John Ryan on his ulcerative colitis: ‘It is no way to live’

He may not have got the chance to do what he loves most and scrummaged against the Scots last week but just being on the pitch at Murrayfield making his Six Nations debut was a dream come true for John Ryan given the journey he has taken of late.

Eleven minutes off the bench for Tadhg Furlong, the Munster tighthead prop got the chance to build on a Test debut against Canada last November and although neither he nor replacement loosehead Cian Healy got to pack down against an under-pressure Scottish scrum, the frustration was alleviated by the knowledge he had taken another huge step in his development from provincial squad man to international.

That Ryan, 28, from Berrings, Cork, has progressed at the rate he has in the past 18 months – being cited by Alan Quinlan recently as the most improved player in Ireland this season - has been even more impressive given for the last few years he has been forced to cope with an inflammatory intestinal condition known as ulcerative colitis that caused him to rapidly lose 10 kilograms in 2014 to drop from 118kgs (19 stone) to 108kg.

Initially having to adopt a gluten-free diet, Ryan regained the weight and can eat what the body of a professional rugby front-rower demands thanks to the right medication and periodic infusions, the most recent of which he underwent last week.

“I definitely don’t think I’d be here if I hadn’t have found a cure for the ulcerative colitis and I am happy now that is under control and is not really an issue now anymore, which is great,” Ryan said.

“I need medication and I take it every day. I get an infusion every two months in the hospital and I was in there last week actually. So that is all under control now. Weight hasn’t been an issue ever since 2014. It had a huge effect. We won’t get into details – you can look it up yourselves – it is no way to live. As an athlete you are only giving 60% of your performance. It takes right away from your game. I am glad to see the back of it, hopefully.”

Ryan admitted he was guilty of keeping his problems to himself, although he now knows ulcerative colitis can affect many men in their 20s and 30s.

“It can develop into Crohn’s disease so that is not somewhere I want to be. If you don’t get the right medicine, you will end up having to get your colon removed. I think I was in a bit of denial back then. Luckily I came out the other end. I am okay. But the way I was thinking was ‘if I don’t complain, it won’t be a problem’. The weight was falling off me and I had to take nearly three weeks out.

“I was denying the fact I could be in a trouble, I thought I could keep playing through the illness. But I couldn’t. Those three weeks off really helped me. I discovered new medication through my doctor and that just seemed to do the trick. Luckily I was one of the people with that condition who found the right mixture of medicine to get me through it, to live a normal life.”

Managing his condition has gone hand in hand with nailing down the Munster number three jersey having for so long since his debut in 2011 been used on either side of the scrum as he battled for recognition behind both Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin at loosehead and BJ Botha and Stephen Archer at tighthead. This season Ryan has already made 15 starts for Munster with just one appearance off the bench having made 11 starts in 2015-16 and 14 as a replacement.

Vindication of his consistency came when he made his Test debut last November against Canada and earned his place on the bench last weekend. “I’d have bitten someone’s arm off for that. It’s something I didn’t think would have happened so quickly, especially getting a cap in November, That stood to me and I come into this camp with a little more confidence.

“I was comfortable within the system, I knew the plays. And obviously there are new ones coming in every week and I got to know them as well. Without that cap in November, I probably wouldn’t have got onto the bench last weekend. I was delighted, a dream come true.

“My goal now is just to stick in there, try to get on that bench again. It would be great to get a start but Tadhg played an outstanding game at the weekend and his scrums were brilliant. So it’s sticking in there, keep hanging on to Tadhg’s coat-tails for now and try, when I get on, make a bit of an impact. And try to get a scrum the next time as well.”

Treatment so important

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes long- lasting inflammation and ulcers (sores) in your digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis affects the innermost lining of your large intestine (colon) and rectum. Symptoms usually develop over time, rather than suddenly. Ulcerative colitis can be debilitating and sometimes can lead to life-threatening complications.

While it has no known cure, treatment can greatly reduce signs and symptoms of the disease and even bring about long-term remission.

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