Ottawa·Creator Network

What it's like to be diagnosed with arthritis at 13

Natasha Trehan shares what it's like to navigate relationships with an invisible and incurable illness in this video for CBC Ottawa’s Creator Network, filmed by videographer Nicole Bedford.

Natasha Trehan shares her hopes for her podcast, online community

'If it weren’t for my friends I wouldn't have survived'

1 year ago
Duration 8:15
Featured VideoNatasha Trehan’s life changed forever when she was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis at 13. In a video produced by CBC Ottawa’s Creator Network and filmed by videographer Nicole Bedford, Trehan shares how she came to understand her illness, rely on her friends for support and why she decided to create an online community of youth with rheumatic illnesses through her podcast platform: Take a Pain Check.

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Natasha Trehan still shudders when she thinks back to her Grade 8 year — when she first started experiencing painful symptoms and didn't know what was happening.

"I couldn't do things I loved, like pick up a tennis racket or play the piano," recalls the now 19-year-old, who suddenly felt a throbbing pain in her wrists and arms.  

For months, she thought she had sprained her hands. When the pain travelled down to her feet and ankles, she knew something was seriously wrong. 

It wasn't until a classmate finally urged her to see a doctor that Trehan started on the path toward her eventual diagnosis.

Trehan, like 6,000 Canadians under age 15, had Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, or JIA — an incurable inflammatory disease that causes pain, swelling and stiffness in joints.

For Trehan, who lives with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, support comes from many places. 'From my best friends, health-care professionals, research groups and now this new community I'm forming through Take a Pain Check.' (Nicole Bedford)

Diagnosed at 13  

Brianne Chou, the classmate who urged Trehan to seek a doctor for her pain, said her friend could no longer hold a pencil. Chou had to take notes for her in class. 

"I think it's so important that we get away from the idea that only old people get arthritis, because that is the most common misconception," said Chou.

By the time Trehan received the arthritis diagnosis, an MRI revealed she already had extensive damage to her joints and she began a long road of medications and therapy to manage her pain. 

"Being in my early teen years and navigating an already confusing time in my life, I felt so alone and did not know anyone who could possibly understand what I was going through," said Trehan.

"I didn't believe that there were other people living with my disease."

Trehan, right, says friends like Brianne Chou, left, have helped support her through her illness, most recently travelling to Ottawa for a final road trip before they each go their separate ways for university. (Submitted by Rahul Vivekanandan )

Managing homework and chronic illness 

Her diagnosis meant Trehan's high school experience was not what she had expected. Instead of tennis practice, her extracurricular hours were filled with doctor visits and meetings with the school to talk about accommodations. 

Trehan said she often felt judged and dismissed by teachers for not looking sick enough to require extra time and support, instead relying heavily on friends who tried but sometimes struggled to understand her illness.

"There was a bit of a learning curve for all of us because there's so little awareness of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis," said Rahul Vivekanandan, who would sit with Trehan for hours while she received therapeutic infusions at the hospital to alleviate her pain. 

Chou, left, Trehan, middle, and Vivekanandan, right, all contribute to Trehan's platform, an initiative that works to advocate for people with chronic illnesses. (Ash Abraham/CBC)

How to Take a Pain Check

In March 2021, Trehan was finishing her last year of high school during the COVID-19 pandemic when she decided to launch a podcast and online platform for youth with rheumatic diseases and chronic illnesses. 

"I wanted to make sure other young people would never have the experience I had, and feel alone." 

She recorded the first episode from her bedroom.

She hoped it would strike a chord with others who know what it's like to navigate life as a young person with an invisible, chronic disease, and particularly the challenge of seeming fine one day then struggling with simple things like lifting a suitcase the next.

"When you have arthritis, sometimes you may have to cancel plans or take a rain check due to a flare," explained Trehan, who named her platform Take a Pain Check.

In a matter of months Trehan had interviewed youth with arthritis from around the world and began creating a network of young people with rheumatoid diseases — such as Naomi Abrahams, a second-year PhD student at the University of Ottawa who said much of the content resonated with her own experience. 

"I was kind of thrust into adult care," said Abrahams, who was diagnosed at 18 and lives with chronic pain throughout her body.

"I can have days with minimal to no pain, and on those days I can almost forget my arthritis. But when pain is present it can dictate how my day plays out."

Abrahams said she was amazed to find so many other young adults like her through Trehan's platform.

Trehan met Naomi Abrahams for the first time in the summer of 2022. The pair were both diagnosed with arthritis as teens and contribute to the Choice Research Labs in Ottawa, which focuses on managing chronic diseases. (Nicole Bedford/Ash Abraham/CBC)

New school, new community

This past fall, Trehan moved to Ottawa to pursue biomedical sciences at the University of Ottawa. She plans to continue her podcast and build a network of support — whether it's through health-care professionals or the friendships that give her courage to keep going.

"My best friends have stood by me every step of the way. On days that I was in pain or just wanted to give up, they encouraged me to believe in myself," said Trehan.

"The support that I got from them, and the chronic illness community, gave me the confidence to self-advocate and become a voice for others."

Nicole Bedford is a filmmaker and media artist based in Ottawa. She worked with CBC Ottawa Creator Network producers to bring Natasha Trehan's story to life. (Nicole Bedford)


Ash Abraham

CBC Ottawa Cross-Platform Producer and Reporter

Ash Abraham is a producer and reporter with CBC's Creator Network and Content Diversification project. She also contributes to Ottawa Morning and All in a Day.