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Rheumatoid Arthritis: Chaunté Smith Shares Her Story

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Rheumatoid Arthritis related image Photo: Chaunté Smith

Six months after the birth of her first child, Chaunté Smith couldn’t get out of bed. She was in “excruciating pain.” At first she thought it was the result of being an “older mother,” having given birth at 36. In the mornings, her fingers were curled. As her knees became swollen, she began to limp.

Telling me about her experience, Smith admitted, “I ignored it for a little while, as we women do, and just got on with my life.” Now, eight years later, Smith has become part of a team working on an awareness campaign called “The Strong Woman’s Approach,” featured as part of the Reach Beyond—Everyday Solutions for Living With Rheumatoid Arthritis overview. Smith is sharing her personal experiences with the goal of giving other women courage and insights.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects 1.3 million Americans, and is two to three times more common among women. It is a chronic disease that affects the joints, primarily those in the hands, wrists, feet, shoulders, and knees. Pain is accompanied by tenderness, swelling, and redness of the joints — a warning sign that they are being attacked. Other indicators can include low-grade fevers and fatigue.

Smith, who comes out of a background in the pharmaceutical industry, intuited that something other than first time motherhood was at play. She said, “I could barely walk. I couldn’t pick up my newborn.” She connected with a rheumatologist, and in tandem they determined what her course of treatment would be. Smith knew that she wanted to have a second child, and her choice of medications was informed by that fact.

Over time, Smith learned how to adjust to her illness through a combination of medication, exercise and diet. Proper lifestyle choices are an issue that Smith is working to amplify. She underscores how food rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as coldwater fish, dark leafy vegetables, and other types of vegetables can make a huge difference in well being. Conversely, omega-6-rich beef and chocolate have an inflammatory effect on the body’s system.

Smith did extensive reading and research to give herself as much knowledge as possible. “You have to find out what works for you,” she told me. “The disease can take over your life if you allow it to.” Explaining how the pain had impacted her both physically and emotionally, she related that there were times she “couldn’t put the car key in the ignition.” Unsurprisingly, she became frustrated and cranky from the pain. When I asked her if women would be aware of potential symptoms — in order to seek out medical help—she replied, “The pain is so excruciating you will know. You can’t even flip a light switch.”

Warned that if she had a second child, the rheumatoid arthritis could intensify. Smith was not deterred. She became very sick after her delivery, and when she had completed six weeks of breast-feeding — she resumed her regimen of medication. Her youngest daughter is now four.

Currently, Smith describes her illness as “better,” appending the statement with, “I still have my painful moments.” She combines family and work with speaking about rheumatoid arthritis — to foster support, information dissemination, and community building. Injecting a bit of humor into the conversation, she remarks, “People with RA all have the same story of how you have to slide out of bed!”

Stressing the need to be pro-active, whether asking questions or finding a doctor you can connect with, Smith reiterated the importance of early intervention. This action gets the disease under control in the preliminary stages, thereby preventing long-term joint damage. Her advice to other women was straightforward and simple. She said, “Don’t beat yourself up. Take care of yourself first. It’s okay to have a cup in the sink. Get your diet and exercise plan together.”

Joining with Smith to help women dealing with rheumatoid arthritis is Dr. Pamela Peeke, an author, and member of Oprah’s team of medical experts. She has contributed her expertise through a series of videos devoted to dialogues on exercise and coping strategies. When I spoke to her by telephone, she drilled down on the premise behind the outreach. She qualified it with one word: Hope. “People feel overwhelmed and defeated by rheumatoid  arthritis. They ask, ‘How is this going to impact my life?’ They need to be reasonable and realistic.” Peeke insisted, “People can still do stuff, they just have to know how to do it.” A patient needs to understand herself and be reasonable about flare-ups.” 

Women can be affected by RA as early as in their thirties, Peeke described how women are more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases because of the sensitivity of their immune systems. “Pregnancy can kick-start a dormant autoimmune disease,” Peeke said. Walking through a series of steps to take, Peeke advised that women need to be their own advocates. This starts with having an internist do a blood test looking for the “rheumatoid factor.” Once you receive a diagnosis, get a team together spearheaded by a rheumatologist, making sure that you have a physical therapist on board.

Peeke underscored that it was essential not to feel defeated during flare-ups, but rather to use the episodes as a roadmap to learn about the disease and individual patterns. She said, “Be patient. It can be depressing if you don’t know what’s happening.” Peeke pointed to a customized exercise regimen as essential to a comprehensive routine. She said, “Don’t stop moving! It’s the worse thing you can do.” She also targeted junk food as a culprit for increasing inflammation. Instead, she advised concentrating on ingesting whole grains, vegetables, fruit, plant-based nutrients, and fish.

In tandem with her food and physical exercise recommendations, Peeke is a strong supporter of meditation. She characterized the practice as “the best way to regroup and be centered; to close your eyes and let it be.”

Both Smith and Peeke believe that the most important thing for women with rheumatoid arthritis to realize is that they are not alone. With proper treatment, support, and a programmed approach, they can regain a sense of control.

That knowledge, in itself, can be of major consequence.

Photo courtesy of Chaunté Smith

Sources: Interview with Chaunté Smith

             Interview with Dr. Pamela Peeke


Reviewed November 28, 2011

by Michele Blacksberg RN

Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment4 Comments

Thank you for acknowledg­ing the informatio­n contained in the article (specifica­lly relating to the statement "Women can be affected by RA as early as in their 30s") was reported as given and is therefore not necessaril­y entirely accurate. In order to prevent any future issues within the realm of the autoimmune arthritis diseases (i.e., Rheumatoid Arthritis, Systemic Lupus Erythemato­sis, Ankylosing Spondyliti­s, Juvenile Arthritis, Psoriatic Arthritis, Sjogren's Syndrome, etc,) we at the Internatio­nal Autoimmune Arthritis Movement (IAAM) would like to offer our services to review any pieces featuring these diseases to ensure the verbiage and informatio­n is correct and not misleading­, and/or could not be construed as misinforma­tion by the public. We could be helpful to interpret more details and provide links to research/r­esources in the event a doctor makes a generalize­d statement, such as the one made in this article, that RA can occur "as early as in the 30's". While the doctor may not realize that his quote will remain "open-ende­d", we can expand for him, because the doctor knows that RA can begin at any age.

IAAM is committed to bringing awareness and education surroundin­g autoimmune arthritis diseases to the public eye, and we would love to be a resource for you as, together, we could truly change the world's current perception of the word "athritis" by showing each of these illnesses in their true light.

Thank you!

Tami Brown
Internatio­nal Autoimmune Arthritis Movement (www.iaamov­ement.org)
[email protected]­vement.org

January 2, 2012 - 11:33am
EmpowHER Guest

I wanted to comment as well as the age factor. There is no age. You can get RA at 80, 40, 12, 6, etc........ and it progresses with age.

December 2, 2011 - 11:07pm
EmpowHER Guest

I think you have forgotten that RA affects thousands of children and young adults, not just women "as young as 30". The commercials already give the impression that RA is an elderly disease; we don't need articles like this assigning an age to a disease that does NOT discriminate in terms of age. You can also have RA without the Rheumatoid Factor; it's called being "seronegative."

November 29, 2011 - 1:14am
(reply to Anonymous)

Thanks for your comment. The focus of the article was one woman's story and her efforts to cope with the disease.

November 29, 2011 - 8:53am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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