When 15-year-old Molly O’Donoghue noticed blood in her stool, she was too embarrassed to tell anyone.
The shy teenager thought her classmates might laugh at her and that it probably wasn’t a cause for concern.
But weeks passed and her life slowly got out of control.
She lost weight rapidly and became so tired that she could barely climb the stairs.
Eventually, Molly confided in her mother – but she also agreed that her daughter was probably just trying too hard in the toilet.
It wasn’t until Molly’s Headmistress called home and asked if everything was okay that they realized something worse might be afoot.
Molly, from Southport, Merseyside, said: “I was really too embarrassed to say anything, especially at that age, so I kept it to myself for quite a while.”
“But then I started to get tired and couldn’t do my usual activities.
“I was a great tennis player and runner, but at one point I couldn’t even climb a flight of stairs.
“The blood kept getting worse and the weight loss increased. And everything sort of unraveled.”
The student slowly became more withdrawn.
She stopped seeing her friends and avoided going out in public for fear of having to rush to the bathroom.
“I was scared of meeting people in public and not knowing where a toilet was because I had the symptom of urgency,” she said.
“When I had to leave, I had to leave, so I avoided social interaction at all costs.”
A few months after her first symptoms, people started asking Molly if she had an eating disorder.
Her school then contacted her parents to voice her concerns.
Now worried, the family visited their GP and after several tests at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool over the ensuing weeks, Molly found out she had ulcerative colitis – an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
“I had never heard of it,” said Molly, who was studying for her GCSE degree.
“It was a big learning curve for my whole family.”
If I had to go, I had to go, so I avoided social interaction at all costs.
Molly tried eight different medications before finally finding one that worked for her.
For months she was unable to live like her friends, which severely affected her mental health.
But after trying an at-home treatment that she does herself every two weeks, she’s finally got most of her symptoms under control.
Molly said: “I was very athletic and had a large circle of friends around the sport. When the fatigue set in, I obviously couldn’t do that anymore.”
“It actually made me sad to go watch and not be able to play, so it definitely sent me into a spiral of anxiety and depression.”
“It also had a big impact on my studies. I missed a lot of my final GCSE year so everything was very hectic.”
“After I got out of the hospital, I was slowly getting back to my old life, but I was always worried, ‘Do I need to go to the bathroom?’
“Now, however, I am basically who I was before the diagnosis.
“I still suffer from frequent fatigue, which is such a big symptom, but otherwise I’m in complete remission.”
“MY LIFE EVOLVES”
Molly, who is currently studying English Literature and Language at the University of Edinburgh, has returned to tennis and is hoping to complete a 12-month degree in Melbourne, Australia next year.
“I never would have done that before,” she added.
“If you’d told me five years ago that that was even an option, I probably would have laughed.
“When I first became ill, even the thought of going to university was a long way off for me for a while, so being able to actually live away from home and with friends is just life-changing.”
But she wants to remind people that having an invisible illness isn’t easy and that there are still good days and bad days.
“I always suffer from fatigue and low energy levels, and it’s kind of a way of overcoming them every day,” she said.
“There’s also an aspect of having to say no to certain things, but I’ve learned that’s okay.”
“I know I’m sick and I don’t want to push myself too far.”
She also wants to urge others to seek help if they notice worrisome symptoms, like blood in their stools.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help – both with the illness and mentally,” added Molly.
“I really struggled with the anxiety and sadness that came with mourning an old life that I lost to the diagnosis.
“I think it’s becoming clear that while there is a stigma attached to the disease, you can break through that and overcome it.”
“And if you ask for help, someone is always there.”
Molly shared her story on World IBD Day in partnership with Celltrion Healthcare and the European Federation of Crohn’s & Ulcerative Colitis Associations.
Together they started a campaign Where is CC?to shed some light on how difficult it can be to recognize Crohn’s disease and colitis.
What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a long-term medical condition that causes severe abdominal pain and diarrhea.
The two main types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
The main symptoms include:
- Diarrhea lasting more than four weeks
- stomach pain
- Blood or mucus (clear mucus) in your stool
- bleeding from your butt
- I feel tired all the time
- Lose weight without trying
There are a number of treatments available to relieve symptoms.
This can include steroids and other medications, as well as surgery to remove part of your intestines.
It’s not clear what causes IBD, but you’re more likely to be diagnosed if a close relative has it.
Research from Crohn’s & Colitis UK in 2022 suggests that one in 123 people in the UK has IBD.