In 2017, a year after finishing his service in the United States Marine Corps, C.J. Papuro Cabrera was studying for his associates degree while also working hard to gain muscle mass.
“I was doing a lot of weight training and I started to experience some blood in my stool. At first, I thought that it was normal, that it was just protein poops, so I shrugged it off,” C.J. said. “But then my symptoms started to pick up. I noticed that there was more and more blood, and then I started to have a sense of urgency.”
Receiving A Diagnosis
The following year, when C.J. went to the doctor and was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC), the only guidance his doctor offered was a pamphlet from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. “I went home and looked up the foundation and I felt lost,” C.J. said. “At the time, I didn’t understand the severity of the disease. I kept living my life the same way: drinking alcohol, eating stuff that hurt me, still being in stressful environments, all things that can affect your inflammatory bowel disease.”
After graduating with his degree, C.J. started at a four-year university; this path was soon derailed when he developed both bronchitis and a sinus infection, leading to an unprecedented UC flare-up. “Fighting all three at the same time left me on bedrest,” he said. “I was fighting extreme fatigue, going to the bathroom at least 25 or 30 times a day, losing extreme amounts of weight, and barely eating. Honestly, I really didn’t want to be here anymore.”
Finding Connection and Community
While recuperating, C.J. isolated himself from his community and kept them in the dark about the extent of his condition. After fully recovering, C.J. chose to dive into research and social media to educate himself and his loved ones about his disease.
“Publicly opening up about my health has positively affected my life for the better. Before, I was depressed and I was hurting,” he said. “Even though I still felt symptoms the day I chose to open up online, I also felt 100% better because I wasn’t hiding what I was going through. I get so much love and so much positive feedback just for talking about what I’m going through and raising awareness for chronic illnesses.”
C.J. soon expanded his advocacy for the IBD community. He co-hosted the Crohn’s Veteran Podcast for multiple years and joined Color of Crohn’s and Chronic Illness (COCCI) as an ambassador in 2020.
“Through COCCI, I’ve worked with engagement councils and pharmaceutical companies. I’ve also connected with a lot of people at events like Equity for IBD,” he said. “I’m actually a very shy person, but COCCI has really put me on the spot to grow and become a public speaker who is not afraid to advocate for people of color in the IBD community.”
The following year, however, C.J. was also diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
“My mental health went down the drain,” he said. “But then I decided to take full accountability and focus on my health. I prioritized sleep to get the inflammation down, and I cut all trigger foods out of my diet. I also added in supplements like probiotics and focused on keeping my stress down. On the days when I could push through the fatigue and pain, Idid bodyweight exercises and calisthenics. I feel powerful when I’m moving heavy weights, so when I had the energy, I would go to the gym and weight lift, too.”
While C.J. does still deal with symptoms most days, these hard-fought habits continue to keep him on track. C.J. is currently working on gaining weight, maintaining consistent nutrition, and building a world where people diagnosed with chronic illnesses are immediately connected with support groups and educational resources.
“Life with chronic illnesses is hard. But when you connect with people who have the same condition as you, you’re able to get a little more support than from people who don’t have the same experiences,” C.J. said. “We need to make sure we make both our mental health and physical health a priority. We only get one body, and everything affects it when you have a chronic illness.”