Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a debilitating autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1.3 million people in the United States, striking women three times more often than men. The disease causes the immune system to attack healthy body tissue, leading to damage to joints and organs. Patients with RA can experience fatigue, joint pain, stiffness, fever, and pain. The impact of these largely invisible symptoms on patients’ lives varies, necessitating lifestyle changes and ongoing medical attention.
Despite the many challenges that those living with RA face every day, patients continue to strive to live full, meaningful lives within the “new normal” of the diagnosis. Here, women who live daily with RA share their stories and their experiences, hoping to inform and inspire others affected by the disease.
Laurie Ann Miller, 39 Los Angeles, California
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 12 years old, though I first showed signs of RA when I was 10—I had a lump growing on my right hand, and my mother says that I had also been complaining that my feet hurt during that time. Around that same period, she and I took a trip to Pennsylvania, where it was pretty cold. While we were there, I was waking up stiff and swollen every day, and I had a lot of aches. But by the end of each day I would feel better, so I figured I had just pushed myself (I was running track and doing gymnastics at the time). Still the symptoms persisted, and when we got home to Houston we went to the doctor. It was at that point that I was diagnosed.
The doctor said that I should continue to go on with life as normal. But two years later, I was experiencing pain all over my body (except in my jaw, hips, and shoulders). I lived with terrible pain initially—I missed lots of school, I could not do many activities, and even brushing my teeth and combing my hair were difficult. I felt very alone at times.
Since then, in the 20 years that I have been living with RA, there have been good periods when I am pain-free and also periods when I don’t feel as well. I have managed RA through a combination of Eastern and Western medicine, which has worked wonders for me. I see a rheumatologist, who prescribes medications to help me with pain and inflammation, as well as a naturopath, who also helps me with pain and inflammation and has taught me a lot about the role of diet and stress in RA. As a result of that insight, I try not to eat too much wheat and gluten, and I recently stopped eating refined sugars. Meditation has helped me, too, and I am looking into starting acupuncture.
Because stress is a huge culprit for me as far as fueling flares, I know that it’s important that I get lots of rest and that I manage my stress level. One way I do this is through exercise. I have always been an avid exerciser, and I think keeping myself moving has helped tremendously. Yes, sometimes I have to rest more, take breaks, and ask for help, but I don’t let RA take over my life.
I hope that other women living with RA can recognize that you have RA but you are not defined by RA. For the longest time, I thought that I was this disease. But I’m not. Live your life. There is so much beautiful life to be lived.
Today I live my life to the fullest. I am currently in graduate school at the University of Southern California (Fight on!), getting my master’s in social work because I want to work with others who are living with chronic illness. I biked from San Francisco to Santa Monica (525 miles) in the California Coast Class, raising money and awareness for arthritis and arthritis research. I volunteer for the Arthritis Foundation, and I am involved in Arthritis Introspective, where I am able to meet others who are living with RA. I have advocated on Capitol Hill about the importance of finding a cure. I am a recent breast cancer survivor, and I recently ran the Disneyland Half Marathon. These things keep me going. I see arthritis as a blessing because it has shaped me into the woman I am today.