“I learned to live with celiac disease.”

Kayla Uniac took control of her symptoms to discover she had celiac disease’and took control of her life to manage the disease

Source: Web exclusive: March 2010

Throughout the fall of 2007, Kitchener, Ont.-based university student Kayla Uniac began to experience extreme lower abdominal pains. After countless trips to hospitals for pain, vomiting and relentless nausea, doctors remained baffled and the aspiring grade-school teacher was desperate. She had dropped from a size 8 to a size 2 and her studies were at stake. By Christmas 2007, she knew she had to take matters into her own hands.

The breaking point

‘That Christmas I realized fully just how unhealthy I was," Uniac says. "Everyone was eating and talking and laughing and I had to lie in my bed. It hit me that I can’t keep going on like this, that I had to find an answer.’ Uniac started researching all kinds of possibilities on the Internet and in books. Eventually, she came upon celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the absorptive surface of the small intestine is damaged by gluten, preventing the body from absorbing nutrients properly’and most of her symptoms matched the descriptions she found.

Her GP agreed to test for the disease with a biopsy test, and by June 2008, the diagnosis was confirmed. ‘I was happy, because even though my life was changing, I had an answer.’

The challenge

To learn how to cope with a chronic illness.

The plan

The most effective way to treat and control celiac disease is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet. The day Uniac was diagnosed, she went straight home and cleared out all of her cupboards. ‘Basically, my plan of attack was to figure out what I needed to do to help my body heal.’ She did all kinds of research, joined websites, started up her own blog with tips for gluten-free shopping, and became an active board member at her local Canadian Celiac Association chapter. She also tracked everything she ate, learning how to read labels and cook her own food.

The biggest obstacle

‘The process of not knowing what was wrong with me was agonizing,’ she says. Neck and neck with that, adds Uniac, is the challenge of social eating. People don’t understand the seriousness of cutting out gluten. ‘A lot of people think it is an allergy, and don’t understand when you send a plate back because there is a piece of bread on it. But one crumb can put me in the hospital.’ She says she is continually explaining the disease to friends.

The results

‘I learned what my body is capable of. Now I jot things down and get to know me, and there’s an overwhelming sense that I am in control and I will be okay.’ That said, Uniac is still encountering some food intolerances: for example, she can’t manage dairy. But she is upbeat about sourcing and tackling things her body ‘tells’ her because she knows she’s in control now.

The tips

Question doctors
‘Do your own research,’ says Uniac. And don’t be afraid to question doctors. ‘Doctors are like teachers. They’re always learning, too.’

Don’t look for norms
It took Uniac a long time to realize that what’s ‘healthy’ for one person may not be ‘healthy’ for another. ‘I may never be a size 8. And I may get stomach upsets from time to time. And that’s not unhealthy. That’s just my body.’

Don’t let illness define you
‘When I was in the hospital a lot, I knew I wanted to travel when I got better. I found a cruise line that offers gluten-free food and I went on it. You still have to do the things you want to do.’

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