Hidden illness a challenge for former dance teacher

To the casual observer, former dance teacher Andrew Kennedy looks like the picture of perfect health.

But on most days, he feels intense pain shooting through his entire body. Frequently, his acute pain prevents him from completing simple daily tasks, like leaving his residence to run errands.

“[A] day can change drastically,” Kennedy said. “[It] depends on [the] pain.”

Kennedy was one of the speakers at the “Reflections of Pain 2010”  forum and resource fair. Speakers included Irina Petrova, a Gestalt psychotherapist, Melissa Cutler, coordinator of a Pain Management program at Bridgepoint Hospital, and Glen Hutzul, a facilitator of the New Outlook Chronic Pain Support Group. The talks aimed to support and educate those living with chronic illness.

Kennedy said living with chronic pain has been very challenging.

“Fibromyalgia can affect your life in many different ways,” he said. “It can be episodic, like a flare up, or you could be standing in pain, like I am right now.”

At age 54, Kennedy has lived with fibromyalgia for over five years. Before that, he competed, judged, and coached Latin ballroom dancing for 14 years. He said he was shocked when he began to develop the illness.

“I was absolutely devastated,” he said. “I was in good health, teaching 11 hours a day… how could I have this?”

Kennedy said when fibromyalgia first appeared in his body, doctors did not classify it as an illness. Now, fibromyalgia is recognized as a medical disorder that causes pain in the muscles, ligaments and tendons in the body. The disorder can also produce symptoms such as sleep disorders, fatigue, and joint stiffness. Kennedy tried over 15 different medications to see what would work for his condition.

A lot of misinformation about fibromyalgia persists in the public, Kennedy said. One most troubling to Kennedy is the idea that the illness resides within the psyche.

“[People think] It’s all in your mind,” Kennedy said. “You don’t look like you’re in pain, you don’t look sick.”

Although fibromyalgia can induce acute pain, there isn’t much sympathy from the general public about the disease, he said.

“If I had crutches or limped more, people would accept me,” he said.

Glen Hutzul says other diseases get much more attention than chronic pain.

“Cancer is a disease that gets a lot of support,” Hutzul said. “But if you’ve got chronic pain, so what? You don’t get funds, you don’t get support.”

Hutzul said it’s common for chronic pain sufferers to lose their friends, their home and even their freedom.

Kennedy could personally relate.

“I became anti-social because I kept cancelling on my friends. I would set dates with them, then cancel with them because I was in so much pain,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy went to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy at Bridgepoint Hospital. Later on, he began to keep a pain diary.

“Initially, when I started the pain diary it was difficult because you’re writing down, I’m in pain, I cannot do [this] today,” Kennedy said.

Gradually, from the cognitive therapy course, Kennedy learned that the things he could do during the day increased. Kennedy now takes medication only when he really needs it, which is less frequent than before the course.

Kennedy said the therapy positively changed his life and that this type of therapy could have a powerful effect on chronic pain sufferers.