Anyone who watched Alyxandria Treasure clear a 1.94-metre crossbar to advance to the high jump finals at the Rio Olympics would have seen an extraordinarily fit and healthy young woman. Understanding more about the challenges she had to overcome along the path towards this performance only deepens the appreciation for the Canadian athlete’s accomplishments.
At age 17, as Treasure was entering her senior year of high school, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The diagnosis came at “a raw stage of life,” says Treasure. “You’re just gaining some independence and planning your future, and suddenly your body refuses to work properly. That’s a hard reality to come to terms with.”
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the main forms of inflammatory bowel disease, says Mina Mawani, president and CEO of Crohn’s and Colitis Canada. “These autoimmune diseases cause inflammation in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and disrupt the body’s ability to digest food, absorb nutrition and eliminate waste in a healthy manner,” she says. “Symptoms include severe abdominal pain, cramping, frequent and long-term diarrhea, and fatigue.”
Most patients with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis are diagnosed in their late teens and early 20s, says Mawani. “You can imagine that this disrupts their education and plans for the future in a very big way.”
Treasure says it initially felt like the disease was taking over her life. “At first, doctors couldn’t understand what was going on. After the diagnosis, I started [therapy] right away, but my health wasn’t great and it came to a point where everything crashed down around me,” she recalls. “I ended up in the hospital in my college freshman year and had to drop out of school.”
What followed was an exploration of various therapy options that would allow Treasure to not only keep her symptoms in check, but perform at the level of a world-class athlete. One year before the Rio Olympics, she decided to make a change. “It was the biggest year of my life, and I took the gamble of switching to a new medication, an injection I could take with me on my travels,” she says. “Thankfully, everything fell into place and I was able to train at a higher level.”
Since then, appropriate therapies have enabled Treasure to live the life she’s chosen, travel more independently and attend meets around the world, including the Rio Olympics. Yet as she reflects on her greatest accomplishment, it isn’t her performance in Rio or getting the letter that she made the games. “These were exciting things, but for me, I am most proud of the journey to get there, which wasn’t easy,” she says. “There were more downs than ups, and I had to keep pushing, even when I wasn’t physically where I needed to be.”
“Stakes are very high for patients with Crohn’s or colitis because symptoms can be debilitating, impact every part of their lives and may lead to social isolation,” says Mawani.
“[Gastrointestinal problems] are often considered embarrassing, which can prevent patients from sharing their experiences with family and friends, or with peers at school and at work.”
Individuals with gastrointestinal problems are not alone. According to the Gastrointestinal Society, as many as 20 million Canadians experience at least one digestive disease or disorder – such as IBD, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease and diverticular disease – during part or all of their lives.
For people living with Crohn’s or colitis, the challenges are lifelong since these chronic diseases currently don’t have a cure, says Mawani.
Treasure says that while she is dealing with issues related to Crohn’s disease on an ongoing basis, she believes her experiences have made her stronger. “Being able to work through low points has given me the confidence that I can do it again,” she says. “I wouldn’t be the athlete I am today without Crohn’s. Not only has it taught me discipline and work ethic – it’s taught me to understand my body.”
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