Living with Crohn’s disease

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Jeff teaches English and drama at a middle school in San Diego, where he lives with his wife and one-year-old daughter. Twelve years ago, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a condition that causes chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. The most commonly affected areas are the colon and small intestine. There is no cure for Crohn’s, and without effective treatment, it can be extremely painful.

For Jeff, the pain caused by Crohn’s disease was the first sign that something was wrong. He was just entering his fourth year of college at San Diego State University when he began to experience severe abdominal pain. Although his school attendance wasn’t interrupted, he found himself needing to use the restroom three to four times per class. “It progressed to the point where having a bowel movement was excruciating,” Jeff recalls. Shortly after the pain started, blood and mucous began to appear in his stool. “They’re the kind of symptoms that, initially, you don’t want to tell anyone about,” Jeff says. However, his girlfriend — now his wife — told him that it was time to see a doctor.

Jeff’s primary care doctor referred him to a gastroenterologist, a physician who specializes in diseases of the gastrointestinal (GI) system. “I didn’t want to go see a GI doctor because I was 20 or 21 years old — and that’s usually a 40-year-old thing,” Jeff says. He did see the specialist, though, who performed a sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy, procedures that use scopes to provide close-up images of the colon and intestinal lining. These procedures allowed the gastroenterologist to see inflammation in a section of Jeff’s small intestine called the terminal ileum. Although a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease can be daunting, Jeff says, “I was more concerned when I wasn’t diagnosed because it was just so excruciating and felt impossible to live with. But once I was diagnosed and given a treatment, it was a huge relief.”

Jeff was quickly started on prednisone, a steroid medication in pill form. The prescription helped significantly but had drastic side effects, such as facial swelling and bone density loss. Jeff transitioned off of prednisone and began Remicade, a medication administered every eight weeks by intravenous (IV) infusions. Although it stabilized Jeff’s condition for three years, the Remicade eventually stopped working. In 2007, Jeff switched to Humira. He now gives himself at-home injections of the medication every two weeks. He also takes anti-inflammatory pills twice a day, and a large fiber supplement to help his digestion. He’s been free from flare-ups of Crohn’s for eight years now.

In addition to medication, Jeff credits dietary changes with reducing his symptoms. Early on, he adjusted his lifestyle to eliminate caffeine, which notably triggered his symptoms, along with alcohol, spicy foods, and large amounts of dairy. He also avoids eating processed foods. “I actually had a trip to the ER early on,” he says, “because I ate a hot dog.” But, Jeff points out, “each person’s Crohn’s disease is different, so just because something is a trigger for mine doesn’t make it a trigger for everyone else’s.” Although he is careful with his diet, Jeff isn’t bothered by the foods he has to sacrifice to control his symptoms. “It sounds like a lot of stuff,” he says, “but it just ends up becoming second nature and I get used to eating the way I need to eat.”

Throughout the challenges presented by his Crohn’s disease, Jeff has remained both positive and proactive. “Challenges need to be seen as challenges, not as threats,” he says. “And if you approach it that way, it becomes much more manageable and realistic to deal with.” If he meets people with Crohn’s disease, Jeff says, “the only thing I ever want to do is help them realize that there are courses of treatment, and you can live a fairly normal life while dealing with it.” At the end of the day, “it’s what you decide to do with your situation, how you decide to handle it.”

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