England and Somerset cricketer Jack Leach‘s primary job is being a left-arm spin bowler. But cricket fans will never forget the support he gave with the bat to Ben Stokes in the 2019 Ashes when England made an incredible comeback against Australia at Headingley.
While Leach’s doggedness – and the repeated wiping of his glasses – captured the attention of fans, many will be surprised to know that the night before his heroics, Leach was in agonising pain from Crohn’s disease.
Crohn’s is a lifelong condition where parts of your digestive system become inflamed. According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Organisation, one person in 210 has either Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, and around a quarter of those are diagnosed in childhood.
“It’s always something I’ve had to deal with, I was diagnosed at 14, obviously I wasn’t playing on a professional level,” Leach said.
Symptoms can start at any age. Some of the main symptoms are stomach aches and cramps, blood in your stool, and tiredness and fatigue, although it’s not to be confused with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
As Crohn’s is an invisible illness, a sufferer could look completely fine on the outside but on the inside, it can be a completely different story.
It can affect them mentally as well as physically, and while it battles their immune system making them susceptible to other illnesses, medications can only make it better in the long run taking the pain away for periods.
“The last few years have been tougher, and I guess the difficulty [is] with it being an invisible thing but having sort of days where you feel slightly off, lethargic.
“The medication I’m on definitely affects my immune system.”
It was near the end of 2019 when Leach’s immune system couldn’t fight off yet another virus.
During a busy touring period with England, Leach’s immune system went down, causing all manner of health problems: “I was in New Zealand before [South Africa], and I picked up some food poisoning that turned into sepsis.
“That was again, another example of a time in my life where my body just couldn’t fight it off.”
Crohn’s disease can flare up at any time, and sufferers often have anxiety about how and when it may flare up as every sufferer flare-up is different.
While most people take medication to help deal with their symptoms, many will need surgery to remove a part of their bowel if the medication doesn’t work.
The five points that the Crohn’s and Colitis Organisation suggest are:
- Try to eat well
- Get regular exercise
- Make time for relaxation
- Talking things over
- Take a break
Being an athlete at any level while suffering from an illness that completely takes control of how you feel physically and mentally can be demanding.
Being an elite international athlete like Leach provides an even bigger challenge, especially when a flare-up can interfere with your training.
“At Headingley the night before the last day of that game, I had bad stomach cramps and I was in agony, and I got the team doctor to come to my room. He gave me some tablets which calmed my cramps down and I woke up okay the next morning.
“But I was extremely worried at that point that my Crohn’s had come back because the one thing I remember was being the fourteen-year-old boy getting these awful stomach cramps at night.
“If you do have a flare-up, then you’re not going to digest your food properly. And we need to make sure that we’re getting all the fuel in our body and it’s all digesting well.”
Leach is currently in training with the England squad that will tour Sri Lanka for two Tests in January, where his bowling was a key part of a 3-0 win in 2018 and is a good candidate to play the following series against powerhouses India.
He took time out from his preparations to offer some advice for young athletes with invisible illnesses: “Don’t let it hold you back, [but] don’t underestimate it either.
“I think work with it rather than trying to fight it and understand that you might have to be doing slightly different intensity training, and it will have to be slightly different from your team.
“Always communicate well with your coaches and then go on from there. I think the worry for me was always, ‘Oh, if I just say I can’t do something that’s going to be seen as being weak, and that will affect my chances of being on the team’.
“I think people are more understanding than that.”
“So, if you know you’re going to have to give 80% on some days because you’re not feeling quite with it, but then actually that allows you to give 100% come game day, then that’s the most important thing.”
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