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Drawing a Short Straw in Life: Fighting Back against Chronic Disease

How I used running to battle chronic illness

We all have a short straw in life or at least something we consider our short straw. You know, an aspect in our lives – a missed promotion, our health, a series of bad relationships, or simply nothing seemingly to go our way or how we pictured life should be at this point in our lives –  those moments where we throw our hands up in the air and admit defeat as we plead “Whuzzat?! Hello, universe? It’s me, Mark!  What the #$%^!” ¹. As someone with two chronic illnesses (insulin dependant Type-2 diabetes and Crohn’s disease), life can get overwhelming at times. Read how I how running helped me take control of chronic illness.

Short Straw Syndrome

So what is my short straw and do I really have any reason to be complaining? Well, I suppose that is a relative question and in the eyes of the beholders, however, for those that are new to Making You Think here is a quick rundown on me and I will let you decide.

A Recap on My Chronic Illnesses

About 10 years ago my body decided to hate me, I started with an unusual amount of canker sores in my mouth (usually a half a dozen at a time) – something I always had so why think twice, just more than usual.  As if that was not enough to grab my attention, I started to experience a persistent upset tummy, the runs, blood where I would not expect it, and a fever that lasted a few weeks.  Ok – I admit, by this time my internal “oh crap” meter was starting to wake up.  However, truthfully I just hoped I had a really bad bug that is just could not shake.  My family doctor tried me on antibiotics, which didn’t change the situation, changed my diet too much the same effect.  The last straw was when my body decided to go into overdrive and hit me with debilitating arthritis that presented itself similar to rheumatoid arthritis.  Literally, seniors pushing their walkers were passing me in the hallways.  I was eventually referred to the emergency room, which ended in a barrage of tests and a two weeks stay in hospital and finally being diagnosed with a chronic disease “Crohn’s“.

What do you think, short straw?  A few years later my pancreas decided to take it easy and retire – now I can add type-2 diabetes to the mix; seriously, hello, universe? Two chronic diseases? Short Straw?

As I suggested, the idea of a short straw, like many situations in life is relative to everything else that is going on around us, and I admit having a chronic disease, such as Crohn’s, really is shitty.  Seriously — we all know we will get sick from time to time, heck, we may even end up in the hospital sometime in our lives, however as soon as you are tagged with that word “chronic” should your life change from normal to victim?  Is chronic an automatic entrance to the Short Straw Cub?

So what is chronic – the Centre for Managing Chronic Disease at the University of Michigan defined a chronic disease as “a long-lasting condition that can be controlled but not cured.” Long-lasting, controlled, but not cured – again, short straw?  The Centers for Disease Control cites that chronic disease is the leading cause of death and disability in the United States and accounts for 70% of all deaths.  Data from the World Health Organization shows that chronic disease is also the major cause of premature death around the world even in places where infectious disease are rampant.  Admittedly these figures include all chronic diseases which range from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, and heart disease to name a few, so a bit closer to home, a report commissioned by the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada in 2012,  estimates that one in every 150 Canadians has irritable bowel disease (IBD) and that are approximately 233,000 Canadians living with IBD (129,000 with Crohn’s Disease and 104,000 with Ulcerative Colitis).   Is my Crohn’s and diabetes really a short straw if I am in such good company?

Putting Life in Perspective

Looking on the brighter side of life – is my Crohn’s disease or diabetes going to kill me?  I would say, no? So, in other words, life could be worse, and truthfully, how many people typically have their blood tested a minimum of six times a year, have colonoscopies every 18 to 24 months (colon cancer and Crohn’s checkup in one visit), and have a few medical specialists and a family doctor to watch over them – if anything else is about to go wrong, I have one heck of an early warning systems going.  At the same time, as I peer over to my dresser, I can easily count six medicine containers that are a part of my typical day and have two others in the refrigerator that I take every week to 10 days.  The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation estimates that the total costs from IBD in Canada are conservatively at $2.8 billion per year in 2012 (over $11,900 per person with IBD every year).   In 2014 I spent $25,660.45 on medications, and close to $27,000 this year with six weeks to go (for those that are curious –  20% is not covered by my primary insurance company (employer), all I can say is thank goodness for third-party insurance programs offered by the various pharmaceutical companies).  Again – short straw?  What is interesting is that as I look i the mirror, this is who I am.  I am not confined to a wheelchair, nor do I need to drag a portable oxygen container around with me.  I have the benefit of both my sight (ok, that one is questionable), my hearing, and all four of my limbs.

Taking the Bull by the Horn, using Running to Balance Chronic Illness

10K run at CFB Borden, September 2015

Like anyone that has a chronic disease (diabetes, being able to control their weight, heart disease) we have two choices – we can roll over, and let our short straw dictate how we live our lives, or we can use our short straw to motivate us.  I admit I am very fortunate – I have a great career and have the benefit of amazing medications (Humira and Methotrexate mix) which for the time being, my body is playing nicely with.  I wonder what “normal” feels like, however, maybe that is as subjective as anything else in the world.  For me, normal is simply being able to live my life without having my diseases control my life.  For a few years, I was on Remicade® (infliximab) which is administered through an intravenous injection – aside from being a great medication, it was interesting sitting in the infusion clinic with a handful of people who could relate to my illness.  It made for a bit of a community and heard many stories from people whose illness has kept them at home for months or years, have not been able to work, been too afraid to travel, to go to the store as they could not trust their bodies.

It is easy for any of us to make excuses – I am too tired, I am not feeling 100%, I am sad, leaving the comfort to home scares me.  I have been there – in University I had a route of public washroom mapped out between campus and my apartment as you never quite knew when you needed to race to one.  However, putting my arms up in defeat has never been an option.  Today I bike, I race after my two boys, I run, and training for my first 1/2 marathon (21.1 km / 13.1 miles).   I am attentive to my body and have taken the time to learn when it is warning me it wants to misbehave, however, I have found that balance.  Don’t get me wrong – I have bad days, and scary periods where I start to think to myself, here we go again, however, I push on.

Yes,  that guy to the left is me — looks pretty normal doesn’t he?  Honestly, looking around your circle of friends, family, co-workers, how many people can you pull out of the mix that can say, hey – 5, 10, 15-kilometer run, been there, done that, let’s do it again next Sunday?  Life is about baby steps – at times we need to proceed with caution and my running is a great example – I have Crohn’s and diabetes neither of which go well with managing energy and blood sugars – that is a reality I should not ignore; however it has not stopped me from taking that next stride.   As yourself, what are your limits, and even more significantly what is your comfort level and start from there.  In my running it was shorter distances and more frequent walk brakes (3 and 1’s to start – run three minutes, walk a minute for a 3 km or 2 miles).  How did my body feel, how were my sugars holding up?  3 and 1’s turned to 5 and 1, and then 10 and 1’s — again, baby steps.  My distance grew at the same time, 3 to 5 km, to 6 and 8 and 20km.  My comfort blanket is no longer that route of public washrooms, but my Sport Beans and Boom Nutritions power gels tucked away in my running belt – simply knowing that I have the tools, the training, and the confidence to make it to the end of the run is a huge mental boost.

I concede I did draw a short straw in life – the “omg” and concerned tones when people hear my stories are hard to deny, however, with any short straw we have two decisions in life – use that short straw as a ticket to victim mentality or use it to drive us and push our limits whatever they may be.

¹ from the Douglas Coupland novel, “Worst. Person. Ever.”  A hilariously funny novel, that made me an instant fan of Coupland.  Read the first five pages and you to will be hooked.

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Mark is a foodie in training, photographer, Starbucks addict, runner, cyclist, and single parent living outside of Toronto, Ontario. Living with Crohn's Disease and Diabetes, life for this Transportation Planner and RPP can be an interesting mix.


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