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Comic book superheroes used to 'unmask' the stigma of Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Last Updated Mar 16, 2017 at 6:10 am EDT

They’re Marvel superheroes out to destroy the villain that is viciously attacking their bodies. But that villain isn’t bent on world domination. Instead, it’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a condition that’s usually embarrassing to talk about.

The Unbeatables are a group of masked superheroes on a journey to unmask IBD, a chronic inflammation that affects all or part of the gastrointestinal tract.

“Making super heroes who have a chronic illness is something that’s new to the graphic novel world,” said Chantel Wicks, a Toronto teacher who was diagnosed with the two main forms of IBD, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, ten years ago. She’s also featured in the comic book.

Colitis is usually contained in the large intestine, while Crohn’s can strike anywhere from the mouth to the anus. Patients oftentimes live with symptoms that include internal bleeding, fatigue, abdominal pain from ulceration, depression and urgent and prolonged diarrhea. Although these symptoms can come and go with flares, these are currently life-long conditions with no cures.

The five superheroes represent the faces of the more than five million people world-wide living with IBD, and the people who support them.

“In a way these people are super heroes, they wear their masks of ‘I’ve got to go to work, I’ve got to raise my kids, and I have to do everything I need to do,’” Wicks explains. “Yet they’re battling extreme pain, extreme fatigue and could be crippled with anxiety and all these issues, to me that’s a superhero and they hide it really well.”

The stories are told with the help of seven other people around the world, including Wicks, the only Canadian. She, along with the contributors, share how the condition has affected their lives.

The campaign, IBD Unmasked, is “kind of taking off the mask, not living with the stigma anymore, not living to be ashamed and embarrassed,” said Wicks. “But to educate people, because with education will come funding, and with funding will come a cure.”

It’s known as the Canadian disease, as Canada has the highest diagnosed rates of IBD in the world. According to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, an organization based in Toronto, one in 150 Canadians live with the two main forms of IBD.

It’s not known why our country is seeing these high numbers, but experts say more research is needed to determine why.

“There’s theories that it might be in the colder climates, there’s more of an environment that facilitates the disease, but those are things that researchers are working on across Canada,” said Angie Specic, a spokesperson at Crohn’s and Colitis Canada.

Quick facts:

  • Families new to Canada are developing Crohn’s and Colitis for the first time, often within the first generation.
  • The incidence of Crohn’s disease in children under 10 in Canada has almost doubled since 1995.
  • There are 250,000 Canadians currently diagnosed with IDB.
  • 10,000 people are diagnosed with IDB annually in Canada.

Information from Crohn’s and Colitis Canada

With more social campaigns like this Marvel project, those involved are hoping to bring awareness to the growing number of Canadians that continue to be affected by IBD.

IBD Unmasked, the first chapter of which can be viewed here, is more than just the novel that focuses on the condition, but an overall campaign aimed at education and awareness. A webpage has also been created to encourage those living with and without the diseases to band together. More chapters are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

While the superheroes themselves are fictional characters, their stories are the reality that many IBD patients are faced with every day.

“I want people to know that they’re not alone in the struggle,” said Wicks. “The four years that I lived in the dark with these diseases were the hardest four years of my life, it’s not right, and they shouldn’t be ashamed with their disease.”

Impact of Crohn’s and Colitis

  • People with Crohn’s disease have an elevated risk (47 per cent higher) of colorectal cancer and premature death.
  • 70 per cent of individuals with Crohn’s disease will be hospitalized and many will require life-altering surgery.
  • Quality of life for children and adults living with Crohn’s and colitis is low across all dimensions of health. Even patients in remission experience fear and anxiety that decreases quality of life.

Information from Crohn’s and Colitis Canada