After achieving all the regular infant and toddler milestones, one day Jenn Walton could no longer straighten her arm or hold her head up. Her parents knew something was wrong. But this was 40 years ago. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis was the last thing on her doctor’s mind.
“It took a long time for me to be diagnosed. In fact, the only reason my parents thought it could be arthritis was because my mother’s sister was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her mid-30s,” Jenn shared.
Jenn started on medication and physiotherapy. By the time she reached Grade 1, her disease went into remission. Once she reached puberty, it came back, attacking different joints.
Through her early 20s, Jenn rebelled against the signals of pain and inflammation that her body was sending. She was determined to not be “crippled” like her aunt, with no social life, no fun.
The typical 20-year-old lifestyle, along with a ½ pack-a-day smoking took their toll and caught up with her. Jenn hit rock bottom.
“I was not looking after myself at all, and my arthritis was in almost constant flare. I remember lying on the floor, crying from the pain. I had to do something.”
Jenn found inspiration in her younger brother. At age 18, he had lost 85 pounds and had gone on to run a marathon.
“I began eating healthier and quit smoking. I joined a gym. I started working out. I was surprised when my nicotine cravings and my joint pain started to decrease.”
Jenn’s other source of inspiration came through her working as Principal Pianist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s Professional Division.
“I quit smoking because of those young dancers, and it was them that helped me through it,” Jenn recalls. “This little band of girls, all pulling for me, giving me big hugs and encouragement every day. ‘Day 62 Miss Jenn!’ they would cheer in a sing-song voice. They counted for months.”
Jenn made other lifestyle changes. She continued to improve her eating habits and lost 80 pounds, discovering in the process that dairy was a trigger for her arthritis inflammation.
Jenn recalls her next big step. “I was so proud of myself the first time I ran a mile on the treadmill. My trainer looked at me and asked ‘So what’s next?’ In that moment, I decided I was going to run a marathon like my brother had.”
Jenn ran her first half-marathon in 2001, and her first full marathon in 2002. She has been running ever since, completing over 30 half marathons and nine full marathons. This fall, she will run the Hamilton Road to Hope Marathon in an attempt to qualify to run the prestigious Boston Marathon, a goal she never thought possible in those early days.
As an ambassador for The Arthritis Society, Jenn has some advice for young people and their parents struggling with arthritis, or worried about what a new diagnosis might mean.
“Arthritis isn’t the end of the world, and it doesn’t have to define who you are, what you can do, and what you can become. It will take support, experimentation and patience, but finding what works for you is worth the effort.”