While a patient with Crohn’s disease looks healthy on the outside, chronic inflammation in the intestines can be waging war on his or her insides and many patients are too embarrassed to talk openly about it.
Watching 22-year-old Molly Shannon race uphill, it’s hard to imagine there are times when she can’t get out of bed.
“When I am able to work out it makes me feel like I’m beating it because I’m overcoming the pain or fatigue I might have another day,” Shannon said.
Shannon had a bout of intense stomach pain when she was seven; ulcers that were visible in the back of her throat extended throughout her gastrointestinal tract. She had Crohn’s disease.
An estimated 780,000 Americans have Crohn’s. Most of them diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 35. And unlike other inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s symptoms can be vague, ranging from diarrhea, to constipation and abdominal cramps.
“Many patients don’t present with the disease until they have a complication. A perforation. Or a stricture causing a blockage,” said Dr. Marc Schwartz, from the UPMC Division of Gastroenterology at UPMC IBD Center.
Shannon’s inflammation required two surgeries.
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“My first surgery they took out five inches of my small intestine," Shannon said. "Then while they were in there they found another five inches of stricture in my colon.” During the second surgery, doctors removed another four inches.
Right now, medication controls Shannon’s symptoms. Her experience with Crohn’s sparked an interest in medicine; she’s now a nurse, working with other gastroenterology patients.
“I’m just a big advocate about being open with everything about it,” Shannon said.
Helping spread the word about the so-called silent disease.
Experts said the majority of Crohn’s patients can manage the disease with medication and many do not require surgery. They’re still not sure what causes the condition but say genetics and a trigger like a viral infection may play a role.
Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Supervising and Field Producer; Hayley Hudson, Assistant Producer; Kirk Manson, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor.