An Invermere woman who suffers from celiac disease shares about the journey

By Breanne Massey

Special to the Columbia Valley Pioneer

May is Celiac Awareness Month, and the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) is working toward raising awareness about the symptoms and warning signs of a diagnosis that impacts one per cent of the world’s population.

More than 80 per cent of people with celiac disease have not yet been diagnosed because the symptoms can be misleading, according to the CCA.

After 10 years of coping with Celiac disease, Ruth Cavanagh (nee Ruth Fast) wanted to #GoBeyondTheGut and talk about the difficulties of her diagnosis.

“I am celiac. It’s been about 10 years since I found out, but I’ve been celiac all my life,” she explained, recalling painful stomach cramps throughout her life.

“I was sick all my life. And it came to a point where I just had one beer. Just one. And I ended up in the hospital and I had to get a Demerol shot for really bad pain.”

She recalls a specialist who was visiting Invermere running a blood test to diagnose the root cause of her discomfort. Ultimately, Ms. Cavanagh went to the East Kootenay Regional Hospital in Cranbrook for further testing.

“I went to the Cranbrook hospital for a scope down (the) throat and they found these little hairs in your stomach called (intestinal) villus and they were all laying down and if you have a healthy gut, then all those hairs stand up, and mine were all lying down, so nothing I ate was being digested,” explained Ms. Cavanagh.

Celiac disease is a common disorder that impacts the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals when somebody consumes proteins from wheat, rye or barley. While there is no cure for celiac disease, those who suffer from the diagnosis must adhere to a strictly gluten-free diet and diligently read labels to mitigate cross-contamination impacts.

“When I found out, all there was to eat was white cardboard-y disgusting bread,” she said. “I phoned a lot of companies to find out what was in my food because back then there wasn’t a lot of awareness about it, and I did lots of cooking experiments.

“Baking gluten free is way different than baking regular. I had to do a lot of research and I had to teach a lot of my friends and family so that when they had me over for dinner, I could eat what they made. It’s a lot easier now.”

Ms. Cavanagh has found AG Valley Foods to be her best support in finding celiac-friendly foods. The owners have gone so far as to order her specialty items, and track her down in the store when they bring in new gluten-free items.

“They’ve gone above and beyond; they’re amazing,” Ms. Cavanagh said.

There are many gluten-free foods accessible at grocery stores today, which has resulted in some food aficionados going gluten free.

“A lot of people think gluten free is healthier, but it’s not,” Ms. Cavangh said. “There’s a lot of sugar in the products you’re buying.”

The CCA Professional Advisory Council recommends those who have been recently diagnosed with celiac disease work with a dietician to ensure a satisfactory meal plan is followed.

“Delays in diagnosis can have serious health implications,” said Anne Wraggett, CCA president in a press release.

“In severe cases, there could be fractures due to weak bones and even cancer of the bowel. We encourage those who believe they might have a condition related to gluten to NOT simply stop eating gluten. It is important to know the exact problem and to get screened for celiac disease with a blood test. Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that can impact one’s health in many ways. Speak with your doctor and get tested FIRST.”

To learn more about the atypical signs of celiac disease, visit the CCA’s website at www.celiac.ca. CCA is hosting free educational webinars throughout the month of May along with public outreach using the hashtag #GoBeyondTheGut.

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