Speed Skater Sarah Lang Hits Her Stride Balancing Olympic Dreams with Chronic Disease, Inspires Successful Steps to Managing Ulcerative Colitis

NOVEMBER 27, 2007, Vancouver, BC –  To watch World Cup Speed Skater and US National Team member, Sarah Lang, lace up her skates and loop the ice of Calgary’s Oval, where she is an Olympic hopeful in training, it is difficult to imagine that this powerful and graceful 30-year-old elite athlete was diagnosed with a digestive disease just six months ago.

In July 2006, Sarah began to experience symptoms that included abdominal pain and blood in her stool. Sarah worried that she had developed colon cancer. “I was in denial that something was wrong,” she explains. “Even though my symptoms had worsened, I avoided checking with my doctor because I felt that if I had a disease, then it would be the beginning of the end.”

Over that summer, her symptoms steadily increased in severity, until one Friday night in September last year – when she was in too much pain – she headed to the emergency room at Foothills Hospital in Calgary. Hours later, a doctor admitted her to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) when her stomach vastly distended due to inflammation in her large intestine. During her five-day stay in the ICU, Sarah went through a lengthy series of tests, including a sigmoidoscopy. At discharge, the physician explained that she might have ulcerative colitis, however, confirming this diagnosis took another few months and a full colonoscopy.

“While I was in the hospital, I was so afraid that I would never skate again,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone with this disease to compare stories and share fears with, so it was easy to imagine the worst. It took some time for me to come to terms with this disease, and to accept it as part of my life.”

Sarah says that the turning point in living with UC came just six weeks after leaving the hospital, on the night before the 2006/2007 World Cup trials. Possibly due to the stress of competing, she experienced a flare-up and only got two hours of sleep because of her symptoms. Sarah made it through the trials, but was in a great deal of pain.

“I barely made the World Cup Team, but that experience made me realize that if I wanted to compete well at these international competitions, then I was going to have to accept that I would have some bumps along the way,” she says. “Now I see each flare-up as an opportunity to get stronger, and learn how to better adapt to life with ulcerative colitis.”


World-Class Motivation

Today, Sarah hopes that her story inspires other Canadians facing similar, potentially daunting news. In fact, she believes that her condition has changed her life for the better by challenging her to set priorities, and to remain focused on the important aspects of her very full and active life. Additionally, through her connection with The Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, she is keen to help motivate others living with this oftendebilitating disease, so that they too can enjoy complete and meaningful living.

“When I was initially hospitalized, I didn’t think I would get back to doing what I used to do, but I have accomplished that and things are even improving,” remarks Sarah. “Ulcerative colitis is a chronic disease, with remissions and relapses. This means you must learn to adjust and to manage symptoms as they flare up, and this requires a strong frame of mind.”

As a world-class athlete, Sarah is familiar with physical and mental challenges, and applies many of her perseverance techniques to help reduce stress, her biggest personal symptom-trigger.

“Worrying about the onset of symptoms prior to a competition won’t help me,” she explains. “I used to think that each relapse meant surgery would follow but now I know that is not true. I keep my mind on the moment and know I can deal with the next challenge as successfully as I have with the one before.”

Sarah feels confident that she has developed a plan that works for today to manage and treat her ulcerative colitis. This includes a personal network of family and friends, a positive mental attitude, a supportive physician, and a commitment to educating others about this disease. She is also experimenting with subtle dietary changes to see what influence these actions might have on her overall health, and on how well she recovers from a flare-up.


Speeding Symptom Relief through Balance

For most ulcerative colitis patients, symptom management is critical to finding relief. Understanding symptom triggers, learning to adopt physical and mental behaviours that might lessen, delay, or prevent their onset, and finding treatment that works, all play into a successful approach. As UC experiences vary from patient to patient, it is vital for each patient to work closely with a doctor to form an ideal, individual management plan.

“It was important for me to find a treatment that was easy for me to take, and provided fast relief of symptoms,” she says. “After speaking with my doctor, and trying several other therapies including suppositories, enemas, and oral medications, I am now taking an oral 5ASA delayed-release product, Asacol® 800, because it works for me. I find this formulation particularly convenient as I take only 6 pills a day, and can easily fit this regime into my busy schedule!”


Steps to Managing Ulcerative Colitis

A strong, steady stride carries Sarah over the ice and into new arenas of life challenges, which include completion of her studies and ultimately setting out on her career path while not giving up on the dreams developing in Calgary’s Olympic Oval.

Sarah offers a series of steps that she hopes will assist others living with ulcerative colitis and these are:

  • Accept that you have the disease
  • Focus on the moment
  • Realize that you can achieve success – even though the road may be difficult
  • Be proud of all that you do
  • Focus on the positive
  • Seek inspiration and rely on others for support

Sarah adds that you can also be a source of support for others as they chart a long-term disease management path of their own. “When I was in the hospital, I didn’t think that I would be able to skate again, let alone finish in the top five in the world in the 1,000 metres, and earn a relay medal at the World Cup just a few months later,” says Sarah. “Using these six steps, I turned what I thought was a life-ending obstacle into a winnable challenge. Now I want to let other people dealing with ulcerative colitis know that they can achieve success too.”

CSIR thanks Procter & Gamble Health Care Canada for providing an unrestricted grant that helps make this campaign possible.