To illustrate what it’s like to live with lupus—the complex, chronic inflammatory disease that has no known cause or cure—Chris Cronick employs the “spoon theory,” a well-known analogy for lupus coined by lupus sufferer Christine Miserandino.
“Pretend you’re at a restaurant and you gather all of the spoons in the place,” Chris, 37, explains. “The spoons represent your energy for the day. Say you take a shower—that costs you one spoon. Then you drive the kids to school—that’s another spoon. Before you know it, it’s 3 p.m. and you’re almost out of spoons.”
Extreme, crippling fatigue is one of the many challenges that Chris, a fitness coach and motivational speaker from St. Paul, Minn., has dealt with since being diagnosed with lupus in August 2010. “Lupus is taxing. It’s taxing mentally, spiritually, financially,” she says. “It’s a lot to handle.”
Chris is no stranger to hardship: In addition to lupus, she lives with a variety of conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, Celiac disease, six artificial joints and heart valve disease. But in spite of her myriad health issues, Chris is determined to live life to the fullest.
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Chris’s lupus journey began in the summer of 2010, when she started to experience a puzzling, frightening onslaught of symptoms—high fevers and night chills progressing to double pneumonia, malnutrition and near liver failure. Doctors were flummoxed, unable to provide a firm diagnosis for Chris’s condition. “They were throwing out cancer, lymphoma,” she says. “I was given a 50/50 shot at living.”
After almost six months of repeated visits to the ER and a succession of futile diagnostic tests, Chris finally got an answer to her problems. When her anti-nuclear antibody (ANA) blood test came back positive, Chris was diagnosed with lupus. “I was frightened, but I was also just relieved to know what was going on,” Chris says.
Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease of the immune system that affects each person in a unique way, but always with the potential to cause serious, sometimes life-threatening complications. Most individuals with lupus have mild disease characterized by episodes, called “flares,” when signs and symptoms get worse for a period of time.
Because it presents a wide range of symptoms—from joint pain to mouth sores to the characteristic “butterfly rash” across the bridge of the nose and cheeks—lupus is notoriously difficult to diagnose, often mimicking other autoimmune diseases. For that reason, doctors had wrongfully attributed Chris’s symptoms to her rheumatoid arthritis, a disease she was diagnosed with in 1999. “I know now that I’d had a lupus flare, but they intermingled it with the rheumatoid arthritis,” says Chris.
Things went well for a while—until Chris was blindsided by some devastating, life-altering news in September 2011. A routine checkup revealed that a lupus-related blood infection had caused irreparable damage to Chris’s heart valves and that she required open-heart surgery to replace them. The news was a crippling blow to her morale: “There was a whole lot of loss with that surgery,” Chris recalls. “A lot of pain. I learned I couldn’t have any kids from here on out. I learned I would forever have a big scar on my chest.”
True to form, Chris refused to wallow in self-pity for long and quickly picked herself back up. “I told myself, ‘I have to just move on from this. I have to get fired up for the surgery,”” Chris says. “I allowed myself to mourn for one day, maybe two, and then I focused on what was ahead of me.”
Chris has found numerous ways to manage her condition and is now in a period of lupus remission, meaning she has displayed no evidence of disease activity for a prolonged period of time. In addition to taking the immune suppressant Cellcept, Chris adopts a holistic approach to lupus treatment that incorporates diet, exercise and rest. “Since lupus is an inflammatory disease, I’m careful to eliminate pro-inflammatory foods,” Chris says. “And rest is crucial. Sleep is a medication for me.”
Although the two-punch combination of joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis and fatigue from lupus makes exercise difficult, Chris firmly believes in staying active. She is a certified cycle instructor at CycleQuest Studio, where she teaches classes twice a week in addition to following her own exercise regimen. “I approach exercise not in the perspective of ‘I can’t.’ I choose to look at it as what I can do. I modify,” Chris says, adding that she is careful not to overexert herself during exercise and to get sufficient rest after.
Now Chris, who was selected as the 2013 Lupus Ambassador for the Lupus Foundation of Minnesota, is on a mission to help other lupus sufferers uncover their own strength. As an ambassador, Chris is focused on driving awareness, sharing her personal story and presenting a “face” for lupus and the Lupus Foundation of Minnesota. “I feel I’m being called to share my struggles and triumphs with lupus so others may feel hopeful,” says Chris, who is gearing up to help organize September’s Lupus Walk for Hope and 5K Run in the Twin Cities.
Chris says that lupus has been both a curse and an unexpected blessing. “I don’t want to paint lupus as a happy thing, but having lupus and being in this position of Ambassador has allowed me to connect with people in a way I could never have imagined before,” Chris says. “Years ago I would have never imagined this stuff for my life. I mean, I’m a speaker and a fitness coach? That’s pretty cool.”