By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
Paula Deen recently announced that she has diabetes. While this has been big news, especially given her new ties to a diabetes drug, very few people were surprised. In fact, we’ve come to expect chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes to develop in people with less-than-healthy eating habits.
But what happens when you do everything right in term of diet and exercise — and chronic disease happens anyway? That is exactly what happened to me. During my second pregnancy, over 3 years ago, I was diagnosed with colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease.
It’s taken me about 3 years to come to terms with it, but I had to go through growing pains first.
Phase 1: Denial
When I went to have my sigmoidoscopy, I was scared to death it was colon cancer and for the first time in my life was hoping for a hemorrhoid. When I was told I had colitis, I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t run in my family. I had never had problems before. While it was a mild form, which was good news, I stayed in denial.
I took medication during my pregnancy, believing this must be hormone-related and that it would just go away after delivery. After having my son, I stopped taking the medication and everything was fine. I really believed I kicked this disease. But when I stopped breastfeeding it came back.
Phase 2: Poor Management
When my symptoms returned I didn’t go back to the doctor. I got some more medicine and took it haphazardly. When flares happened I refused to give up the high fiber foods I loved so much (yes, this is the one disease that targets healthy foods when things are bad). Deep down, I was hoping the same rules didn’t apply to me.
Looking back, I can see now that my “health ego” got in the way. The biggest blow was when my family couldn’t get private health insurance because I had a pre-existing condition. Didn’t that insurance company know who I was? I’ve run three marathons and have eaten a healthy diet for over 20 years. I truly believed I would grow into old age never needing medication. I used to love filling out forms at the doctor’s office saying “no” to every disease, answering the questions with pride.
But upon moving into our new home, which was a high-stress endeavor, my symptoms got so bad that I finally developed that hemorrhoid. I had to surrender and accept that I had this disease, whether or not it was fair.
Phase 3: Acceptance & Action
I got my ducks in a row and went to new doctor, who ordered a colonoscopy ASAP. Luckily, the results showed that it hadn’t spread and was still relatively mild. I got the medication that seems to work best and started taking it religiously.
I’ve done more research and have found that pregnancy makes women more susceptible to autoimmune diseases like colitis. I may end up doing more work to find if I have food sensitivities, but for now I’m doing really well.
When I go into “poor me” mode, I remind myself that things could be much worse. In fact, this experience has made me more empathetic to the patients I educate about nutrition. When I notice them going through the denial or poor management phase, I can give words of encouragement because I’ve been there.
And like all chronic diseases, there is something good that comes from it. While I pride myself on good health, I’m certainly not perfect. In fact, through having kids and working on my writing career simultaneously, I know I fall short.
But now when I put my health on the backburner, my colitis friend lets me know. It’s my little reminder to take better care of myself — go to bed earlier, don’t sweat the small stuff and keep moving. It’s stripped down my “health ego,” which is a good thing, because it reminds me that I’m human and sometimes things just happen.
Have you, or someone you love, developed a chronic disease? Do any of these phases sound familiar? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in our Chronic Conditions community.