By Christina Difeo Petrella, as told by Michele Jordan
I come from a large Italian family of five where food and love were so important. I am the youngest of three children and the only girl. My two older brothers were very protective of me. As a child I loved sports. I played field hockey, lacrosse, and ran indoor tracks. I started skiing when I was 5 years old and loved being on the slopes with my dad.
After graduating from business school, I worked for a publishing company. I loved it, but alongside my love of sports, I knew I had a passion for cooking and baking. My great-grandfather had a bakery, so I felt like it was in my genes. I was obsessed with Martha Stewart.
That’s why I didn’t see Crohn coming. I’ve always enjoyed food. While working full-time after college, I went to pastry school in the evenings. My co-workers loved me because I was the girl who brought delicious food to work the next day. Little did I know my relationship with food would change.
My active lifestyle stayed with me as an adult. I trained regularly with a trainer and ran marathons. One day I was facing a cruciate ligament tear at home when I started getting strange symptoms. I had an upset stomach and went to the toilet often. I thought it was a gastrointestinal virus and just tried to wait it out. Then my joints started to hurt and my legs and feet started to swell. I had a feeling something was wrong but wondered if it had anything to do with my recent surgery.
I have a high pain tolerance but my symptoms were getting worse. My nutritionist friend suggested I try a low-FODMAP diet (one with food restrictions to help certain digestive issues). We tried troubleshooting and nothing worked. I couldn’t even eat salads, which I loved. Really, the only thing I could eat seemed to be bread or rice.
One of my worst days with my symptoms was right before my Crohn’s diagnosis. My doctor prescribed me two strong antibiotics to see if they would help with my stomach problems. I was still breastfeeding my son at the time, so before I started taking it, I called the pediatrician to see if it would be okay to breastfeed while on medication. She advised me against it, which made me very sad. I felt so sick and exhausted. Getting out of bed was a struggle, but breastfeeding my son was a great source of joy for me. The idea of having to end this so soon made me angry. i broke down I cried for a while. I wasn’t ready to stop breastfeeding and didn’t think it was fair to stop breastfeeding without stopping.
I called my doctor just to see if there was anything else I could do. At the time he suspected it was Crohn’s disease and told me I could wait for the antibiotics as they wouldn’t help much. He said I could wait to see what the CT scan shows. I can’t tell you how relieved I was. I cried tears of joy. Looking back, I’m glad I stood up for myself and my son and that my doctor was open to listening to me.
I went to several doctors before finally being diagnosed. By the time I got to a gastroenterologist, I had lost weight, had joint pains, and was so exhausted I couldn’t get out of bed. I told my doctor that I had the same symptoms when I was pregnant with my third child. At the time, the doctor thought it was an infection. Now I’m wondering if it was Crohn’s disease.
The doctor ran a variety of tests and ran blood tests. But a CT scan that showed inflammation in my digestive system eventually confirmed I had Crohn’s disease. While Crohn wasn’t on my personal radar, I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with it. My older brother was diagnosed years ago so I felt a little prepared. Despite this, the diagnosis seemed bleak at first. I cried all the way home.
This new life was a change for me. I’m always on the move, but I’ve learned to slow down and take care of my body. When I first heard that I would have to take medication for the rest of my life, I was scared. It was hard. I don’t like taking medication, but I’ve been able to talk to my doctor about reducing my medication based on whether or not I’m having an flare-up. I had a good conversation with my doctor and am glad that he supports me.
I’ve had some awkward moments with friends and family where they didn’t understand my new eating habits, but overall they’re so supportive. Little things keep popping up to remind me. I recently went out to dinner with friends and had to give up the sparkling water. I just said, “Oh yeah. I don’t deal with it very well.”
Overall I have a great group of friends and family who understand me. Many of them are struggling with their own health problems. The biggest challenge comes when I go out to eat and the restaurant staff doesn’t understand why I’m ordering a certain way. I’m not a diva This food I’m asking about can actually hurt me. I don’t think they’re trying to be mean; it’s just a lack of education about certain diseases.
A word of advice: try to look at the menu before you go out to eat, or call the restaurant ahead of time to ask questions.
I do a lot of meal planning at home. I add a lot of vegetables to every meal. I have to plan. I know there isn’t much evidence that foods can cure Crohn’s disease, but I did find some information about a plant-based diet and how it can help gut health. I’ve always tried to eat healthy, but now it’s more important. I don’t eat a lot of processed food. I’ve reduced dairy and feel better. I’m trying to eliminate sugar, which is difficult for me as a baker. But I found some sources to cook without a lot of sugar.
My brother with Crohn’s also helped me with my eating habits. I’ve found some healthy recipes to try so I can continue to pursue my passion for cooking. I started a food blog on Instagram and am working on a cookbook. I would love to have my own bakery or restaurant one day. I’m the same Italian who has a love affair with food. I had to make some changes, but I still enjoy creating new recipes. I still love the Food Network.
My goal is to be a role model for my family. I try to show on my blog that while there are so many things I can’t eat, there are also many things I can eat. As a wife and mother of three, I teach my family to enjoy food and not see it as good or bad. It’s all about how it feels.
I’ve had flare-ups my whole life, but I’m so thankful I wasn’t diagnosed until I was older. My heart beats for people who are diagnosed earlier in life. Medication will be a part of my life from now on, and I will need more frequent colonoscopies and other tests. But my brother has been drug free and eruption free for 15 years so I’m hoping to have the same success. I guess I’m still trying to keep up with my big brother!
These days I still exercise and stay active. I want to run marathons again when I’m ready. In the meantime I’m taking a food photography course to help with my food blog and website and my friends want me to open a restaurant. Maybe I’ll do that, or maybe someday I’ll have a cooking show. Until then, I still enjoy cooking for my family. It’s my legacy.