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4 Things I Learned From Living With a Chronic Illness

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As a young child and a pre-teen, my life was about as normal as it could be. I went to school, went to the movies, had sleepovers and did all of the activities that childhood is meant for. I also found myself to be very lucky because I found something that many people never find -- my passion. My passion was for the sport of gymnastics. At 11, I was already a fairly highly ranked gymnast and I dreamed of one day going to the Olympics. The joy that gymnastics brought me was indescribable and it was my favorite thing in the world. Gymnastics was my life and it helped me develop a work ethic that helped me succeed in all areas of my life. Being able to do gymnastics made me feel like I had everything I could ever want.

However, everything changed in May of 2006 when I was diagnosed with a poorly understood chronic illness that affects my bones, muscles and connective tissue. My condition causes me to experience chronic pain and it forces me to undergo frequent surgeries and treatments, among other things.

The worst part of my illness was being told that I would never do gymnastics again. Having gymnastics taken away from me was difficult beyond words. Having to adjust to a lifestyle of surgeries, treatments and doctor appointments was also incredibly difficult. In the face of this adversity, I realized I had two choices. One, I could give up on life and let my illness win or I could make the decision to push on with life and make the best of my new situation.

The gymnast in me knew what I needed to do. I needed to push on and make the best of the situation, which is what I've done. I've continued my studies and I've tried to make the most of each and every day. I also founded a charitable organization called Cards for Hospitalized Kids in March of 2011. The mission of CFHK is to provide hospitalized kids with hope, joy and magic through handmade cards, and over 9,000 kids have received cards from us thus far. People around the country as well as celebrities such as Lauren Conrad, Aly Raisman, Katelyn Tarver, Nastia Liukin and others have become involved with CFHK. As the founder of CFHK, I have truly been able to turn my own tragedy into a triumph.

I've done my best to make the most of everything I've endured, but that doesn't mean that the last six years of having a chronic illness haven't been difficult, they have. I've undergone 21 surgeries and have had to endure so much pain. I just do my best to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Living with a chronic illness has taught me many lessons and there are a few I thought I should share:

1. Focus on what you have, not what you don't have. In life, it is so easy to get consumed by what we don't have that we forget to think about what we have. Especially now, if I only focused on what I don't have, I would never be happy. I don't have the ability to walk, I don't have the ability to do gymnastics, but there are things I do have. I have great friends, people supporting me and I'm alive. Simply being alive is such a gift and that's why it is so important to focus on all that you have, rather than what you don't have.

2. Embrace the little things that life has to offer. In life, we often become so consumed by our daily lives that we forget to appreciate the little things in life. Sometimes we get so busy that life can become more of an existence than a life because we are so busy that we aren't truly living.

During my junior year of high school, I had to be homeschooled the entire year because I spent so much time recovering from surgeries. Being away from everything was so difficult and it made me realize how important the little moments like seeing friends in the hallway or having lunch at school are. These little moments are special, whether or not we realize it, and it is important to embrace all the little moments that life has to offer.

3. Never, ever give up. This probably sounds cliche, but it really is so true. There are so many obstacles that prevent us from achieving our goals that it sometimes feels impossible to accomplish them, but it is important to never ever give up.

During my sophomore year of high school, I decided I wanted to attend a program called Summer College at Georgetown University that summer. Summer College is a program where high school students can take a real college class alongside undergraduate students. People told me that I would never be able to get accepted to the program, much less succeed in the program because doing that is difficult even without health issues. However, I refused to accept that. I put in extra studying hours, worked hard and never gave up in the face of many challenges. Never giving up paid off and I was accepted into the program and received an A in the class. Never, ever give up!!

4. You are defined by what you do, not what happens to you. When bad things happen in our lives, we often feel defined by them. However, it is important to remember that we are not defined by bad things that happen to us, but rather by how we deal with them after.

I am not defined by the illness I suffer from, but I am defined by the things I have done after I was diagnosed with my illness, such as starting a national charitable organization and excelling in school.