For nearly 2 decades, award-winning journalist, 54-year-old Cynthia McFadden has probed the hearts and minds of some of the biggest influences on our culture. She’s balanced being a single mom to a 12-year-old son, Spencer with interviewing Tony Blair, President George W. Bush, the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf and Hollywood hunk George Clooney on ABC News’ Nightline and Primetime Live. And she does it all while having Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the digestive system, pain, fever, and often the inability to control your bowels.
Who knew college would be like this?
“As a kid I had a lot of abdominal pain, which was often very extreme, and spent a lot of time in the bathroom but never pursued an explanation or treatment,” McFadden, a native of Auburn, Maine, says. Then at 18, McFadden, a newly minted college freshman at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, was feeling “rotten”.
Early in her freshman year, her pain reached a level that McFadden could no longer ignore.
She sought treatment from campus doctors and learned she had Crohn’s disease.
With no family history of Crohn’s, McFadden and her parents were shocked. “We had never heard of this and were naïve about how to pursue it.” Then one of her academic advisors, Matilda White Riley, stepped in. “She went out of her way to help us understand Crohn’s disease.”
In addition to Crohn’s, McFadden secretly battled another demon. “The gastroenterologist treating me told me I was responsible for my condition. That being a “Type A” personality caused my illness,” McFadden shares. Thinking she “did this” to herself became burdensome. “The pain in my head became worse than the pain in my gut.” When she switched doctors a few years after her diagnosis she learned Crohn’s is a biological disease—not an emotional one. “It took several years for me to believe I wasn’t at fault,” she says.
Those first few years of living with Crohn’s disease are now the reason McFadden talks openly about her health. “I don’t want anyone else to experience the psychological torment I felt thinking I was responsible for my condition.”
Starting to see the light
As her pain increased and her dashes to the bathroom became more frequent, McFadden stopped hiding her illness. “Opening up to friends about what I was going through helped me develop a wonderful support system,” she says. One of those friends was the late, legendary actress, Katharine Hepburn.
Throughout college, McFadden’s doctors tried to manage her illness with “massive doses” of cortisone, a form of steroid that’s given to treat inflammation of the bowel. To ease symptoms, 25 years ago, she had a bowel resection, a surgical procedure that removes all or part of the large intestine. In McFadden’s case, only part of her bowel was removed. Today, Crohn’s is managed more by medications than surgery. In fact, surgery is now a treatment of last resort.
Despite the bowel resection, McFadden still has days marked by frequent dashes to the bathroom. But that doesn’t get to her. “After my surgery,” she recalls, “I decided there’s no room in my life for anyone who’s going to judge me harshly because I have to go to the bathroom, sometimes with very little notice, and sometimes with ugly things happening as a result.” Which means she also doesn’t judge herself. “This is part of me, but it doesn’t define me. And accepting that I have Crohn’s, but it doesn’t run my life, is how I cope with having it.”
Living the Dream
Because she wouldn’t let Crohn’s disease—or anyone’s judgments stop her—McFadden is today living her childhood dream of emulating reporters like Walter Cronkite. Spurred by her passion, she was news director of the radio station and an editor of her college paper. And after graduation, McFadden went to Columbia law school, which helped her land the job of anchor on CourtTV in 1991. “I worried about being on camera for 5 straight hours for CourtTV, and although I had my share of stomach pain, luckily I never had a Crohn’s emergency,” she says.
Her job has landed McFadden in some tricky situations. She’s needed a bathroom when one wasn’t around for miles and has made many “pit stops” along the side of the road. There have also been times when she “hasn’t made it to a bathroom in time.” But she says she’d “rather face that than the burden of not doing things for fear that I’d have to go to the bathroom.”
“I picked a very stressful job,” says McFadden. But that stress, much like any dietary habits, doesn’t trigger flare-ups. “During some of the most stressful times of my life, I’ve been symptom free.” Not allowing her Crohn’s to dictate the course of her life, McFadden says she doesn’t follow a special diet and for the most part, since the bowel resection, she’s “in remission.” And, even though they’re common for many, McFadden isn’t on any maintenance drugs.
McFadden doesn’t want anyone, especially Spencer, to see her as a sick person since she doesn’t see herself that way. “I’m a person first, then a patient. And Crohn’s won’t get the best of me.”
Two special women. One unique friendship
Cynthia McFadden is very grateful for the friends who’ve been supportive of her and her battle with Crohn’s. Among her core group was the late Katharine Hepburn. “She was one of the major influences in my life as a professional, person and woman.”
The women met when McFadden was in college, and developed a keen fondness for each other that transcended their age difference. “She was very tough on me, like she was on everyone in her life whom she cared about.” Hepburn’s expectation that everyone do their best-every day- and her belief that no task was too big or too small were significant in McFadden’s willingness to not let Crohn’s keep her in the house, close to a bathroom.
“Of all the things I got from her, one memorable example was her ability to laugh at herself and laugh at life. To not let anything stop her,” says McFadden, the executor of Hepburn’s estate.