Christine Stavros cycling with Team Challenge.Share on Pinterest
Photo courtesy of Christine Stavros.

Christine Stavros received an ulcerative colitis (UC) diagnosis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), in 2006. While she wasn’t one to share her condition “from the rooftops,” she eventually joined Team Challenge, the fitness and fundraising arm of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

There, Stavros befriended a whole group of people just like her — all living with UC or Crohn’s disease. With Team Challenge, she has completed many half-marathons and cycling events. Not only would Christine come to rely on them to help navigate her own UC journey, but her husband’s as well.

Five years after Christine received her UC diagnosis, her husband, Pete, fell ill from what they both presumed was a stomach virus. Several weeks later, he had lost nearly 50 pounds, developed a perforated bowel, and had to undergo multiple surgeries.

Healthline spoke with Christine about living with UC, becoming a caregiver while still being a patient, her love of running and cycling, the power of community, and more.

This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.

I think there were two main things: One, that everyone’s disease is different. I kind of knew that anyway from getting involved with Team Challenge. There are different triggers and degrees of severity for everyone. I think that’s partially why it’s so hard to find a cure.

That’s another reason it’s helpful to build up a network of people — you may be able to find someone else like you. But our diseases were and are so different. We experienced both ends of the spectrum. Personally, with my disease, I’ve never had to go through all those surgeries. I’ve mostly had everything under control. About a year after I started with Team Challenge, I had people to reach out to and talk with, and that support really helped.

The initial thought was that we knew this disease and how to treat it. But then the opposite happened — what we knew didn’t work. It kind of opened my eyes to what I might have to deal with down the road. Knowing that my disease could progress to that point, I now know what to expect a little. I know it’s possible for me to get through that and to have a happy, healthy life. It was scary to think about, but going through the experience [with my husband] made it less scary.

Two, the big eye-opener for my husband was how much the community came together for us. The Team Challenge community quickly rallied and supported us. They sent us things to the hospital. At first, Pete was more on the periphery [with my diagnosis], but then it hit home how important having a community is.

“It gave me a new appreciation for him being my caregiver … Being a caregiver to someone with the same disease as you, though, having that connection really makes a difference.”

— Christine Stavros

It was definitely bizarre to have met and married as healthy adults, but then, years later, to be diagnosed with the same chronic condition.

When it happened, initially, it was just a relief — I thought, I already know this disease, I know how to take care of it — but then seeing him go from a super athletic man to what he was when we took him to the hospital, there was kind of a helplessness.

At the hospital, we had hoped that stronger medications and enteral nutrition would help. But when they told us about his perforated bowel, I knew I had to stay calm for him. Then when they wheeled him out of the room to go to surgery, I just lost it.

I had never to see him so sick — I was always the one with the illness. I can see how other caregivers would put themselves on the back burner because I did that, too. I needed to focus on him. I knew I had to get him through this crisis, to make sure he was OK.

It gave me a new appreciation for him being my caregiver. What it’s like seeing someone you love going through something so awful. Just seeing someone you love, trying to take care of them. Being a caregiver to someone with the same disease as you, though, having that connection really makes a difference.

It also takes a different level of strength than what I deal with in my own disease. The extent of what he was going through was a whole other level.

Physically, he didn’t have the strength to do anything. He had severe edema after the surgery and had to use a walker to get around. He probably was not feeling strong mentally, so I needed to give him the strength and encouragement. I needed to let him know that we were going to get through this even when it felt like we couldn’t. It just became like an autopilot routine for a little bit.

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Christine and her husband, Pete. Photo courtesy of Christine Stavros.

I was a walker — I had walked in local races, half-marathons. For example, there are a series of different distances of races for the Kentucky Derby. And I did try to do the Couch to 5K.

But when I joined Team Challenge in 2010, I found that I wanted to add the challenge of doing the running. That desire to add the running was just an extra challenge. Getting involved, in general, was a way for me to feel like I was fighting back. An active way to fight back.

I don’t think I realized it at the time, but adding in the running and participating in so many half-marathons was a message to myself to see what my body was capable of. I think that has still carried with me today.

In 2016, I switched to the cycling team. The event distance I was doing was 54 miles. At the time, that seemed impossible. But then I accomplished that, so a few years later, I did a century — 100 miles! It still amazes me what I can do with this body.

But if you were to ask me what my perfect distance is without training for something specific, it would be cycling 30-ish miles.

That’s one of the things that I love about Team Challenge — so many participants are patients. It’s amazing to see what we’re capable of while fighting this disease. I have so much in common with everyone else who’s participating.

I tell my body, you can keep on attacking me, but you’re not preventing me from doing these things!

It wasn’t something I was sharing from the rooftops. It was on an as-need-to-know basis. I didn’t really baby-step it. I waited a couple of weeks after I signed up, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do this on my own. At the time, I just forced myself to send out emails and Facebook messages. It was just a lot of just sharing my story.

The Napa to Sonoma Half-Marathon was my first Team Challenge event. They’ve added cycling and triathlons, and now you can “Race in Orange” [Team Challenge colors are orange and blue] at any distance and just raise money on your own, not as a team event. I met my fundraising goal in a super fast amount of time.

The feedback I got was pretty amazing — I found a lot of people I knew who had IBD or were touched by it in some way. I learned about a man at church who had had it for more than 20 years, co-workers, etc.

You do get scared that people will get turned off when they learn about it, but instead, people ask me questions. Then, outside of my existing social circle, I learned more and more people out there had these conditions. For example, if a group of us are at the starting line of a Team Challenge event, someone might notice our jerseys and come over and ask about what’s going on.

Not only have we made these amazing friends who are like family now, but if I can continue helping someone else out, someone has been scared to reach out or go to a doctor, for example, it can open up their world to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation and Team Challenge. It makes me so grateful that I signed up — it took me a year to decide to sign up. Finally, I just said, do it and be done with it! And I did the one event, and now, 13 years later, I’m still doing it.

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Photo courtesy of Christine Stavros. Photo by Scott Smith.

I’m training for my next cycling event. It’s a metric century [100 kilometers, or 62 miles] in Reston, Virginia, in August. It’s amazing to be back on my bike after my recent Achilles injury. I met my fundraising goal minimum already, but I’m still pushing it.

It’s important for me to keep fighting back as long as I can to help get money toward research and support for patients and caregivers and, hopefully, one day, a cure. Also, there’s a really cool 15th-year Team Challenge medal [for the group’s 15th anniversary] that I want to earn.

Note: You can donate to Christine’s fundraiser here.

Christine Stavros

Christine Stavros lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with her husband, Pete. In 2006, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and Pete was diagnosed with UC just 5 years later. She has been actively involved with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, through its endurance racing fundraising branch, Team Challenge, since 2010, completing 15 events and raising over $46,000 to date. Christine is currently training for her sixteenth Team Challenge event, the Reston Bike Club Century, in August. When she’s not on her bike or advocating for increased awareness and support for UC and Crohn’s patients, Christine enjoys community theatre, going to concerts, and sometimes, after a busy day as a finance controller at a bourbon distillery, just vegging out on the couch and watching a Hallmark movie.