In her late 20s, Jennifer McNeil felt a pinching in her left shoulder blade that wouldn’t go away. Over the next two years, other joints complained: a knee, a wrist. Doctors picked off an array of diagnoses like carpal tunnel and tendonitis.
But when Jennifer was 36, a year after an easy pregnancy, the pain was suddenly everywhere. “I was literally crawling up the stairs,” says Jennifer, now 44 and living in Holliston, Mass. Finally, Harvard medical professor Dr. Allen Steere, director of clinical research on rheumatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, nailed the answer: rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
RA, an autoimmune disease that affects about 2.5 million Americans, is on the upswing among women, according to a 2008 Mayo Clinic report. Its symptoms include pain, swelling and stiffness—and untreated, it can cause permanent damage to joints and organs.
Once diagnosed, Jennifer was determined not only to control the disease but to return to her feisty self. Still, as do many RA patients, she had to try a variety of anti-inflammatory drugs before she found a helpful combination. “Each drug works on different parts of the inflammatory response,” Steere explains.
What also works is Jennifer’s drive: “I come from dynamic people—Sicilian people,” she says. “My brain is always busy. I push the doctor to speak to me in English. I say, ‘What does that mean for my treatment, my prognosis?’ And I do a lot of research about the side effects of drugs, about nutrition. I press and press for answers.”
When she gained weight on prednisone, which increases appetite, she fought back with exercise and healthy eating: “I started walking, and in six months I lost 40 pounds. And as I lost weight and got stronger, I could do more,” says Jennifer, who pounds the pavement with her dog 20 minutes a day, and adds yoga and a 20-minute bike ride weekly. Plus she’s mom to a frisky eight-year-old son, runs a thriving consulting business and juggles neighborhood volunteer work.
She’s also a budding author, working on a novel about four female friends in their 40s. “The narrator is one of the four who actually has RA and is trying to live around it and stay in motion, like I try to do,” Jennifer says. “I think women my age need as many inspiring 40-plus female characters as we can get that we can relate to, have a few knowing laughs with and work our tough feelings through with.”
If Jennifer’s to-do list sounds packed, it is—but she knows her limits. “I just find what works for each part of my being,” she says. “I can do Pilates, but if I rake leaves that will nail me. And if I can’t do it, I let it go. That is all part of my formula for sanity and health,” she says. “I’m not turning over my life to RA.”