The challenge of living with chronic illness shaped me into the person I am today

Life rolls on.
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If I won the lottery next week you’d find me biking across the Mongolian Steppes. Traveling and cycling are my addictions. So far I’ve been very lucky with both, despite what some would call my “extra baggage.” I achieved Ironman, traveled all over North America and Europe, and have five years of competitive road racing under my belt — with absolutely no intention of slowing down. There's something affirming and rebellious about a long bike ride. Out on the road is the only time I'm able to forget about my medical challenges and just relax. 

I would define my conditions as generalized aggressive autoimmunity, however, my medicals records show the following: Crohn's disease (years later changed to ulcerative colitis) in 2006; Primary sclerosing cholangitis in 2015; ileostomy surgery in January 2015; Type 1 diabetes in August 2015; Celiac disease in April 2016. Although there's many, my real battle has always been with ulcerative colitis. Looking back, I realize how badly this disease has affected my life. Entire years spent just trying to survive. And even though I overcame those difficult times, I can't help but feel it was lost time that I'll never get back. But what possibly took the greatest toll on me was depression and negative thoughts which fed into a growing mental battle. There were moments I doubted I'd ever have a life that wasn’t defined by sickness.

When I was diagnosed with IBD, I swore that no matter what happened, I'd never have surgery to remove my colon. As a 16-year-old kid, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than getting an ostomy. Time, however, can change everything. As each year passed, it became harder to keep the symptoms under control. Yes, there were periods when I felt healthy but the overall theme was unmistakable with every passing year. Flare-ups became more frequent and violent. Regardless of my original feelings toward surgery, I was willing to consider anything after nearly a decade battling ulcerative colitis.

I have a huge amount of empathy for people who lead normal lives up until they suddenly fall ill or have an injury that requires immediate ostomy surgery. Honestly, I don’t know how I would’ve handled such a dramatic lifestyle change without warning. In my case, it was years of constant pain, anxiety, and distress leaving me desperate for relief — even if it meant facing my fears. In the end, the decision I'd always thought would be the hardest turned out to be no decision at all. Instead of being the end of my life, an ostomy became the only real hope of getting my life back.

After my surgery in 2014, I struggled a lot with body confidence and feelings of low self-worth. I knew I had to get on with life as soon as possible, and that meant getting back on my bike. I was really fearful of what could go wrong while riding. Would the bag come off from sweating? What if I crashed and damaged my stoma? Prior to getting an ileostomy, I'd been in some major bike crashes. If I could break bones going down hard, what would happen to my ostomy? I was voicing these fears to a friend who's also an ostomate and she recommended I contact Stealth Belt. Wearing one of their support belts gave me the security and extra confidence I needed to start riding again. I still have that original belt and whenever I line up for a race, I've got it on.

Looking back on 2015, I couldn't be happier with how everything turned out. Ever since that first painful ride in January, I've ridden more than 14,000 kilometers. If I was actually out there biking across the world, I would’ve passed through Mongolia months ago! All that riding also included a very competitive summer race season where I finished 8th overall in Ontario and upgraded to the elite category. There was no greater validation in my decision to have surgery than racing against athletes without “extra baggage” and finishing as one of the top riders.

While autoimmunity doesn't define me, it is part of my life and I can unhesitatingly say it has done me a world of good. It's given me a new perspective on life and the drive to make the most out of each day. There's a say in racing: "It never gets easier, you just get faster.” Ulcerative colitis often feels like a never-ending fight and there’s always another battle on the horizon, but I know I can make it through thanks to the amazing people in my life that support me. Regardless of what happens, I'll keep moving forward because I want to prove to myself and others that strength comes from overcoming the things we once thought we couldn't.