How one patient thrives despite four decades with rheumatoid arthritis

A positive attitude is the key to a long and fulfilling life with chronic disease, according to a man who has spent almost four decades dealing with rheumatoid arthritis.

“The mental approach you take to anything in life and the perspective you have is absolutely critical,” said Jeff Aarssen, who provided a patient’s perspective during a session at Benefits Canada’s Chronic Disease at Work conference on June 19.

“In my experience, it made a world of difference,” added Aarssen, the senior vice-president of sales for the group customer division at the Great-West Life Assurance Co.

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“I’d rather burn out than rust out. I’d rather have the quality of life,” he said.

“I have arthritis, but it doesn’t have me,” he added, quoting an Arthritis Society motto that he has adopted as his own mantra.

Still, it hasn’t been easy for Aarssen, whose journey with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the joints, began in the winter of 1980 during his final year at university.

“I woke up one morning basically paralyzed,” he said.

Following a short hospital stay that failed to identify the problem, Aarssen’s family doctor suggested rheumatoid arthritis, a diagnosis later confirmed by specialists.

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The news hit hard for Aarssen, a keen athlete. At the time, he was running 80 kilometres per week and played high-level amateur basketball and baseball. In hindsight, he said he probably suffered from clinical depression, as well as bouts of anxiety and anger.

“It was tough to take,” said Aarssen.

Somewhat ironically, it was his doctor’s prediction that he would be permanently in a wheelchair by age 30 that spurred a change in his outlook.

“It wasn’t going to happen,” said Aarssen. “Once I made that mental switch to sort of take it on one-on-one, I think that changed my entire perspective. I think it changes your physiology; it changes the way you can combat any chronic disease.”

Family, friends and employers have also been critical, he added.

“It takes a village to defeat a disease. And you can’t be shy about asking for help.”

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During his four-decade journey with rheumatoid arthritis, Aarssen has watched treatment options for the condition transform. When he received his diagnosis, ice baths and coated aspirin represented some of the suggested options.

Since then, he has cycled through a variety of pharmaceuticals as they came on the market, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs. He was also open to alternative methods, including special diets, laser therapy and others treatments.

“I will try anything that works for a little bit,” he said.

However, at the turn of the century, Aarssen ultimately settled on a biologic, to which he credits a level of remission that was previously unattainable.

“It has absolutely given me a quality of life that I couldn’t dream of,” he said.

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Asked after his presentation about what it would take to get him to come off the drug or switch to a biosimilar, Aarssen said he would only do so if the effects were wearing off and in consultation with his doctor.

“I’m open to making a change if I’m going south,” he said, noting he also has an eye on future medical developments.

“You’ve got to figure that someone’s going to come up with something that works better than what worked before. Because if you don’t have hope in the future, you’ve got no power in the present.”