Balancing College, Life, and a Chronic Illness

By: Elizabeth Pruitt

Besides germs from hundreds of other students and improper diets, college students are meant to be relatively healthy. We are young and often think of ourselves as invincible. Many college students, however, are suffering from a wide range of chronic illnesses.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines chronic illnesses or diseases as “conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.” They estimate 6 in 10 adults in the United States suffer from a chronic illness.

College students are not immune from being diagnosed with a chronic illness, and I, like many other students, had to learn that the hard way.

Despite smiling in this photo, I was in an immense amount of pain each day. This was taken during the semester off I had taken due to my chronic illness.

Since my junior year of high school, I have been in immense pain for days on end. My sophomore year of college, I began experiencing sharp pain in my lower left abdomen. Consultations with doctors, MRIs and CT scans, and emergency room visits were no help at diagnosing me.

After dealing with this pain for six months, I received an unofficial diagnosis of endometriosis. According to endometriosis.org, endometriosis is a disorder in which tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside the uterus. It affects about 176 million people throughout the world.

I took a semester off of college after my diagnosis because I was in too much pain to continue attending classes. The severity of my symptoms vary depending on the day, but I can always guarantee some sort of pain and exhaustion.

SAU’s sophomore, Arielle Knight, struggles with two chronic illnesses: ulcerative colitis (UC) and stage four kidney failure. UC is a chronic, inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the digestive tract and affects an estimated 750,000 North Americans. After a diagnosis in March of this year, Knight has been struggling with a myriad of symptoms, such as kidney stones, flare-ups of pain, and rapid weight loss.

Arielle during one of her many hospital visits. Photo provided by Arielle Knight.

Although our diagnoses are very different, we share things that those without a chronic illness would often not be able to understand. Loss of friendships, a change of diet, a severe lack of energy, and cancelled plans due to a flare-ups are just to name a few.

As college students, struggling with a chronic illness can be tough. Assignment deadlines and absence policies often are a source of anxiety for those with chronic illnesses, as we never know how our bodies will feel that day. Thankfully, the professors at SAU have been extremely kind to both myself and Knight. They have offered extensions and virtual class attendance.

The social lives of college students with chronic illnesses are also affected. As previously stated, Knight has lost friends because of her diagnosis, and we both have had to miss out on plans with friends because of a bad flare-up, or just pure exhaustion.

“I don’t know when a flare up is going to happen. I don’t know how I’m going to feel 10 minutes before I’m going to have to leave my house. I used to be able to hang out with my friends for hours and hours on end and go fun places with them. Ever since I got diagnosed, one hour into hanging out and I want to go home and go to bed,” said Knight.

Knight has a close friend who recently got diagnosed with endometriosis. My best friend was recently diagnosed with the chronic illness laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR). We both are able to have a friend who understands what we are going through.

Although there are no cures for our illnesses, we do our best to manage pain and other symptoms through medicine, homeopathic treatments, and self-care. Knight has created an Instagram to document her journey with UC and kidney failure and you can follow it at @aknightucfight.

If you have a friend with chronic illness, please be patient with them. Know that the things they are feeling are out of their control, and often cannot be helped. Although you cannot cure them, offer them a shoulder to cry on, grace and understanding when they cancel plans, and a prayer for peace and relief.

For more information and resources on battling a chronic illness in college, check out this link.