Survivor Outplays Arthritis
by Monique Angle
Survivor's Tina Wesson--a lifelong athlete and a Tennessee mom--won the show's $1 million top prize by battling starvation and extreme temperature changes in Australia and by outplaying 15 contestants.
But what her fellow castaways didn't know was that, throughout the competition, Wesson was receiving treatment for a mild case of rheumatoid arthritis.
Without fear of being voted out of Survivor: The Australian Outback, Wesson, 40, is now speaking out about her affliction as a spokeswoman for the Arthritis Foundation. As an unpaid advocate, she'll mostly be publicizing the foundation's 26-mile "Joints in Motion" fund-raising marathons and talking about her experience with the disease.
But she admits she's an unusual choice. Running miles a day and having completed numerous physical challenges contrasts with thousands of arthritis sufferers who have difficulty with basic tasks, such as picking up a pencil.
"I never wanted to be the poster child for arthritis, because my case is so mild," she says in response to criticism from patients with severe cases who have posted angry messages on the foundation's Web site. Yet, she's speaking out to encourage undiagnosed sufferers to seek medical attention.
About 2.1 million Americans--mostly middle-aged women--have rheumatoid arthritis, a disease of the immune system that causes the lining of the joint to be inflamed, says John Klippel, medical director for the Arthritis Foundation. The disease can cause painful joint flare-ups and permanent disability in some cases, but drugs can significantly decrease the pain, he says.
Wesson's symptoms are mild, controlled by taking Methotrexate, to slow the progression of her arthritis, and Celebrex, to relieve joint pain during flare-ups. The drugs enable her to continue her active life. She goes inline skating with her teenagers, Katie and Taylor, bikes, makes constant appearances related to her win and completed the "Joints in Motion" marathon in Dublin, Ireland.
"Many are under the impression that if you have arthritis, you can't exercise," says Wesson, who was diagnosed seven years ago.
Not everyone with arthritis will be able to run marathons, Klippel says, but an exercise program tailored to the individual will help decrease symptoms in many cases.
Wesson believes early diagnosis and medications have kept her illness from becoming severe. She immediately sought a physician when her joints started to painfully swell after a routine game of tennis. Early signs of rheumatoid arthritis include general fatigue, aching, stiffness, and joint pain and swelling.
"I'd always been healthy. So when it happened, I knew something was really, really wrong with me. I went to the doctor right away."
Because the disease is progressive, it is important to see a physician early, Klippel says.
Wesson's 42 days in the outback were filled with high heat, insects, starvation and high-stakes arguing and bargaining with fellow survivors. But, she didn't have to worry about her joints-her arthritis didn't act up once during the competition.
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