UC Berkeley sophomore Spencer Pace says Crohn’s Disease is the best thing that has ever happened to him.
For the past seven years, Pace has battled to overcome Crohn’s — a painful and debilitating condition that left him in and out of doctor’s offices and bouncing among medications that only served as a “Band-Aid” to the incurable disease.
A week after finals, Pace will embark on a 500-mile charity bike ride to Los Angeles with his fraternity brothers in Sigma Phi Epsilon to raise funds for research into the disease — a trip that would have been impossible at one point in his life.
Pace was diagnosed with Crohn’s in eighth grade after becoming severely ill on a family vacation and discovering his body was not absorbing nutrients from food due to the condition.
Crohn’s, which affects as many as 700,000 Americans, causes an inflammation of the digestive tract that often leads to abdominal pains, weight loss and fever, as well as a host of complications including intestinal blockage, nutritional deficiency and ulcers.
During high school, Pace struggled to cope with the disease, missing several months of school and experiencing rapid weight loss, especially during his junior year.
“At my sickest, I was 5-foot-10 and 105 pounds, and I would get lightheaded every time I stood up,” Pace said. “There was a solid four or five years where I was on and off of school.”
He spent years trying to find the right treatment and saw more than 20 doctors. Trying to manage the symptoms, Pace took a wide variety of medications, from steroids to antibiotics, and recalled having to take more than 10 pills per day.
For breakfast, he typically eats chicken with eggs; for lunch and dinner, chicken with vegetables. His sister recalled one year when Pace ate the same soup three times a day for a year.
Still, he says this is a small sacrifice to make for being healthy. He still frequents the same popular eateries as his peers, albeit a bit differently: When his friends take trips to CREAM, he tags along with a banana in tow.
After years of strict exercise and dieting, he has managed to stay healthy and fit and has been in remission since the end of his senior year of high school.
With his newfound health, Pace joined the Cal Triathlon team his freshman year, finally able to partake in sports. He called his first few competitions a personal victory for himself and a tangible triumph over Crohn’s Disease.
“I didn’t do them to compete,” Pace said. “I did them because I could.”
UC Berkeley sophomore Perth Silvers said he was inspired by Spencer to turn his life around and get healthy after seeing Spencer’s positive attitude and how hard he’s worked to overcome his health issues.
“Spencer is one of the most positive and enthusiastic people I’ve met in my entire life,” Pace’s roommate Jordan Gilles said. “Whatever he’s involved in, he’s ridiculously excited about it, and he’s always wanting to get other people involved, too.”
To his fraternity brothers, perhaps what is even more admirable than Pace overcoming Crohn’s is his dedication to help others suffering from the disease overcome it as well.
Currently, there is no cure for Crohn’s, and much of what causes the disease is unknown.
“We know it’s partly genetic and partly environmental, but the exact reasons for this remains elusive,” said campus biology professor Steven Brenner, who has researched Crohn’s Disease. “But evaluations have shown there’s potential for real further progress in the field.”
A nutritional science major, Pace plans to become a doctor and open clinics that offer a wide variety of treatment options for people with Crohn’s, hoping to make the process to find the right treatment easier for others than it was for him.
“(Crohn’s) has given me everything: purpose, motivation and an everyday drive to become someone who can give back,” Pace said.
According to Janet Jansson, a campus ecology professor and scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who researches Crohn’s, additional funding for research would help develop more effective therapeutics, and hopefully, one day, a cure.
As part of an annual tradition for Sigma Phi Epsilon called “Pedal for Life,” Pace and about 15 of his fraternity brothers will participate in a charity bike ride from Berkeley to Los Angeles, stopping along the coast at beaches and campsites throughout the five-day ride.
Proceeds from the ride will go to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, and the fraternity hopes to raise more than $6,000. So far, they have raised about $2,500 from a variety of sponsors and are accepting donations online.
“Three years ago, there’s no way I could even think of riding 500 miles,” Pace said. “Now, I’m doing it to raise money for the thing that used to be in my way.”
Contact Kathleen Tierney at [email protected]