Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis Don't Mean the End for Athletes

This article originally appeared on The Cauldron

Professional athletes represent the epitome of health and fitness. I mean, when you hear the names of people like Eli Manning, Derek Jeter, Mia Hamm, Serena and Venus Williams, Michael Jordan, and Chris Kreider, you picture individuals who possess strength and endurance, motivation, determination, and many more physical and emotional qualities that allow them to succeed in the highly competitive sports world. Because of the high level of respect many people hold for professional athletes, what they say and do can have an enormous impact on how people view or perceive things, especially illnesses.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance, Jr. recently penned a piece for The Cauldron about being a professional basketball player living with Crohn's disease. In the piece, he wrote, "I know there are a lot of people who struggle with it every day, and I hope to achieve NBA success to inspire people who are battling this illness."

Known collectively as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis affect more than 1.6 million Americans. They are painful, medically incurable diseases that attack the digestive system. Crohn's disease may attack anywhere along the digestive tract, while ulcerative colitis inflames only the large intestine (colon). Symptoms may include abdominal pain, persistent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, debilitating fatigue, and extreme weight loss. Many patients experience numerous hospitalizations and the majority requires invasive surgery.

Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis aren't sexy diseases. They involve a part of the body that people are embarrassed to talk about publicly. And in a career where your physical health is the key to your success, it is incredibly brave to speak openly about having a chronic illness. By sharing his story, Nance is helping to reframe the conversation and change public perception of these diseases.

Nance isn't the first pro-athlete to share his story battling IBD. Texas Rangers relief pitcher Jake Diekman is outspoken about his life with ulcerative colitis, sharing his "Gut It Out" mentality with patients, fans, and peers. He's also partnered with Athlete's Brand to raise even more awareness and funds for the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America.

Former New England Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light spoke often both during his NFL career and in retirement about life with Crohn's disease. He was diagnosed with Crohn's in 2001 at the start of his professional football career, and had 13 inches of his intestine removed three years later. Despite having post-surgery complications, Light recovered and made it back for the third week of training camp, only two months post-surgery. He ended his career in 2012 as a three-time Super Bowl champion and five-time AFC champion.

There are many other similar stories -- former NFL kicker Rolf Benirschke was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis during his second season with the San Diego Chargers and had his large intestine surgically removed. Two years after his colectomy, Benirschke kicked a 29-yard field goal ensuring a 41-38 victory against the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs, a game still talked about today.

Former Jacksonville Jaguars' quarterback David Garrard was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2004 and had surgery, allowing him to return to football in time for training camp that year. Kevin Dineen, assistant coach of the Chicago Blackhawks and former NHL player, was in his second year of his 18-year playing career when he presented with symptoms of Crohn's. Despite having disease flares and hospitalizations, Dineen went on to score 355 NHL goals and had 405 assists for 760 points.

These are only some of the stories out there -- Carrie Johnson (Olympic kayaker), Theoren Fleury (former NHL right wing), Rashad Butler (former NFL offensive tackle), Shayne Corson (former NHL left wing), Adam Pettyjohn (former MLB relief pitcher), Fernando Pisani (former NHL right wing), and Sir Steve Redgrave (Olympic rower) have all shared their stories of life with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis publicly.

While these athletes have succeeded in their physical endeavors, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be difficult for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis patients. These diseases often impact patients' ability to maintain a balanced diet, and can cause nutritional deficiencies, crippling fatigue, and pain. Despite those challenges, we have seen story after story of patients completing incredible physical feats despite their disease. For example, this past summer, Brian completed a half iron-distance race in 6:43 while living with Crohn's disease and an ostomy. We have also seen more than 15,000 patients and their loved ones tackle half-marathons, marathons, triathlons, and iron distance competitions through the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America's Team Challenge endurance training program, all in the name of raising awareness and funds to find cures for these diseases.

All of these athletes -- professional and everyday -- deserve to be commended for their honesty and openness. By sharing their experiences with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, they not only are spreading critical awareness, but they are showing what patients can accomplish despite living with these debilitating diseases. While speaking out, they are breaking stereotypes about living with a chronic illness. They are shining examples that you don't have to be alone in dealing with your disease, even if it means sharing difficult details.