Faces of Arthritis: Cristina’s story

Cristina and her baby

Cristina has known life with arthritis for two decades. At 21, while pursuing her nutrition and dietetics degree in her native Colombia, she received life-altering diagnoses of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and Sjögren’s syndrome, and later, fibromyalgia. 

“The onset of my RA was relatively quick, with symmetrical swelling of my hands, elbows, knees and ankles,” shares Cristina. “It evolved so fast that within two months, I was bedridden. Sjögren’s presentation was not straightforward. My symptoms began in childhood with severe digestive issues, pain, fatigue, and dryness.” 

Despite initial treatments, Cristina had to quit her first job as a homecare nurse due to the pain and difficulty of night shifts and patient care. Undeterred, she pivoted to focus on completing her university education, followed by a bridging program in nutrition to become a Registered Dietitian in Canada, allowing for a more manageable work schedule and accommodating career.    

Cristina has tried every treatment available to maintain a fair quality of life. “Unfortunately, my RA is severe, and the treatments were insufficient to prevent joint damage,” says Cristina. “At least there are options to treat my RA. To this date, there has not been any effective treatment for my Sjögren’s.”  

Sjögren’s syndrome, for Cristina, has been the most challenging disease to explain, yet it significantly impacts her quality of life. “Sjögren’s is not just a ‘dry disease’ or ‘post-menopausal disease.’ It can lead to significant joint and muscle pain, incapacitating fatigue and neurological manifestations,” she says. “That's why I am such a strong advocate for women living with Sjögren’s.” 

Five years ago, Cristina’s health deteriorated when she became pregnant. She experienced such debilitating pain that she couldn’t hold her baby. “It made me feel inadequate as a mother and stole my joy of being a new mom,” she shares.  

Beyond her physical health, Cristina shares that living with chronic pain impacts her mental health. “Mental health counselling has been pivotal in dealing with depression caused by medical PTSD,” she says. “The reality is, it's taken many years to assemble a cohesive interdisciplinary team to allow me to live a ‘normal life’ with these invisible illnesses.”  

Resilience and perseverance shine throughout Cristina’s journey. The “ambitious and driven young woman” that was there when chronic illness came into her life is still there today. She can no longer exercise for two hours a day, but still does 30 minutes daily. She is disciplined in her eating habits, modifying her diet to help manage her symptoms and pain.  

Cristina has built a beautiful community on social media by sharing her nutrition and lifestyle expertise with women living similar journeys, helping them feel supported and less alone. 

“Fellow patients and followers enjoy my approach to coping with the disease. I shed light in the darkness and put a smile on people's faces when they see me on Instagram,” says Cristina. “I'm not ashamed of my twisted hands. I proudly show them because it's the only way I can make an invisible disease visible.” 

Cristina shares, “life with arthritis is filled with disappointments, challenges, and losses.” “But we can still embrace and enjoy those small moments of happiness. Without these diseases, I would not have met the incredible and supportive community outside my family and friends.” 

Hear more from Cristina and discover more Faces of Arthritis and their stories