How One Athlete Manages Her Rheumatoid Arthritis

Athlete Shelly has one motto: No limits! She loves tackling pursuits like marathons, 100-mile bike rides and mountain climbing. And her rheumatoid arthritis is the very reason she does it all.

Katie Alberts
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When Shelly Spence of Vancouver, WA, was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), she never dreamed she’d one day be scaling to the top of Mount St. Helen’s and Mount Shasta—two of the toughest climbing destinations in the U.S. “At the time, my mom had to push me from room to room in a rolling office chair. It was hard to tie my own shoes or squeeze a tube of toothpaste, never mind be ‘active,’ ” recalls Shelly, 31. “We went to the doctor and I was finally diagnosed with RA and began treatment.”

Thanks to a combination of two RA drugs and the anti-inflammatory cortisone, Shelly was soon able to walk again and resume her normal activities, albeit with some lingering soreness and fatigue. “I was grateful to be in treatment, but psychologically…things were tough. Some days I still worried about my future, and feared I might wind up in a wheelchair.”

What turned things around for Shelly? “In 1999, a woman I’d met at an arthritis group encouraged me to walk a marathon. I thought she was crazy, but for some reason I found myself saying yes anyway. Crossing the finish line gave me a push—here I was completing 26.2 miles when four years ago I couldn’t even walk across the room! It inspired me to be more aggressive about my treatment. When I went on biologic medication soon after, everything fell into place.” 

A few weeks after starting her new drug regimen, Shelly’s swelling had gone down so much she could see her anklebones again! “I’ll never forget the first time I caught myself literally running up the stairs. It was almost midnight, but I had to wake up my whole family to show them what I could do.”

Not letting RA get in her way
Today, Shelly is a social worker helping the elderly and disabled and has a schedule so packed with adventure, no one believes she has RA. “I hike, skydive, snowboard and cycle thousands of miles every year,” she notes proudly. But mountaineering captivates her the most. “In college, I did short day hikes with my girlfriends, but didn’t think about climbing until I met my husband, Ben. Now we tackle a new summit every year.”

April 2013