Why Every Person with Chronic Illness Needs to Read “What Doesn’t Kill You”

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.”

Connect with Tessa:

Twitter: @TessaJeanMiller

Instagram: @tessajeanmiller

Her website

Purchase “What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness–Lessons from a Body in Revolt”

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

IndieBound

Stay tuned to my Instagram (@natalieannhayden) for a special book giveaway kicking off today (February 8)! Five lucky followers in the United States will receive a FREE hardcover copy of Tessa’s book.

Pregnant with #3 and excited to share more news with you!

Well, the cat’s out of the bag. I’m 14 weeks pregnant (tomorrow) with a baby BOY! We will be family of five in mid-July. Since as long as I’ve remembered, I’ve envisioned my life with three children, I just never thought it would happen in the middle of a pandemic! Bobby and I feel extremely fortunate with all the outpouring of love, support, and congratulations during this exciting time for our family. As an IBD mom, I feel constant gratitude that my remission has held strong these 5-plus years and enabled me to have healthy, uneventful pregnancies. So far, out of all four of my pregnancies (miscarried between Reid and Sophia), this one has been my “easiest”. Aside from too many migraines to count, the nausea and fatigue in the first trimester were minimal and I feel great most days.

While I plan to be transparent and share content over the next six months about my experience being a high-risk pregnancy during these crazy pandemic times, I also want you to know I’m cognizant of the fact that pregnancy announcements, and pictures of baby bumps can be a trigger for our community. I am empathetic to the fact that family planning can look differently for those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Because of this—I’m excited to announce I’ll be launching a special series on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s entitled “IBD Motherhood Unplugged”.

IBD Motherhood Unplugged topics will include (but are not limited to):

  • The decision not to have children due to IBD
  • Being told you can’t carry a child and coping with that loss
  • Adoption
  • Surrogacy
  • Infertility
  • IBD pregnancy after loss
  • Single parenting with IBD
  • Biologics and pregnancy/breastfeeding
  • The list goes on…

If you want to share your experience of navigating family planning or motherhood with IBD, please reach out. I already have several women lined up, ready and willing to share their personal journeys. I’m anxious to share their brave and resilient words with you.

My advocacy focus has always been to be the voice I so desperately needed to hear upon diagnosis and through all of life’s milestones. I want you to feel seen. I want you to feel heard. I also want you to remain hopeful that pregnancy and motherhood is possible for most women with IBD, we all just get there in different ways.

Putting the debate to rest: IBD fatigue isn’t your “normal” type of tired

I was putting away the dishes after dinner when I paused, exhaled, and said to my husband, “Whew. I just got a major wave of fatigue.” He said, “Yeah, I feel tired right now, too.” This isn’t the first time a healthy, able-bodied person has responded this way—and I know everyone with a chronic illness can relate. I kind of laughed and tried to explain why chronic illness fatigue wasn’t the same as feeling tired, but I was coming up short for words and having difficulty explaining the difference. My husband, Bobby, genuinely wanted to know why I thought my fatigue was different than his and how I knew it was. I said I used to be healthy. I used to not have a chronic illness. I know what tired felt like then and what fatigue feels like now.

Articulating pain with IBD and fatigue can be so challenging—even though it’s something that is so much a part of our day-to-day experience. Unless you live it and it’s your reality, it’s difficult to put the experience into words.

I called upon the IBD family on Twitter and Instagram to see how they describe their own personal fatigue. Here are some of the responses:

“Imagine your car being on empty and you put $5 worth of gas in the tank until you’re running on fumes. Then you put $5 worth of gas again, and you continue this process for months at a time…while sometimes running out of gas completely multiple times along the way.”

“Having to run a consistent marathon without stopping while carrying a toddler in the front and a backpack with a week’s worth of supplies on your back…in flats.”

“Mentally feeling like you have the energy to do simple tasks, but your body physically won’t let you. Knowing I need to walk 100 feet to get in my work building and having to give myself a pep talk to do it because I’m not sure I’ll make it without having to sit down.”

“You’re tired from being tired. You are just over everything and the day drags on and on. A nap doesn’t help because you “waste” your day, but the truth is you can’t even take a shower because the thought is way too much energy.”

“Like you’re walking with ankle and wrist weights on 24/7. There are days I feel like I’m walking through a fog so dense in my head I can touch it.”

“When I think of chronic fatigue for me it means faking being well. When getting out of bed or getting a shower is an accomplishment or needing to rest after taking a shower. No matter how much sleep you get you still wake up tired. Chronic illness fatigue is physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.”

“Trying to motivate yourself when you’re fatigued and having brain fog is how I imagine swimming in syrup or molasses would be.”

“It’s the feeling of exhaustion, hopelessness, and loss. You’re beaten down from managing your condition and the various negative side effects that come with it on top of trying to function in whatever role you’re trying to play on a daily basis (for me: wife, mother, employee, and friend). It’s trying to make the most out of life but knowing you’re limited. It’s mourning the person you once were and want to be at that time. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally draining.”

“I explained the fatigue to my students that just thinking about lifting my legs to walk or the mechanics of moving my limbs is exhausting…let alone the act of doing it. Everything feels heavy.”

 “Down to the bone, exhaustion in my core, something that is impossible to push through.”

“I like it’s like first trimester fatigue! But, with no end in sight and nothing hopeful to show for the symptoms like a baby!”

“Like your body is made of bricks. Your mind knows you need to get up and do something—change over the laundry, send an email, but your mind cannot make your body move.”

“Living in a constant state of exhaustion. No amount of sleep or rest seems to shake it.”

“For me…I would describe chronic illness fatigue as KNOWING your car has no more fuel and having to get out and push it home yourself.”

“Heaviness in my body. Just surviving, not thriving. Frustrating because I want to do more things but can’t always.”

“Being tired as soon as you wake up, until you go to bed. Never fully feeling rested. Planning naps throughout a day. Heavy eyes. Mood swing when beyond exhausted.”

“Like constantly living under 10x gravity.”

“Like someone pulled the plug out.”

“Like moving through the mud. It can also creep up on you when you least expect it, sort of like this year’s global pandemic—all encompassing and has no sympathy.”

“Like I’m wearing 100 pounds worth of sandbags that don’t go away even when I get lots of sleep.”

“Waking up and still being tired. No amount of coffee can fix this tired.”

Stop the comparison game

After reading these descriptions, my hope is that the next time you try and compare your fatigue or tiredness to someone with a chronic illness you pause and be selective of your words. Of course, everyone is entitled to be and feel tired, but it’s not an even playing field energy-wise when you’re a healthy, able-bodied person. Coffee, naps, and sleeping in help most of the population feel energized and re-charged, but fatigue with chronic illness is often untouchable. A full night’s rest can still leave you feeling exhausted. A coffee may have no impact. A nap may cause the fatigue to be even more pronounced. As an IBD mom, it can be frustrating to hear someone without a chronic illness try and diminish my personal struggles by equating them to theirs when there is truly no comparison.

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.