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September 30th, 2011
11:32 AM ET

Human Factor: 'American Idol's' Casey Abrams on life with a digestive disease

In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle - injury, illness or other hardship - they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week, "American Idol" contestant Casey Abrams shares his story about his struggles with the chronic digestive disease, ulcerative colitis.

Every time I perform on the big stage, I think about that little college freshman who never thought he’d play his bass and sing for people again.

Before my music career even started, I almost had to give it all up. Millions watched me on TV and got to know me as a performer. What most people don’t know is that way before I performed with Jack Black, kissed J. Lo or got the judges’ one and only save, I was a college freshman studying what I love most - music - when I started having major health issues.

I had stomach cramps all the time, was going to the bathroom a dozen times a day, there was blood in my stool and I was so tired that I could barely walk to class let alone carry my bass across campus.

I thought seeing a doctor was a sign of weakness and I was too embarrassed to talk about it. When I finally did, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC) which is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a chronic digestive disease with no cure. I was scared. I didn’t think I would be able to balance managing my health and my music, but I knew I had to try.

I wasn’t going to let some disease stand in the way of my love for music and my dreams. I think it may have even made me work harder to achieve my goals.

Now, I am managing my disease and living my dream by performing my music for millions. I feel like it’s my responsibility to take advantage of the spotlight I’ve been given, so I’m raising awareness for IBD which includes both UC and Crohn’s disease and impacts 1.4 million Americans.

I’ve teamed up with Janssen Biotech, Inc. and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) to launch a program called IBD Icons. We wanted to hear from people living with IBD who are pursuing their dreams despite the challenges of their disease.

Over 300 people submitted their stories and I worked with the CCFA to choose the top stories. Two finalists will win a trip to see me perform at the Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon to benefit CCFA. Through this program, I’ve met hundreds of others with IBD, and I think their stories are more inspiring than mine. I just happen to be on television, but these people deserve the recognition.

You can help raise awareness by registering for the fan club at www.IBDIcons.com and by voting for your favorite finalist on the website. For every vote, Janssen Biotech, Inc. will make a donation to the CCFA, so vote and tell your friends to vote!

I’m so proud to be part of this cause. I just hope my story can help others out there find the courage to talk about it, seek the help they need and go after their dreams.


soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Heather

    I'm glad to see awareness raised. Maybe more people who need it may get help.

    I have fibromyalgia, an illness that people don't understand. There's a stigma against people who have chronic pain and/or fatigue. Well, from my perspective, I am sure there's a major stigma against those with bowel diseases, too. Nobody asked to be sick and it's not your fault.

    So I'm glad for the openness and honesty. It helps others, indirectly. Good article!

    September 30, 2011 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Bob

    I'm glad that he is doing so well. Just remember that a lot of his success has to do with his support network, medication and other factors that may or may not apply to others with similar diseases. It is very important to give support to those with chronic illnesses. A lot of people are put down and accused of having problems that are all in their head. Without people who give unconditional support it is unlikely the this guy would be doing as well. Also, please keep in mind that some people have complications that he may not have. Please don't blame them if they don't reach American Idol status. You will always find an outlier that reaches the top. Those who are ill are not helped when someone says "see he did it so can you." This guy made it because he has a special talent. Some of us are pretty ordinary. That is not our fault either. As far as medications go, some of the meds for this disease are way too expensive and there are a lot of people who do not have access to them. It is funny that these meds are more readily available in Canada than they are in the U.S. Please don't blame someone if they can't afford the medications. This guy obviously got what he needed.

    September 30, 2011 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Renee

    I'm so happy that Casey is speaking out about that. I have IBS and it's so empowering to hear people talk about similar experiences.

    September 30, 2011 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Geri

    I am so happy you did not give up your dream Casey. I too have suffered for 11 years from Crohn's disease and it can really disrupt your life, people don't understand because you look normal but you are suffering inside and it is an embarassing illness. It is also an expensive illness, and you have to fight every day to feel good and have energy. I admire you and happy you are part of the CCFA. I became a stand up comic for a few years and then had to stop after getting so sick. Now, I am living each day to the fullest - except for those days that all you want to do is sleep.

    September 30, 2011 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. IBDMOM

    I'm another person who is proud of Casey for being open about his diagnosis. I'm the mom of a young man diagnosed with UC at the age of 13 and the sheer ignorance of the general public about UC and Crohn's is, unfortunately, one of the most awful things about it. My working theory at this point is that it's very difficult to understand a disease that is similar to something much less serious. An awful lot of people on the planet have experienced diarrhea after eating or drinking something bad or during a bout with the flu. It's nasty, it's short, they get over it. UC and Crohn's cause diarrhea, but that's where the similarity ends.

    Renee's post is a good example of the misunderstanding patients have to face– please understand, Renee, that IBS, as unpleasant as it can be, is not remotely similar to UC, and mixing up discussion of the two is just one more thing that makes it harder for UC and Crohn's patients to be supported and understood.

    My teenage son is one of the 50% of UC/Crohn's patients who has moderate to severe symptoms that require escalating amounts of very expensive pharmaceuticals to treat. How expensive? My son is currently on a combination of drugs that cost more than I earn in a year. For now, a college student, he's covered by my insurance - if the Affordable Care Act is overturned, he loses that protection and becomes someone uninsurable for an individual policy. If his meds stop working - which happens unfortunately often–his next step is infusion therapy. After that, the only solution left is to have his colon removed. Even if he remains in remission the rest of his life, which would be wonderful, he will have to have a colonoscopy every year beginning when he turns 21 because of a significantly increased risk of colon cancer, and needs to have laboratory tests a minimum of 4 times a year to make sure the chemo drugs aren't destroying another part of his body. You will excuse me if I find it hard to make an analogy from this to a condition which does not damage the intestines, does not affect cancer risk, is treatable by OTC medication, and may require you to alter your diet.

    I applaud every person with UC and Crohn's who gets out of bed in the morning to do anything at all, whether they get on TV or not. They are heroes to me.

    September 30, 2011 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Julia

      I feel for you and your son. Crohn's has affected several members of my family as well, and I wanted to pass along that after thirty years of every treatment imaginable,a combination of the specific carbohydrate diet and low dose naltrexone has put my uncle into long term remission. LDN is safe, relatively side effect free, and generic. They're worth looking into. Hope your son stays in remission!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specific_Carbohydrate_Diet
      http://www.lowdosenaltrexone.org/ldn_trials.htm#Recent

      October 1, 2011 at 02:56 | Report abuse |
  6. reallynow

    Stop eating gluten and high fructose corn syrup; and your IBS will go away. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and IBS. No amount of medication helped. I went to an Integrative Physician and had numerous blood tests done. I had Celiac Disease all my life and never knew it. Once I changed my diet, my horrific symptoms went away WITHOUT medications/surgery/etc.

    October 2, 2011 at 19:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kerry

      People need to stop confusing IBS with IBD. IBD is a digestive DISEASE. IBS is a digestive conditoin-HUGE difference. YOu do not need remicade, prednsione, canasa , suflasalazine, penasa and many other toxic drugs to fight IBS. Nor do you need to have continual scopes with biopsies to check for pre-cancer so they can remove your colon before you develop cancer as I did this year........ HUGE difference. Educate yourself people. Without the toxic, nasty meds to treat IBD,many of us sufferers would not be alive to talk about the disease at all. Unfortunately, the medications to treat the disease (and suppress your immune system) asr as deadly as the disease itself it. IBD is cleary the ugliest disease known to man. Please band together people and donate money to find a cure for this horrible illness that sucks the life out of everyone inflicted by it.

      October 3, 2011 at 16:46 | Report abuse |
  7. fernace

    I have a friend who had UC & had to have lifesaving surgery! 6ft of colon was removed & she was lucky not to have to rely on a colostomy bag for the rest of her life! Now she watches what she eats, uses mild meds & is doing great! Another friends young son (6 years) was diagnosed with pediatric IBD! His doctor put him on meds which heped somewhat, but his mom, a vegetarian took it a step further & eliminated wheat & gluten in her boys diet & it made all the difference! I trust the medical community, but I also trust holistic& homeopathic remedies! It's great that Casey Abrams is calling attention to these illnesses, more power to him in his music career!!

    October 2, 2011 at 21:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. kerry

    Casey,
    Keep fighting. As a UC sufferer for 25 years who recently underwent colectomy and jpouch surgery, there needs to be so much more time, money and energy invested in finding a cure for t his incredibly debilitating disease. I would not wish it on my absolute worst enemy. This disease robs you of joy, social activities, your passions, energy and your dignity. If only more celebrities and high profile people would come out and support the the search fo ra cure, we would be that much closer.

    October 3, 2011 at 16:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Gerald Boykin

    As a former crohns disease sufferer I am not an expert on crohns disease, but I am an expert on my crohns disease and only speak from my experience. My experience is none of the meds worked for me. I had to go the alternative route and use diet as my medicine. Through use of the combination diet I was able to find complete relief. I wish you the best because I know what you are going through

    November 25, 2011 at 21:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Raden

      I wouldn't have known about your pverious illness until I actually read about it. You are a remarkable professor. I pray that your illness will not return, nor does it affect your girls. Stay strong, and never give up. You are to be commended on your recovery.

      April 9, 2012 at 05:30 | Report abuse |
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.