Walking on the football field as a college freshman at Purdue University was a dream come true for Matt Light. But the retired pro football player—who spent ten years as an offensive tackle with the New England Patriots and then joined ESPN as an NFL analyst—says his early days playing the game he loves were filled with pain and a lot of digestive discomfort.
“I started the football program in early August and during training that fall I started having abdominal pain, had a hard time eating and just didn’t feel well,” he says. Light attributed his symptoms to the change in his routine. “I thought it was all due to needing to adjust to being at college and even spent a few days in the hospital with what I thought was stomach flu.”
While his football career continued to look bright, Light’s health continued to fade. He says he had a few intestinal abscesses drained and battled pain.
“Looking back, I realize I showed signs of having Crohn’s disease, but no one picked up on that until my rookie year with the Patriots in 2001, when in addition to the pain I was feeling fatigued and experienced bleeding when going to the bathroom.”
A thorough exam by the team's doctors and specialists led to Light being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation of the digestive system, pain, fever, and often the inability to control your bowels.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms generally include:
Because it involves the very personal aspect of going to the bathroom, many patients with Crohn’s opt to suffer in silence, rather than seek emotional support from loved ones and friends. And Light admits he fell into that trap.
“I definitely worried how it would affect me. Not only about the physical impact and how I would be able to treat and manage it, but I worried that it would be used as a crutch or an excuse. I didn’t want anyone to make excuses for me and say things like ‘he might have played better if he felt better.’ I didn’t want my teammates to have to make excuses for me,” he says.
But after staying silent through his decade-long career, Light is speaking up about living with Crohn’s.
“So many people are affected by this and I want them, their families, and everyone to know you can live with this disease. You can have a very good life if you work with your doctor to find the right treatment for you,” he says.
In the beginning, treatment for Light consisted of changing his diet to avoid triggers, and also altering the timing and portions of his meals. “I didn’t take the prescription medicines at first because of side effects that, as an athlete, made the medicines not much of an option because they could have affected my ability to play the game and stay healthy.”
Since retiring, Light says he’s been able to go back and re-explore his treatment options and now takes prescription medicine to control his symptoms.
He also watches what he eats.
“If it sounds or looks like it’s not healthy, then it’s probably not a good thing for me to eat. If it slides off plate or leaves a residue on the plate, then it’s not good and I should avoid it.”
Instead, he says there are many tasty alternatives to junk and other unhealthy foods, but acknowledges they’re not always easy to find. “Healthy food and meals aren’t as easy to find or prepare as junk, but we rely on books that deal with organic, seasonal and healthy eating. We also look to local fruits and produce.”
Light credits his wife and children with keeping him healthy and providing endless support.
“They’re as educated as anyone about Crohn’s and its effects. Because it affects everyone around you, my wife cooks Crohn’s-friendly meals to deal with my issues,” says Light. “My kids have seen me go through this battle their entire lives and they’re very supportive, too.”
His wife has been his stand-in, too.
In the summer of 2004, the team gathered at Patriots’ owner Roberts Kraft’s home to accept their championship rings. Light was unable to join his teammates, he was in the hospital for nearly a month dealing with serious complications that followed a surgery to have 13 inches of his intestine removed.
“My family is wonderful and has been a constant source of support. Without that kind of support from family and friends, you don’t get by easily,’ he says.
Light stresses the importance of Crohn’s patients, their family and friends being educated about treatment options, triggers, and symptoms as well as taking an active role in the treatment of the disease.
“I won championships playing football with Crohn’s. And I was able to fight by having a good attitude and support team around me. I encourage anyone with this to not stop until they find a treatment that works because no one treatment fits all,” he says.
And stay positive.
“There are ups and downs, but keeping a positive attitude and having good people around you will get you through the downs.”
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