I Love My Life! Living Strong with a Chronic Illness

With a little help from your friends and family, you can still love your life and have fun if you're a teenager living with a chronic illness.

From the WebMD Archives

Do you live with a chronic illness? Maybe you have asthma, allergies, or migraine headaches. Or perhaps you or your best friend has diabetes, arthritis, or cancer. Each day, thousands of teens across America are diagnosed with chronic illnesses -- long-term health problems they live with 24/7.

There's often no "cure" for chronic illnesses. Still, with new breakthroughs in treatment, most teens can live active, fulfilling lives. How? By maintaining good lifestyle habits, taking the prescribed medications or treatment, and seeing your doctor regularly to monitor your health.

According to internist Harris McIlwain, MD, coach of the Tampa Bay Spirit boys' soccer team, many active teens have health problems today. McIlwain says that several of his players have asthma and use their inhalers before and during the aerobic soccer games. He has also coached teen soccer players with diabetes in the past.

"If you understand your illness," McIlwain says, "and follow your doctor's instructions to manage the symptoms, you should be able to do the things you want to do and enjoy your friends and sports."

Half the problem of living with a chronic illness can be telling your friends that you have asthma, diabetes, or cancer. While the fear factor is normal, it can be extra tough when you're a teen. After all, not only is your body stretching and your hormones exploding, chronic illness feels like another intrusion.

Teens Rock On

Gary and Rob are both members of the popular Atlanta-based rock band, Ethan and the Ewox. As well-known musicians they play more than 250 shows a year, often traveling all night to get to the next town. Would it surprise you to learn that both Gary and Rob have lived with chronic illnesses most of their lives?

Gary, the drummer for the band, was diagnosed with Type I, or juvenile, diabetes as a young teen. Type I diabetes is an insulin-dependent form of diabetes. Insulin is the body hormone that regulates sugar metabolism. This means Gary must prick his finger more than six times a day -- even on tour -- to check his blood sugar. Once he gets his blood sugar level, he injects himself with the necessary dose of insulin. He takes injections several times each day to assure that his body's insulin level is normal (yes, we're talking needles and shots).

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Since his diagnosis around age 12, Gary had to make dramatic lifestyle changes. His doctor showed him how to check his insulin. A registered dietitian explained how to change his diet, which pretty much had been fast food at the time. "But it [diabetes] never got in the way of my drumming," says Gary. "In fact, I think my drumming has helped me with my diabetes. Drumming for hours each day is an aerobic workout, and physical activity is a must for those with diabetes."

Rob, the band's guitarist, was first diagnosed with asthma at age 7. Since then, he has relied on inhaled medications to prevent and treat the symptoms of asthma, such as coughing and wheezing. "But when I hit puberty, my asthma exploded," says Rob. "I remember waking up all night coughing, and then feeling exhausted the next day. I was on the rowing team and swim team. Many times, I'd stop competing because I couldn't stop coughing. I couldn't breathe, and I'd have to use my inhalers. I hated the way asthma slowed me down."

Rob's allergist explained how asthma caused his airways to become inflamed and why daily medication -- even when he didn't feel the symptoms -- was important to keep him breathing right. "My doctor gave me inhalers and a peak flow meter, a hand-held device that let me monitor my breathing at home and at school," Rob says. "I learned to pre-medicate before swim meets or crew races. I also learned that swimming could help build healthier lungs. At first, I was angry that I had asthma. After a while, I realized I had to manage it in order to love my life."

Living with a chronic illness is not easy for Rob or Gary. While they've both had their share of successes, they've also had some scares. "Once our band opened for the Dave Matthews Band in Alabama," Rob says. "We were so pumped! Then, after the gig, we checked into a hotel. We noticed that Gary looked confused, and then he started throwing up: he was in diabetic shock. We were so frightened, so I called 911 for help."

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Gary says that the band members help him to stay on track with his diet and insulin checks. "If I miss a check, Rob's nagging me. Or if I eat the wrong food, Ethan [the lead singer] takes it away from me. Our band is great -- but only when we're all healthy," he says.

Rob agrees, saying friends need to help each other deal with their problems in life -- so everyone wins. "Many times Gary or Ethan has reminded me to grab my inhaler before we head out of town."

Living Strong

In 1996, Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer -- a serious form of cancer that gave him only a 3% chance of survival.

Rather than admitting defeat, Armstrong chose intense rounds of chemotherapy. His doctors were amazed by his willpower and ability to block out pessimism. Even though the cancer spread to his brain and lungs and one of his testicles had to be surgically removed, Lance Armstrong beat the odds. He believed that he could win -- not just in beating cancer, but also in winning the Tour de France, the most prestigious bicycle race in the world. Lance went on to win this race seven times in a row.

Friends Helping Friends Love Life

Sometimes teens feel hopeless and helpless when first diagnosed with a chronic illness. But that's when they really need their friends and family cheering them on more than ever. Here are some tips you can use to help your friends:

  • Encourage. Stay on top of them. If friends with diabetes forget to check their insulin, remind them! Don't hound them or anything like that, but say, "Hey, I think you may have forgotten your insulin. Why don't you do it really fast while we've got a break?"
  • Support. Be there for them. Remember, they didn't ask for the illness. It's luck of the draw, who gets a health problem as a teenager. If your friend has to go in for another round of treatment, offer to go along, and take a Nintendo or other game to play. Offer to pick up a homework assignment for them. Or make them a "favorite songs" CD mix, something to listen to while they are getting treatment.
  • Listen. Sometimes listening is the best thing you can do. Listening to a friend's anger and fears can help them feel a sense of release.

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More Sound Advice

According to internist Kim Smith, MD, if you're diagnosed with a chronic illness, you have to think positively and still live your life to the fullest. "I recommend that my younger patients stay physically active and enjoy their music. Exercise and music are great distractions that let teens forget their problems for a while. Plus, being with people you like -- your good friends -- is important in the recovery process."

When to Talk to Your Doctor

A chronic illness might keep you from participating in sports or other activities. Some kids even have to be home-schooled for a while. That's why you need to be part of a support team with your parents and doctors. Discuss your plans with your "team" and let them help you create a healthy life plan.

Also, your attitude helps you keep your illness from getting you down. Sure, you'll have good days and bad days. However, just as Lance Armstrong believed he could beat cancer -- and did -- you can approach your illness with a winning attitude and love your life!

WebMD Feature Reviewed by John M Goldenring, MD, JD, MPH on April 01, 2007

Sources

SOURCES: Harris H. McIlwain, MD, and Kim Smith, MD, Tampa Medical Group, Tampa, FL. American Diabetes Association: "For Teens." American Lung Association: "Asthma." American Cancer Society: "Learn About Cancer." Arthritis Foundation: "Types of Juvenile Arthritis."

© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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