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Conquering colitis

By NAN BIALEK

 

After being stricken with ulcerative colitis when she was in high school, Megan Starshak is now an advocate for the Crohnís and Colitis Foundation.


For Megan Starshak of Milwaukee, the symptoms of ulcerative colitis began when she was a junior in high school. The disease, an inflammation of the colon, often causes frequent and urgent trips to the bathroom and severe abdominal pain. "At first, I thought maybe I had a virus," says Starshak, 26. "I was doing high school track at the time and thought I was overworking."

But Starshakís pain and cramping got worse over time, and her body was becoming unable to absorb nutrients and water. Family and friends were concerned, and she often had to assure friends that she was not anorexic or bulimic. She went to several doctors, but did not get a definitive diagnosis of ulcerative colitis until the summer after she graduated from high school and was looking forward to her freshman year in college.

"Itís a huge transitional time," Starshak says, and not only was she away from her parents and making her own decisions, she was also trying to define her own identity. She was meeting new people and trying to get involved in sports. Starshak realized that everything she did was going to be affected by her condition. She wasnít sure how much to tell people about her symptoms and knew that some just would not understand.

"It makes you grow up a little bit faster," she says. "In college, you have all the freedom in the world and none of the responsibility. If I go out for a night of drinking, I could be sick for a month."

The course of treatment called for Starshak to take 12 anti-inflammatory pills per day, including a steroid, which tamed the symptoms, but did not completely stop them.

When a new intravenous therapy called Remicade became available, Starshak decided to give it a try. Remicade works with the immune system to combat the disease. Starshak says she noticed a difference three days after her first treatment. "After six years of being sick and dealing with symptoms, and being mentally exhausted, it was like waking up a new person," she says.

Every eight weeks, Starshak spends three hours at Froedtert Hospital undergoing Remicade therapy. She says she looks forward to that time, and uses it to relax and recharge.

She recently completed her MBA at UW-Milwaukee and landed a position in marketing for a local manufacturer. She is an avid cyclist and would eventually like to race competitively. Every year, Starshak cycles in a charity ride for the Crohnís and Colitis Foundation, and her mother volunteers on the sidelines.

"Basically, Iíve been in remission for two years. I can eat salad, drink Pepsi and run again without issues," she says.

Starshak says Voices of UC, an educational and awareness program, has helped her understand ulcerative colitis by providing information and resources for patients and their families.

"Their website is a really great place if youíre newly diagnosed and kind of just learning," she says. "Youíre arming yourself with information."

She was one of 1,000 people with ulcerative colitis who participated in a recent survey sponsored by Voices of UC. The survey was intended to identify gaps in the way patients and physicians discuss treatment, and it also gave patients an opportunity to share their insights about dealing with the disease.

Starshak says an important way to cope with ulcerative colitis, which has no cure as of yet, is to talk with others who are experiencing the same issues. "I think itís important also to remember that even though itís a terrible disease with awful side effects, sometimes it changes you for the better," she says. "Through colitis Iíve also realized that Iím so strong and I can handle more things than Iíve ever imagined."