, it’s important to get your eyes checked. Between 4-10% of people with IBD experience issues with their eyes because of their disease activity. Problems with your eyes can be a sign of a flare. During my visit with my ophthalmologist last month I was impressed by all the measures taken to ensure patient safety.

Take time to take care of you

Trust me, I get that life is busy and these times are scary. But, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you don’t take advantage of the preventative medical care that is available so you can be proactive should an issue outside of your IBD arise. While telehealth is great to take advantage of when you can, for many of these appointments, you do need to be in person. If you’re worried about this, you can ease your fears by calling the office prior to your appointment to learn about what measures the office takes to protect patients. Whenever I start an appointment I always let the person taking care of me know that I have Crohn’s disease and I’m immunocompromised because of the medication I take.IMG-7443

I don’t particularly enjoy any of these appointments, but I always leave with peace of mind that I’m doing everything I can to be vigilant and healthy not only for myself, but for my family. I often find I get more anxious for these “other” appointments than I do seeing my GI, because I feel much more confident about how I manage my Crohn’s and the way my disease process manifests. Don’t do all the work to keep your IBD in check and forget about the rest of you.

I’m typing this article with a band-aid on my back and a slight burning sensation in my shoulder from the biopsy, with the hope that my experience implores you to make an appointment and get all your ducks in a row when it comes to all your “other” appointments. Yes, I know it’s a lot, but ignorance is not bliss when it comes to your overall well-being.

Finding your voice with Crohn’s: How music helps Anna Tope cope

Songwriting has been a coping outlet for 22-year-old Anna Tope, for as long as she can remember. When she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in June 2019, she worried if her aspirations of sharing music with the world would be silenced. COVID-19 hit during her final semester at York College of Pennsylvania. She looked forward to and worked hard for her senior recital all four years. The event was scheduled for March 13th, right when the world started to shut down. IMG_6972

Luckily, the music faculty were able to work things out and held the recital before campus had to be cleared out. Anna gave the best performance she ever had. The whole audience was on their feet, followed by a huge line of people waiting to greet her afterwards. The moment was a dream come true. Check out her recital performance here.

The song inspired by Crohn’s

“My favorite part was being able to end my recital with a song that I wrote about my Crohn’s Disease journey called “Renewed.” This is a song that has moved people to tears, and people have told me how much the song has impacted them, especially during the pandemic,” said Anna.

Anna wrote “Renewed” in January 2020, while sitting at a Barnes & Noble. Click here to listen to the song.

She says quarantine has enabled her to focus more on creating music and writing.

“My songwriting is essentially reflecting through some of the hardest times of my life, such as my illness/diagnosis, but also showing how my hardships have been so eye opening and influential,” says Anna.

Finding joy through the suffering

Anna’s main goal with her music is to bring joy and hope to those suffering from chronic illness. The unpredictability of Crohn’s often leaves Anna feeling worried about whether IBD is going to rob her of her musical dreams, but not only that—like many of us, she worries about her future. Two of her biggest fears are finding love and being able to have kids one day. Ann is incredibly grateful for her amazing support system and how her friends and family have rallied around her since diagnosis.image0 (1)

She wants to use her voice, energy, and the broken parts of her experience to bring comfort to those who feel alone.

“IBD has impacted me in so many ways. It’s turned my life upside down, but at the same time it’s given me even more of a passion to sing and to help others.”

Use quarantine to your advantage

Living with a chronic illness in the middle of the pandemic is complicated and challenging, but Anna hopes others use this time to explore their talents and see beyond their IBD. IMG_6121

“Go write some songs or poetry. If you want to learn an instrument, now is the time! Go write that book you’ve been wanting to start. Do whatever brings you a feeling of accomplishment, joy, and comfort.”

The success of Anna’s senior recital pushed her to continue writing. At a time when many of us feel tapped energy wise—mentally, physically, and emotionally, try and find what motivates you outside of your illness. And like Anna, you’ll see, while IBD may change the course of the path you’re on and re-direct you for a bit, just because you have Crohn’s, doesn’t mean you can’t follow your dreams.

Connect with Anna

Instagram: @myvoice.myjourney

Facebook: Anna Tope Music

Twitter: @annatope_

YouTube: Music and Covers

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBD does not just look like me

Like most people, the events of the past week have left me feeling upset, angry, frustrated, helpless, and at a loss for words. As a white woman I recognize my privilege and the need for change. I recognize that I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a black man, woman, or child.

As an IBD advocate I understand that Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis do not discriminate. These diseases don’t care what color, race, ethnicity, or gender you are. Oftentimes though, the lists for blogs, advocates to check out, interviews, or accolades, tend to feature people like me. When I scroll through these lists and see all white advocates it makes me uncomfortable. IBD looks like meWhen I’m part of a photo grid holding up a sign alongside fellow advocates…and it’s a bunch of white girls, it makes me feel out of touch.

Over the years, I’ve heard from black patients who are friends of mine, who have dealt with delayed diagnoses because of mistrust from physicians. I’ve heard of black patients being looked at as opioid-seekers, despite rarely going to the ER for their symptoms. IMG_8619

I want to make sure you know and are familiar with some ROCKSTAR female advocates who do a phenomenal job of being a voice for not only the IBD community, but the black community. Here are their names and their Instagram handles.

Brooke Abbott                @crazycreolemama and @IBDmoms

Shawn Bethea                 @shawnbethea_ and @crohnsandstuff

Gaylyn Henderson         @gutlessandglamorous and @gaylyn14

Myisha King                     @gameofcrohnsandchronicillness

Sonya Goins                     @sonya_goins

Melodie Blackwell          @melodienblackwell

Shermel Maddox            @shermel2

Chelsey Leanne               @chelseyleannibd

We’ve all had people in our lives try and understand what it’s like to live with IBD when they don’t have it. Through my nearly 15 years with Crohn’s, I’ve experienced the instant connection that occurs when you meet someone online or in person who understands your reality. ShawnThere’s a level of empathy and understanding that makes you feel like you are home.

In this instance, I’m not going to try and act like I fully grasp or understand what it’s like to be black with IBD. It’s important for our community to have role models who look like themselves to connect with, learn from, and admire. Especially the newly diagnosed and pediatric patients. IMG-2348

IBD is not black and white. IBD is all of us. Holding hands through this. Lifting one another up. Doing better at loving and accepting others. Making an effort to be anti-racism each and every day. Teaching our children to see the world and others with a different understanding. This is on us. We must be better.

IBD does not just look like me.

From one IBD mom to another…here are some resources to check out:

Children’s books to support conversations on race

Your Kids Aren’t Too Young to Talk About Race: Resource Roundup

Anti-racism Resources for White People

An Anti-racist Reading list (for adults)

Anti-Racism Activism Resources, Education, Stories, Books, and More

Wondering how you can make a meaningful impact? Tune in for a Facebook Live Tuesday, June 2 at 6 pm CT on the CrohnsandStuff Facebook page.

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My five year old has Crohn’s and was tested for COVID-19: A Mother’s story

UPDATE: Since this story was shared on March 30th, Jadyn’s COVID-19 test came back. After two weeks of waiting, the test came back positive.

Imagine your 14-month-old baby being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. That was the reality for Anna and Jon Richt of Georgia. Fast forward a few years and their daughter, Jadyn, is now five years old and thriving with IBD. This past week though, the Richt family had quite a scare. E06A1215Jadyn woke up with a fever and a slight cough. Given the craziness of the times we live in right now, they immediately called the COVID-19 hotline. Once the person on the other line heard about Jadyn’s health history and the fact she is immunocompromised, they agreed, Jadyn needed to be seen. In urgent care, Jadyn was tested for the flu, strep throat, and COVID-19. The Richt’s were told they would have a test result in five days, it’s been more than a week now, and still no result.

Prior to all the discussion on social distancing and sheltering in place, Anna and Joe had traveled domestically. Family members who had been staying in their home had recently traveled internationally. Anna says, “The strep test came back positive, which gave us a sense of relief. But it didn’t cancel the possibility of COVID-19. We have been watching her closely, ready to sound the alarm at any sign of health deterioration. Thankfully, she is feeling much better and I believe she is bouncing back to her normal self.”

What’s it like to raise a daughter with IBD from such a young age? Jadyn has a G-tube, and Anna is passionate about spreading awareness about feeding tubes to educate others. E06A1193I’ll allow Anna to take you back to the beginning, so you can have a better grasp of their ongoing journey and how it’s brought them to where they are today.

Seeing blood when my baby was six months old

I started seeing blood in Jadyn’s stool when she was around six weeks old and immediately called her pediatrician. He chalked it up to a couple of things, mostly related to breastfeeding issues and didn’t seem too concerned. When she was eight months old, my husband’s job moved us far away from family and her symptoms worsened. Her new pediatrician was concerned about her weight loss and sent us to the hospital for further testing.

A colonoscopy showed lesions all throughout her GI tract. Crohn’s disease was mentioned but the gastroenterologist was hesitant to diagnose it because of Jadyn’s young age. I did exactly what they say not to do and Googled Crohn’s Disease. The symptoms were spot on: “Bloody stools, persistent diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss.” I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone this, but deep down, I knew.

Dealing with the diagnosis

The diagnosis eventually came when Jadyn was 14 months old. fullsizeoutput_38f9The first couple years were nothing short of a dog fight. I remember sitting in my sister’s living room after an appointment when all of the sudden the doctor’s number popped up on my phone. She was calling to say that Jadyn’s lab results didn’t look good and we needed to head to the hospital right away.

My sister and I sat there in disbelief and cried. I remember her saying through her tears, “I feel like you are under attack.” We were. But we fought back. There have been countless doctors’ appointments, feeding tubes, eating therapies, procedures, you name it. She has been a trooper through it all and I am so happy to report that her current medication is working. Thankfully, she is a normal 5-year-old for the most part, which I don’t take for granted.

What has the journey been like for me as her mother?

It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever faced in my life. At the beginning I assumed it was something we could easily get under control and move on. I now know it is a marathon race, not a sprint. Watching my child suffer, and not being able to fix the problem despite my best effort made me feel like I was failing her. IMG_6044

It’s been lonely at times. Don’t get me wrong, we have the most amazing family and friends. They have supported us unconditionally every step of the way. But because she was diagnosed so young, we’ve never met another child her age with Crohn’s. I couldn’t call one of my mom friends and ask, “What anti-TNF drug worked for your child?” or “How are you potty training your two-year-old who is flaring?” Instead, we’ve pioneered this head-on, and I’ve completely relied on my faith to get me through. People often say how strong I am, but honestly, I believe it’s God’s strength in me that they see. When I look back on these past five years, I know without a doubt He has carried us. I can honestly say I am proud of the mother I have become due to this disease. I am brave and empathetic. I’ve developed grit and survive on grace.

What I want to say to parents of children with IBD

Take care of yourself. I always think of the airplane safety guide. Secure your oxygen mask before helping others. You cannot fully care for your child if you don’t take care of yourself first. Some days that may mean a 30-minute workout and drinking plenty of water. Other days it’s meeting with a counselor to address the emotional toll the disease has taken.

Let others help. They really want to. Use that time to step away and catch your breath.

See your child for who they are. Your child is more than their disease. They are uniquely designed for a specific purpose.

You can do this. I firmly believe that you were handpicked by God to be your child’s mother.  Continue to advocate and cheer them on. Take it one day at a time.

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Jadyn and her little sister

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” Philippians 1:6

You can follow Anna by checking out her blog: Grit to Grace

Anna’s Instagram: @grit.to.grace

Real talk from an immune compromised 30-something during the COVID-19 pandemic

You can think of this as a Public Service Announcement for the immune compromised. Like many of my peers in the chronic illness community, I may appear healthy on the exterior, but the biologic medication I depend on to manage my Crohn’s disease, knocks out my immune system. In my family alone, so many face the same reality:

-my 30-year-old cousin whose had two heart transplants and a kidney transplant

-my cousin’s 2.5-year-old son battling Leukemia

-my cousin’s wife who has Crohn’s and is on Remicade

-my cousin who lives with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome among other chronic conditions

I’ve been part of the immune-compromised population since I was 24 years old. Over the past 12 years, never did I dream of the reality we’re currently living in. When I first heard about Coronavirus, I wasn’t all that alarmed. As the conversations and situation continues to become more serious, I’m getting more anxious and concerned.

Here are the latest recommendations shared by The Lancet as this relates to the IBD population. I found these guidelines helpful in drowning out the noise of all the information being thrown our way.

Potential risk factors for infection

  • Patients with IBD on immunosuppressive agents
  • Patients with active IBD and malnutrition
  • Elderly people with IBD
  • IBD patients who frequent medical clinics
  • IBD patients with underlying health conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes
  • Patients with IBD who are pregnant

Medication for patients with IBD

  • Continue current treatment if your disease is stable, and contact your doctor for suitable medicine if you’re flaring.
  • Use mesalamine as prescribed, this should not increase the risk of infection.
  • Corticosteroid use can be continued, but be cautious of side effects.
  • A new prescription of immunosuppressant or an increase in dosage is not recommended in epidemic areas.
  • Use of biologics, such as the anti-TNF’s infliximab (Remicade) and adalimumab (Humira) should be continued.
  • If Remicade infusion is not accessible, switching to a Humira injection is encouraged.
  • Vedolizumab (ENTYVIO) can be continued due to the specificity of the drug for the intestine.
  • Ustenkinumab (Stelara) can be continued, but starting this requires infusion center visits and is not encouraged.
  • Enteral nutrition might be used if biologics are not accessible.
  • Tofacitinib (Xeljanz) should not be newly prescribed unless there are no other alternatives.

Surgery and endoscopy

  • Postpone elective surgery and endoscopy. (I’ve heard of many  centers and hospitals delaying until June at this point.)
  • Screening for COVID-19 (completed blood count, IgM or IgG, nucleic acid detection, and chest CT needed before emergency surgery.

Patients with IBD and fever

  • Contact your GI about visiting an outpatient clinic. Consult with your physician about possibly suspending the use of immunosuppressant and biologic agents and follow appropriate guidance if COVID-19 can’t be ruled out.

While the unknown is scary—as a chronic illness community we need to recognize how well-equipped we are mentally and emotionally to live life during these uncertain and uneasy times. According to the National Health Council, 133 million Americans live with incurable or chronic diseases, many of which are treated with medications that make us susceptible to illness.

It can be unnerving to see peers downplay the severity of the situation and making light of the fact they have nothing to worry about. If you have a friend or family member who’s immune compromised or a loved one over age 60, you have reason to be empathetic. Chances are you know many people who fall in these categories. Going against the recommendation and living your life like nothing is going on right now, puts people like me and so many others in jeopardy. It’s irresponsible and says a great deal about your character. CCFA social distance

To those of us in the high-risk category, this quarantining and social distancing is more than an inconvenience or a change in our plans. We know that if we happen to come down with COVID-19, our bodies may not be able to fight it.

The healthy are getting a glimpse into what it feels like to live with a disease that can blindside you and flip your world upside down at any moment. After years of juggling all the variables and the what-ifs, we know how to protect ourselves. We know living in fear takes away from our joy. Thanksgiving2019

Rather than feel like we’re less than, we can continue to choose to see the beauty of what is right in front of us within our homes, with those who matter most.

Rather than feel like we’re goners, we can follow our care team’s recommendations, pay attention to facts over fake news, and stay on our medication. It’s believed the threat of untreated IBD is a bigger concern right now, and if you flare and need steroids, your immune system will take even more of a hit. If you are flaring and have a fever, physicians are now ruling COVID-19 out first.

Rather than waiting for the worst, we can be proactive and use the tools in our arsenal to stay as healthy as possible and use trusted resources to guide our decision making. Wash your hands even more than you’re used to, spend time outside in your yard, never share food or drink, change your clothes if you’ve left the house.

Rather than glue ourselves to the TV or scroll through our phones, we can take time for ourselves and make a point to make self-care a priority. Put your phone in another room, turn up the tunes and have a dance party with your kids. You’ll be amazed at what a stress reliever that is! Read a good book. Organize your closet. Try out a new recipe or bake something yummy.

Rather than cower in the corner, we can continue to advocate and be a voice for the voiceless in our community to educate and inform the rest of the population about what it means to be immune compromised by connecting over social media, Facetime, Marco Polo, emailing and texting.

Here are some helpful resources to check out:

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation

Coronavirus and IBD Reporting Registry

International Organization for the Study of Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Coronavirus Resource and Planning for IBD Patients (Blog written by IBD advocate Jessica Caron)

Coronavirus Resources for People with IBD (Blog/Podcast created by IBD Advocate Amber Tresca)

USA Today article: The best thing everyday Americans can do to fight coronavirus? #StayHome, save lives

From remission to flaring in one week: What 2015 taught me about life with Crohn’s

I woke up from my colonoscopy five years ago and was told “You’re in remission”. Tears of happiness streamed down my cheeks. I was in disbelief. Was I dreaming?! It took a decade for me to hear those words, and one week to be robbed of the title.

One week later, I was hospitalized with a small bowel obstruction. The first of three that would happen that next year. So many of us in the chronic illness and IBD community specifically, are constantly chasing after “remission”. But what does remission really mean?

Remission is different for every person, much like IBD manifests differently in everybody. When I heard the word remission five years ago, it felt magical and exciting.

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Celebratory post-colonoscopy cheesecake after finding out I was in remission Feb. 2015.

Hell, my mom and boyfriend (now husband) and I went out and celebrated with a big meal at The Cheesecake Factory. When I flared days later, I started feeling skeptical of the term and came to realize how fleeting and elusive remission can be. I laid in the hospital bed, devastated and dumbfounded by what had just transpired.

It took three bowel obstruction and 18 inches of my small intestine to ultimately be removed in August 2015, for me to reach surgical remission. While surgery is not a cure, my bowel resection provided me with a new beginning. As I approach my five year “remission” anniversary this August,

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Hospitalized a week later with a bowel obstruction.

I remain on edge. I’ve been blessed to be on cruise control with my illness these past few years. My GI has me well-managed on my biologic and vitamins, I know how to read my body when it speaks to me through symptoms, and when I suspect something is going awry, my care team and I nip the disease activity in the bud.

To me, remission is waking up each morning with the expectation that I’m going to feel well and be able to take on the day as planned. Remission is having more ‘feel good’ days than painful ones. Remission is being confident to attend social outings, travel, and do all the things I set my heart out to do, without feeling suffocated by the fear of the ‘what ifs” of a flare. Remission is being able to focus on the part of me that is so much more than my disease. remission blog

Remission tends to the be the “goal” when it comes to IBD, but it’s not always feasible. It’s easy to see posts on social media and feel like you’re failing because your body is failing you, repeatedly. It took me a decade of living with Crohn’s and surgery to be in remission.

While I’m a compliant patient, I don’t take much credit for my remission. I know how at the drop of a hat I could be rushing to the ER, unable to breathe from my abdominal pain. I remember all the flares that blindsided me and I know my body can decide to flip the switch at any given moment. I feel lucky most the time—while my Crohn’s could be worse, it could be better, too. Remission doesn’t mean that symptoms are non-existent, moreso that the majority of the time I feel well with some not so great days sprinkled in the mix. While in this state of remission, I remind myself not to take this time for granted, not to become complacent, and to stay vigilant on managing my symptoms and overall well-being.

Rather than focusing on the big “R” word that’s loaded beyond belief and placing so much emphasis on it, let’s focus on feeling the best we can each day, communicating openly with our physicians, friends, and family, and taking this uphill battle one step and one day at a time.

From IVF to surrogacy: This IBD mom’s resilient journey

IBD and surrogacy. Those are loaded words. Both evoke emotions and opinions for unique reasons. For Jessie Magaro, 34 of Atlanta, the decision came after the unfathomable struggles she had with her Crohn’s during pregnancy and after. To provide you with the backstory, Jessie was diagnosed with Crohn’s and endometriosis when she was 15. She underwent an elective surgery her senior year of high school for her Crohn’s that put her into surgical remission for 15 years. IMG_7818

Jessie got married in 2016. While she was loving every second of newlywed life, she started feeling endometriosis pains. Less than a year after tying the knot, her doctor discovered her fallopian tubes were blocked. It was unclear if the blockage was due solely to endometriosis, or if it was a result of scar tissue from her bowel resection. Either way, IVF seemed to be the only option to get pregnant, and her fallopian tubes would need to be removed for that to be successful. In November 2017, Jessie underwent the surgery. When she woke up, she thought she would be stripped of the ability to conceive a baby naturally. But, her surgeon told her they were able to save and repair one of her tubes.

Jessie ended up getting pregnant right away, but unfortunately had an ectopic pregnancy that ended up severely rupturing her fallopian tube. During emergency surgery to remove the remaining tube, it was determined her endometriosis was severe and IVF needed to happen sooner than later. I had the chance to interview Jessie about her harrowing experience to bring a baby into this world, while living with IBD and endometriosis. IMG_7820

NH: How did IVF impact your IBD?

JM: “The moment we started IVF, I felt a shift in my body. A storm was brewing, and I could feel it. My completely dormant Crohn’s appeared to be waking up, but I didn’t want to believe it. I battled through the IVF process while experiencing my first flare in a decade in a half. The Reproductive Endocrinologist and GI were miffed. No one could say if this was an isolated reaction to the hormones, or if I was truly experiencing an active flare. After a lot of back and forth, and hard conversations with medical professionals and our families, we decided to proceed with implanting an embryo. The thought process was that most women tend to do better in pregnancy with Crohn’s, if they had been in remission prior. The hope was that this “flare” was an isolated incident from the IVF drugs/hormones, and that everything would calm down once I was pregnant. It was a risk, but one we decided we were willing to take. After a short round of prednisone, the flare subsided, and we proceeded with the transfer.”

NH: You now have a beautiful, healthy 13-month-old daughter to show for it. What was your pregnancy like?

JM: “My pregnancy was a terrifying whirlwind of trying to manage an awful flare while keeping the baby safe. IMG_7821I developed a new manifestation of the disease I never had before: Perianal Crohn’s. Not a pleasant situation and one that is very difficult to treat/manage while pregnant. Things got so bad at one point, I had to have surgery to drain an abscess and place a seton to help a fistula heal. No one wants to have surgery pregnant. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. The first trimester was spent hoping and praying the baby would make it with all the turmoil going on in my abdomen. The second trimester was spent hoping and praying we could keep her in there long enough to be viable outside of the womb. The third trimester was spent in an unbearable amount of pain fighting the urge to take the prescribed pain pills and being so scared about how the increased biologics, steroids and other new drugs being introduced into my system might affect her.”

NH: You must have been going through so many emotional struggles at this time, on top of all the physical.

JM: “The level of anguish and guilt I felt was unimaginable. I already felt like I was failing at my motherly duty to protect her and keep her safe. By 32 weeks it was clear I was rapidly deteriorating, and we had exhausted all treatment possibilities deemed “safe” while pregnant. I desperately needed more aggressive treatment, and that couldn’t happen until she was out. IMG_7823With the newly manifested, aggressive, perianal disease, a vaginal birth was out of the question. I held on until 36 weeks and on New Year’s Eve of 2018 we welcomed our baby girl. We were so incredibly relieved she was ok, and the focus quickly shifted to how not ok mom was.”

NH: As a fellow IBD mom, we all know how challenging the postpartum time is, along with chronic illness. How did you navigate that?

JM: “The first five months of her life were spent in and out of the hospital non-stop. At one point we were traveling down to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville for weeks at a time (without her) for testing and treatment. Leaving her the first few months was by far the hardest, most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever experienced. I would sit in the hotel bathtub staring at the IV in my arm sobbing. The physical and emotional pain was unbearable. I remember agonizing over the decision to start the new meds, or continue breastfeeding her, and the doctor saying to me “you NEED these meds, Jessie. You HAVE to get better. She needs you to get better more than she needs you to breastfeed her right now …” cue the waterfall of tears again.”

NH: You started to turn the corner when your daughter was six months old. Tell us about that.

JM: “The pain had begun to subside enough for me to take care of her without help, I could finally leave the house and I was starting to feel a little more like myself again. I was, and still am a year later, in an active flare, but we’re making progress. IMG_7824After talking  to many medical professionals, we decided it was not safe for me to carry another child. We still don’t know if it was the IVF drugs/hormones that caused the flare going into pregnancy, or if hormones in general and my Crohn’s disease just don’t mix, but we’re not willing to put myself, or another baby at risk like that again.”

NH: I can only imagine what a difficult and complicated decision this has been for you and your husband.

JM: “This was not a decision that was made easily or lightly. As we go through the motions of finding a surrogate to carry baby number two, my days are filled with a roller coaster of emotions. We know we want another child, but at what price? I can’t take care of my family if I am unwell. If carrying another child myself leads me to be unwell again … is it worth it? Or, do I trust someone else, a safer vessel, to carry a precious sibling for our daughter. We’ve chosen to pursue a safer vessel. I am so unbelievably grateful that surrogacy is an option for us and will allow us to continue growing our family while keeping me safe.”

This story is not meant to scare anyone with IBD who is looking to start a family. Make sure you are in complete, clinical remission before you conceive, and know it is completely possible to have a happy, healthy pregnancy with IBD.

Diet and Nutrition: The role they play in IBD

Nutrition and IBD. Just saying those two words together makes me feel like I’m running through a rabbit hole, unsure where to turn….and I’ve lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 14 years. Everywhere you look, you see people claiming to “heal their gut” through diet alone, while sharing diet hacks that “cure” IBD, when in fact there is no cure.

Unfortunately, my first experience with a dietitian, days after my diagnosis, was not a positive one. She came into my hospital room and was very doomsday and black and white about what my future held. The conversation led me to believe I would never eat raw fruit or veggies, salads were out, and fried foods were always a no-no. I was told I could have white bread, white pasta, cooked veggies, and plain chicken from that day forward. Hearing this made grappling with the diagnosis much more difficult.

My experience is hopefully not a typical one for those in the IBD community. Dietitians can be and are key players in our overall care teams. They help guide our nutrition and lead us on a path to better health. Chances are if you or someone you love has IBD you’ve come across the laundry list of IBD-friendly diets (SCD, anti-inflammatory, paleo, etc.). If you’ve found a diet that works for you, that’s great—but it can be extremely dangerous and damaging to use your own personal experience to sway others, especially if you preach to go off all medication and focus on diet alone.

Just as IBD manifests uniquely in every person, trigger foods vary, too. UPMC_HEADSHOT_HIGHRES_ALCHOUFETE_THEREZIA_DIETITIAN_20191113This week—I interview Therezia AlChoufete, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) who specializes in Gastrointestinal Diseases, to set the record straight about this area of disease management. Therezia completed her Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and her Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Pittsburgh.

NH: What role does diet/nutrition play in treating IBD?

TA: “A huge role – symptom management is very helpful to improve quality of life for patients with IBD, and many patients have difficulty understanding what they should or should not eat. A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist can help to identify trigger foods and other factors that may be affecting digestion & GI symptoms, nutrition for ostomy management, modifications to diet before and after surgery, recipe modifications to improve GI tolerance, and much more depending on each patient’s medical history.”

NH: When you’re given a patient with IBD, what type of information do you share in those appointments?

TA: “I see my patients in an outpatient setting – this allows me to review the patient’s goals, assess their nutrition status, and determine an individualized plan with every patient. Information can vary depending on each patient’s unique history, goals, and food tolerance.”

NH: Each person’s body responds differently to specific foods, everyone has different triggers, how do you create a plan that is tailored to everyone, rather than saying “all people with IBD need to stay away from XX”?

TA: “There is definitely no one-diet-fits-all approach for IBD. I typically review the patient’s food history, their unique food tolerances, and provide a plan according to each person’s goals and disease status. I try my best to avoid food restriction and liberalize the diet as tolerated by each patient.” brooke-lark-08bOYnH_r_E-unsplash

NH: What are the most common questions and concerns you hear from patients?

TA: “A very common question is what food/supplements can I eat to fix my symptoms – unfortunately, there is not a simple answer. But this leaves us some room to discuss food triggers in more detail and review ways to achieve a well-balanced diet.”

NH: Why is working with a nutritionist so critical for those with IBD?

TA: “Registered Dietitian Nutritionists are food and nutrition experts. We use science-based evidence to provide recommendations that are specific to each person’s medical history. This may include review of micronutrient deficiencies, hydration status, fluid build-up (sometimes following use of steroids), medication side effects, risks of malnutrition (which can occur in all body sizes), supplement questions, and so much more. An RDN can provide individualized medical nutrition therapy to minimize GI symptoms and optimize gut health in conjunction with medical plans provided by gastroenterologists.”

NH: What type of difference do you hope to make in a person’s patient journey? 

TA: “My hope is to help patients liberalize their diet and improve their quality of life. It is very important to me to help patients realize that they have a team of professionals that can help them manage their IBD. I enjoy working with a team of clinicians to target medical, behavioral, and nutritional health concerns to optimize care for each individual.”brandless-18lr202tDKY-unsplash

NH: What advice do you have for patients who are in the middle of a flare up?

TA: “Communication with your Gastroenterologist is very important if you feel like you are having flare-like symptoms in order to receive proper treatment. Sometimes, foods that are typically tolerated during times of remission are not tolerated during a flare, and an RDN can help you determine a softer diet that is easier to digest based on your individual needs.”

NH: The term “healing the gut with food” is commonly heard within the IBD community. What’s your belief on that vs. using diet as a combination therapy with medication?

TA: “Unfortunately, diet cannot cure IBD. It can improve some symptoms, but it is so important to work with your doctor to receive proper medical treatment for the disease, follow up with a dietitian to optimize your diet, and address any behavioral health management with your therapist or psychiatrist.”

Connect with Therezia here:

Twitter: @AppetiteOfMind

Instagram: @appetite_of_mind

Additional Resources:

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: https://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/diet-and-nutrition

International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: https://www.iffgd.org/other-disorders/inflammatory-bowel-disease.html

United Ostomy Associations of America: https://www.iffgd.org/other-disorders/inflammatory-bowel-disease.html

 

 

Loved one or friend have IBD? Read this before the holidays

The holiday season is upon us and with that comes family gatherings, social outings, and more food than anyone can handle. As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease more than 14 years ago, the holidays can still be complicated and stressful at times.

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Christmas 2013 with my family

If you’re reading this—and you have a family member or a friend with IBD, you’re in the right place. Chances are you may struggle with how to be supportive, knowing what to say, and how to navigate IBD. I’m here to help so that this truly can be the best time of the year, for everyone involved.

Here are my top 10 tips for making that possible:

  1. Start the conversation. Stop making IBD the elephant in the room. It can be more hurtful if you only see family or friends a couple times a year and if no one asks how you are feeling. Three words—is all it takes— “How’s your Crohn’s?” Ask questions and genuinely listen to our answers. Your empathy means more than you know. This puts the onus on the person with IBD, and allows us to disclose what we’re comfortable sharing, while knowing that you care. When people don’t ask, it seems as if they don’t care. I find this to be especially true as a patient advocate and blogger. So much of my presence and identity is talking about my life with Crohn’s, that when people don’t ask, it hurts more now than it used to. With the growing online social media discussion, I’m sure many people in our community can relate to this.
  1. Leave the neighborhood watch party for criminals in the streets. Chances are Aunt Joan came across a diet “cure” for Crohn’s while perusing through Facebook last month. Insert eye roll. Don’t question the food we put on our plates or ask if that’s going to “hurt our stomachs”. element5-digital-XQ5QWR8eZ5I-unsplashWe know our bodies, we know our triggers, and we are the ones who are ultimately going to have to pay if symptoms arise. Comments like “Oh, I didn’t think you could eat that?” or “Isn’t that going to land you in the bathroom?” are completely unnecessary. Focus on passing that side dish of mashed potatoes rather than giving us the side eye at the dinner table.
  1. Be flexible. The unpredictability of IBD—whether it’s feeling too fatigued to shower, lying in pain on the couch or holed up in a bathroom when you’re supposed to be getting ready or making a side dish, can cause us to be late for social gatherings. If a family member is tardy to the party or needs to leave earlier than expected, please don’t give them grief. Chances are they had to muster up a great deal of strength to get out of bed, get dressed, and put on their happy face, even if they are struggling on the inside. Practice grace and patience and remember how easy it is for us to mask pain with a smile.
  1. Don’t be offended if we bring our own food or don’t eat much. Oftentimes if we’re symptomatic or in the middle of a flare we are nauseous and eating feels too risky. It’s nothing against the way you make the family favorites. Trust we would eat everything if we could. kelsey-chance-ZrhtQyGFG6s-unsplashBringing “safe” foods or eating ahead of time at home provides comfort and allows us to enjoy more of the party. Please don’t take offense if we eat very little, or nothing at all.
  1. Please don’t make us feel like a spectacle. Chances are while at a social gathering, we’re going to need to break away to use the bathroom. If we need to go upstairs to use your bathroom, please don’t be offended or draw attention to us when we leave the table or return. We’re not trying to be rude; we’re already embarrassed and don’t want to deal with the anxiety of hogging the bathroom or smelling up the house as people socialize.
  1. We have doctors. Thanks to social media and Google, many seem to think they have the background of a MD. Please don’t try and teach us about a way we can “heal with food” that worked for your neighbor. Please don’t downplay or compare IBD to a stomach bug your toddler had. mona-masoumi-6dgpbvuAEpA-unsplashPlease trust we know the side effects of the medications we are on; we know the risks of the surgery we may have to get; we know it all. Please don’t tell us to start taking a supplement you found online. Yes, we’ve heard of: CBD oil, turmeric, probiotics, the list goes on. Please don’t question the safety of our biologic. Our disease is our reality. Unless you live it, it’s not yours.
  1. While IBD is invisible, oftentimes it’s not. If a loved one is on steroids, trust me they are incredibly self-conscious about their appearance. The temporary chipmunk cheeks (are not cute), the acne that makes you feel like a teenager (is nothing to kid about), the sudden influx in weight (is nothing to comment on). The same goes for someone who looks like they’ve dropped a lot of weight. When you have IBD, weight fluctuations happen all the time. It’s not a good thing. It’s because we’re malabsorbing nutrients or in the thick of a flare. If you notice these outward differences in us, please keep the thoughts to yourself unless you know we are purposefully trying to lose or gain weight. Don’t pressure us to be in photos if we seem hesitant. Know that we are aware of the changes and struggle with them daily.
  1. Don’t push the booze. brooke-lark-HjWzkqW1dgI-unsplashJust as with food, everyone with IBD responds differently to alcohol. We understand a glass of wine here or a beer there at a celebration may not seem like a big deal, but one drink can be enough to cause us extreme abdominal pain. Feel free to ask us, but if we decline the offer please don’t pester us, ask us if we’re pregnant, or try and make us succumb to peer pressure. We’d much rather be sober and present at the party without pain.
  1. Use us as a resource. Have a family member, friend, or co-worker of yours recently diagnosed with IBD? Let us know! Use us as a sounding board. I always love having the opportunity to use my patient journey and experience to bring hope and inspiration to others. Connect us with people in your life who we can support and help. The IBD family is incredibly welcoming and uplifting. By sharing this mutual connection, you can possibly change someone’s patient journey for the better.
  1. You play an integral role in our overall well-being. You bring us normalcy. You have the ability to distract us from our isolating illness.
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    With my (now) husband, New Years Day 2014. I was very sick at this family party. You would never know it by looking at this photo.

    If someone close to you has IBD and they aren’t opening up or wanting to talk about it, don’t push them. We all handle the disease differently, and chances are in time, when the moments right, they will take down their walls. In the meantime, make it known you are present and there to offer support and encouragement every step of the way—and leave it at that. The simple act of knowing who we can count on and trust makes all the difference. Thank you for walking alongside us on this unpredictable and challenging journey and for seeing us as so much more than our disease. For that we are eternally thankful.