Francesca White was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis while she was preparing for her GCSE exams.
Despite the upset of the diagnosis and being placed on drugs to try to bring her condition under control, Francesca did well in her exams and came away with mainly Bs.
After reading biomedical sciences at Westminster University, her arthritis made it too difficult for her to continue living away from home while studying. She decided to move back home and apply for an Open University course in counselling and psychology.
Francesca, who's 20, wants to become a counsellor and help people with the condition that has affected her life.
'Too young to have arthritis'
From the age of 12 Francesca presented at doctors with symptoms that were never properly diagnosed. She was told that she had colds, viruses, growing pains and tonsillitis.
One paediatrician told Francesca and her family that she was too young to have arthritis.
Francesca said: “It affected my Mum and Dad greatly. It was stressful and upsetting for them to watch their only child go through this.”
Francesca’s family’s uncertainty soon vanished when she was sent to the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Adolescent Rheumatology at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Within two weeks she was diagnosed with arthritis and placed on appropriate treatment to start fighting the disease.
“Starting methotrexate and trying to get through GCSEs was a horrible combination," Francesca said. "It improved my joints but it didn’t control the arthritis completely.
"I hated being on methotrexate. I did surprisingly well in my GCSEs. I had been predicted As, but when I was diagnosed and put on methotrexate, my teachers said: 'Just do your best and see how you get on’.
“I don’t think they expected me to do so well. I got all Bs, which I was very pleased with.”
Francesca started studying A levels, but this unfortunately coincided with a bad time for her health.
“I was also diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and that caused a big flare-up of my arthritis,” Francesca said.
“I had to have another operation on my joints. I had to leave in my last year of A levels. I did a foundation course at Greenwich. I had to do an access course.”
Francesca's proud of the time she spent living away from home. She said: “When I made the decision to leave university my arthritis was bad. I was in constant pain and my fatigue was awful. I was struggling to do everyday tasks, so I was really struggling with university.
"I learned a lot about myself and how to manage my arthritis."
“Looking back, I feel proud that I lived away from home and gained so much independence. I gained new friends and learned a lot about myself and how to manage my arthritis.
“I'm really excited about starting my new course. Psychology and counselling have always been of interest to me, especially after having had counselling myself. It helped me learn to pace myself and live more successfully and happily with my arthritis.
“I was really happy to find out about the Open University and all of the options they offer. There are so many opportunities for people of all abilities.”
Stress and arthritis
One of the things that Francesca finds particularly tough is the stress that comes with exams and the impact that can have on her arthritis.
“I’m not advocating this for everyone,” Francesca said. “But what I tend to do is take time off leading up to exams so that I can do my own studying. Some teachers are really supportive, some are really not. My stress is a huge factor and it causes flare-ups and pain.”
Francesca says she has benefitted from telling people about her condition."If you can talk to someone, it helps."
“I was quite secretive about being unwell when I first went to university,” Francesca said. “I was a bit nervous about making new friends. I spoke to a few friends about it and they were really interested.
“They were really helpful. If they saw I was unwell they’d say: 'Would you like a cup of tea?’ or ‘I’ve made some dinner, would you like some?’”
Telling university staff about her condition also helped Francesca get support. Francesca was able to get help such as extended deadlines, being able to sit exams later and an extended library pass. She said: “Even the smallest thing can relieve the pressure.”
Moving out of home and going to university can be a fun and exciting time, but there can be challenges.
On the subject of alcohol, Francesca had this advice: “Make people aware of your condition.
“If you're able to talk about it, say: ‘No, thank you, I don’t want to drink. I suffer with this and that's the reason I can’t drink’, it can really help. Be brave and say it and after that all's forgotten. I had to do that.”
Francesca enjoyed making new friends and her time at university developed her independence.
She said: “Moving out was really hard. You have to do everything yourself. You're so used to mum and dad doing things for you and I didn’t realise they did so much.
If I had any advice itd be pace yourself. Look after yourself and don't beat yourself up about it."