My Health Journey: Part 1 – GI Issues

I thought it was time to document my health journey. Most people know a little about my cancer story but many people don’t know what I went through before all of that began. I thought I might as well start at the beginning. It’s a long journey so I’ve broken it into multiple parts and will post the journey in a sort of series. 

I feel like if I’m going to tell my story, I need to be honest. I tried not to be gross but this first part of the story involves my GI issues. If my story can help others figure out some of their own health issues, I need to be real.

Grade School

I rarely had regular bowel movements (BMs) growing up. I wasn’t going as often as I should, really struggling to go when I did … even going as far as having blood in my BMs from straining. I would have stomach aches pretty often. Around 5th grade is when I filled my mom in on the fact I was seeing some blood so we went to see my pediatrician to try to figure out what was going on. He said that I needed more fiber in my diet and recommended that I start taking Metamucil. Gross! This was the good ol’ Metamucil that tastes disgusting and doesn’t really dissolve in water. What 5th grader is really going to take that regularly? Not me. I tried but it just wasn’t happening. We didn’t change anything in my diet and the doctor didn’t have any other recommendations other than adding in the Metamucil. So, with me not drinking it regularly, nothing really changed. I ended up having a scope done and it was obvious there were issues at the end of my GI tract.  That explained the blood. I needed to soften up my BMs and Metamucil it was. At least we now knew the issue and had an idea of how to fix it.

So I went on with my childhood always knowing that I should be drinking Metamucil but never drinking it as often as I should. If I would have a BM with blood I would add in the Metamucil again and then stop after everything was better. The back and forth went on and on even into adulthood.

High School

When I started high school I came down with mono in the middle of my freshman year. Mono is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. (I’ll come back and talk more about EBV later in my journey.) I didn’t have any other major health issues in high school other than breaking out with really bad acne my junior and senior year. I was seeing a dermatologist who put me on the regular protocol of around the clock antibiotics. I was on antibiotics for over a year. When I wasn’t seeing any progress he suggested I start Accutane. If you’ve been in the acne world, you probably have heard of Accutane as pretty close to a “cure” for acne. It works by significantly reducing your oil production on your skin. Your skin and nasal passages become very, very dry. It does come with some nasty side effects. Some of the worst ones are severe birth defects if you happen to become pregnant while taking it, and mood changes, including depression and suicidal thoughts. It has many other typical side effects that can be experienced like many other drugs. The biggest side effect I experienced was the severe dry skin. I had to apply chap stick to my lips around the clock. My skin became really scaly all over my body. Applying lotion only provided temporary relief. I think I still have some lasting, long term affects from the Accutane. I still, to this day, have to have chap stick nearby. If I don’t apply lotion everyday after my shower, my skin gets extremely dry. I also continue to deal with dry nasal passages and an occasional bloody nose.

However, after about 4 months on Accutane my acne was significantly better. It eventually completely cleared up over the next few weeks after completing treatment. I never had to battle with acne after taking Accutane so I believe it did indeed “cure” my acne. BUT I think I paid a significant cost to get there. Let’s put a pin in this topic and I’ll come back to Accutane later.

So, I finished the Accutane in the middle of my senior year in high school. I eventually went on to college. I still struggled with my BMs from time to time but no major issues.

My First Teaching Job

I graduated from IU in May of 2004 with a degree in Chemistry Education with a secondary certification in Math. I married my husband, Brandon, the next month in June 2004. I started my first teaching job at Franklin County High School in Brookville, IN two months later in August of 2004. That was one busy summer! I spent the first part of my summer finishing up wedding plans and interviewing for different teaching jobs and finally accepting the position at FCHS. After the wedding and honeymoon, I spent the rest of the summer getting ready for my first year of teaching. I had a really full load for my first year. I was teaching Chemistry I, Honors Chemistry I and AP Chemistry. I was a brand new teacher teaching three brand new classes, one being a very difficult class. I was starting to freak out a little and was getting overwhelmed with the amount of planning and preparation that needed to be done for those three classes. I knew what it took to do a good job and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less. I worked non-stop that first year teaching. I would get to school early, stay WAY late, come home and make dinner and then plop right back on the couch to continue preparing plans or grading papers. I was creating PowerPoint presentations for my lectures. I didn’t like the textbook we were using so I was creating pretty much every worksheet and test on my own. So, so much work.

The stress was overwhelming and I think it took its toll on me physically that year. I could have settled for whatever homework came with the textbook or whatever tests came with the book. I could have just got up in front of the class and flew by the seat of my pants when it came to lecturing, but that’s not the teacher I wanted to be. Even though I was a first-year teacher, I wanted my students to feel like they had a veteran teacher. A teacher that put the time in to have the best materials for them. I knew the type of teacher I could be and I didn’t want to be anything less for my students.

So that first year teaching I noticed that my BMs were changing. I went from struggling to go to the other end of the spectrum. I’ve never been a coffee drinker, and still am not, but every morning as soon as I would get to school I would have to rush to the bathroom. So it wasn’t the coffee because I wasn’t drinking any… it was NERVES and STRESS! I didn’t feel obviously nervous every morning but each day was a brand new day to me. New material that I had to present to my students… Was I going to present it clearly? Were they all going to understand it? Was the test I finished typing up at midnight last night and rushed to print off this morning to give today going to be a fair and good test? Was I going to have any behavior issues today? I’m only 5 years older than some of these kids… why would they listen to me? All of these crazy thoughts running through my head as I’m heading into school each day.

There was one day after school I was walking down the hallway and the Anatomy and Physiology classes had done a poster project on different diseases. One student had done a poster on Inflammatory Bowel Diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. I started reading through the symptoms and some stood out as being familiar. I can remember having a thought of “Seriously, how crazy is it that a student is helping me realize a possible diagnosis?!” I just mentally filed that information away and thought, “Nah, I’m fine, it’s not that bad, it doesn’t happen all of the time.”

I continued on doing my thing and ended up leaving Franklin County after that first year when my Alma Mater, East Central High School, contacted me about an opening in their Math Department. I had interviewed with EC right after I graduated and they offered me a Math position but I chose to take the Franklin County job because it was teaching Chemistry, which I really wanted to teach. The fact that EC was contacting me about another opening I thought I had better jump on this if I ever wanted to get my foot in the door. I thought if I turn this one down there won’t be another offer.

Two weeks into teaching my first year at EC (2005) I came down with appendicitis. I thought I had eaten some bad Mexican food the night before. What I thought were bad gas pains ended up getting worse and worse and I wasn’t passing any gas. After Brandon and I drove to Spring Mill State Park for a weekend away with my family and thinking that my stomach ache would get better as the day went on… We ended up having to drive back that same night and went straight into Cincinnati to the ER. I don’t think I have mentioned yet that my mom is a nurse. So after discussing my symptoms with her we were pretty sure it was going to be appendicitis and it was. I thought if I was going to have surgery I would rather be closer to home.

Looking back … something was definitely off in my gut. All signs were pointing that there was definitely inflammation going on inside my gut but I just didn’t realize it at the time.

After my short recovery from the appendectomy I returned to another year of being a “first-year teacher”. This time it was three new math classes I had to prepare for. It was a little easier because I at least had one year under my belt and I did like the textbook so that made my prep work a little lighter. However, the caliber of my students changed dramatically. I went from teaching AP Chemistry to teaching Pre-Algebra to Juniors who had already failed it twice. There were plenty of students who were in between those extremes but it was a rough year for me as far as discipline. That brought in a whole different set of stresses.

As that year went on my BMs were still having issues. Towards the end of that year I decided I was a full on adult now and maybe I should take charge of my health and go see a GI doctor to discuss my symptoms. Considering I had different GI issues throughout my life maybe it was time to see a specialist and discuss all of my different issues over the years.

The GI Doctor

I met with the GI doctor and explained my history with my symptoms, the appendectomy and the issues I was still having. Even though my BMs were changing I was still seeing the occasional blood with them. I thought that was odd considering I wasn’t always straining. I did notice, too, that I couldn’t hold my BMs. If I felt the urge to go I needed to find a bathroom quickly even if it wasn’t diarrhea, I still couldn’t hold it very well. I thought that was odd, too.

We decided the best way to figure out what was going on was to have a colonoscopy. The doctor was thinking it could be Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. I had at least heard of those diseases thanks to the poster from the hallway at Franklin County 🙂 At this point I was nearing the end of the school year (2006) so I decided to wait until the summer to have the procedure. The results of the colonoscopy showed that I did have inflammation in my intestines but it was limited to the very last portion. He didn’t think it was Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis because the inflammation was limited to the very end. So he gave me a diagnosis of proctitis, inflammation affecting approximately only the last 6 inches of the rectum. Crohn’s typically shows inflammation of the small and large intestines and ulcerative colitis typically only involves the large intestines. I did end up having some basic genetic testing completed to see if that could help narrow down the diagnosis but unfortunately the results were inconclusive. So I was left with a basic proctitis diagnosis. Because the inflammation was only at the very end of the colon it made more sense to apply a medication directly to the site rather than take a systemic medication. That meant I had to give myself the medication through an enema. I would do them right before bed so that way I had a better chance of holding the medication in. The medication did help clear up the inflammation but I had to stay on the enemas for a few months.

Accutane Lawsuit?

Let’s go back to the Accutane for a minute. Starting around 2007 I was starting to hear about a class action law suit filed involving Accutane. Here is a little info I found regarding the suit …

In 2006, the American Journal of Gastroenterology found a link between Accutane and inflammatory bowl diseases (IBD).  Under a 2009 Accutane study, Accutane was linked to an increase in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), but there are other Accutane side effects.  Depending on how much Accutane you took, or when you took Accutane, you may have suffered an Accutane injury.  Some of the serious Accutane side effects include:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) which include Accutane induced Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis
Having your colon removed
Severe depression or suicidal tendencies
Heart attack, stroke, seizure or lowered blood cell count

Crazy! Right? My mom was encouraging me to file with the lawsuit but I wasn’t sure I would qualify. It had been approximately 5 years since I took Accutane to when I started showing clear signs of inflammatory bowel issues. I didn’t have a definitive diagnosis of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s. Could I really say that my bowel issues were directly connected to the Accutane? I don’t know but I thought it was pretty scary that there was an actual lawsuit involving some of my same symptoms. Accutane was recalled and pulled from shelves in 2009. I’m not sure what the current status is on the use of Accutane but I have heard of people still using it. It may be under a generic name or similar drug. If you know someone considering taking Accutane, please have them do their research. I would exhaust every safer option possible before I would consider taking Accutane again.

What I Know Now

I’m happy to report that I have a very healthy GI tract today. There has been a lot of work put into getting it healthy. I have followed the recommendations of many different holistic health care providers to help get me to this point. I’m not a medical expert but I will share a little about what has worked for me and some resources.

I avoid the high inflammatory foods, like wheat and sugar. Dairy is typically thrown in this category too, but it doesn’t seem to bother me. Further down the road I discovered I have a borderline allergy to eggs, not a mild sensitivity, but an allergy, so I avoid those, too. I can handle some eggs if they are baked in something, but straight up cooked eggs not so much.

By eliminating inflammatory foods it could allow the inflammation in my gut to calm down. I was also taking supplements to help heal the lining and kill off any unwanted bacteria, yeast, etc. I could then take probiotics to build a healthy gut flora or microbiome. Healing your gut isn’t done over a week or two. Depending on how much inflammation you’re dealing with, it can take months. Keeping those inflammatory foods down and eating foods that are good and nourishing to your gut is key. Homemade bone broth being a crucial food to help heal the gut. Here is the recipe I use for my bone broth. I actually make mine in my crock pot and let it simmer for about 24 hrs.

You can search the internet for ways to “heal your gut” or search for things like “leaky gut”. I really like Dr. Mark Hyman’s approach to the gut, diet and health. Here is a link to his blog post on How to Feed Your Gut. You can search his site for other great resources, too.

You can also find a holistic practitioner to help you through the process. It definitely is becoming a more mainstream topic. Most health practitioners are realizing the importance of a healthy gut for your overall health!

My GI issues are still just one part of my health journey. I’ll share my story about my unexplained joint pain next, yay!

I will say, I am very grateful to have found the health practitioners that I have. Each one has played an integral part in my healing and led me to where I am today.

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