ANTIOCH -- Many living with the illness that tormented Tara Rosas would keep the details to themselves.
But not Rosas.
The 34-year-old Antioch native not only speaks openly about her six-year battle with Crohn's disease but even manages to find some levity in it now that she's found a diet to ease the symptoms. On the website that she's dedicated to helping others with the chronic intestinal disorder, the self-proclaimed "Queen of the Throne" strikes a jaunty pose with one high-heeled foot triumphantly planted on a toilet seat.
Yet there was a time when Rosas' situation was anything but funny.
Ross was working as a costumes seamstress in Hollywood and chasing her dream of an acting career in May 2004 when she came down with what she thought was a bug. But after a week of stomach aches and diarrhea, Rosas discovered blood and what looked like sloughed-off tissue.
"'Uh oh. That's not good -- this isn't the stomach flu,'" recalled Rosas, who immediately wondered if she had colon cancer.
After taking biopsies, a gastroenterologist delivered another diagnosis: the cobbled appearance of her colon's lining -- areas where the mucous membrane had become so swollen that it had split open -- pointed to Crohn's disease, an incurable condition that usually necessitates removing part or even all of the colon.
Rosas, who'd never heard of the illness, suddenly felt faint.
"When he started to say 'surgery' I was like, whoa -- someone (saying that) you have a disease that you're going to have for the rest of your life. It was scary."
Crohn's disease is an inflammation of the digestive tract that affects more than 500,000 people in the United States, mostly teens and young adults. Although medical science has yet to identify a cause, it's widely believed that the environment, genetics and the immune system are factors.
Some researchers theorize that the body confuses benign bacteria in the intestines with foreign microorganisms, prompting white blood cells to flood the gut's lining. Others hypothesize that harmful bacteria multiply in the intestines for some reason, triggering the immune system response.
Rosas went home that day with a prescription and was happy when her symptoms disappeared after a couple of weeks.
"This is cake -- it's not so bad," she said.
But one year later the signs reappeared, and this time they were worse.
Within days the bleeding had returned as well, dehydration set in, and Rosas developed sharp abdominal pains. She finally was admitted to the hospital, where doctors put her on Prednisone during the five-day stay.
And that also worked -- for a while. But the symptoms returned with a vengeance in fall 2006 and for the next three years the diarrhea controlled her life. There were stretches when Rosas was going to the bathroom 18 to 20 times a day.
"That was the dark period -- I was a prisoner of my own home," she said.
Meanwhile, Rosas had begun rethinking her eating habits, inspired by a dance teacher who emphasized good nutrition.
"I grew up on a total junk food diet," she admitted, noting that she was accustomed to candy, fast food and preservative-laden meals.
Thinking there might be a connection between her health problems and what she put in her mouth, Rosas started paying closer attention to food labels, shopping at health food stores and cooking more, eschewing packaged products laden with preservatives in favor of "slow food."
Even so, Rosas had yet another relapse in 2007 that put her back in the hospital suffering from dehydration. Desperate, she turned to other therapies: acupuncture, chiropractics, enemas, herbal supplements with names like slippery elm and marshmallow root and pills to promote beneficial bacteria in the intestines along with easy-to-digest powdered shakes.
And still relief eluded her.
Already slender, Rosas shrank to 109 pounds and was so tired from anemia that just bending over to fill the dog's water bowl would leave her winded. There was another hospital stay followed by infusions of Remicaid, used to treat autoimmune diseases when other drugs don't work. But it didn't either.
The only option left was surgery to remove the diseased portions of her gastrointestinal tract, but even with that, inflammation usually recurs. Then in late 2009 Rosas heard of a holistic medical doctor who had helped someone overcome Crohn's symptoms through a specialized diet. Rosas met with him, and as he explained the nature of her condition, she says a light went on.
"I finally understood how I got this way and what I needed to do to reverse it," she said, noting that until now she hadn't understood that she was having trouble digesting whole wheat bread and other complex carbohydrates such as potatoes and corn.
Skepticism gave way to hope as Rosas read the book he recommended, which contends that bacteria and partially digested food molecules leak through intestinal walls into the bloodstream, prompting an adverse reaction throughout the body.
The premise, which is unproven by scientific studies, is that diet can help alleviate this stress on the digestive tract and promote the formation of beneficial bacteria needed for good digestion.
Rosas later eliminated all grains as well as potatoes and certain sugars. She also took up juicing, mixing fresh vegetables such as romaine lettuce, spinach, celery and carrots with apples and lemons. Smoothies consisted of kale, kefir and berries and became a near-daily habit. Seven months later, Rosas was symptom-free, and within the year she stopped taking all medications.
That was three years ago, and she's since been in remission. Although Rosas no longer follows the diet strictly, when she becomes stressed or run down she'll return to it until the episodes disappear.
These days Rosas coaches other Crohn's patients, inspired by her ordeal to take a yearlong certificate program in nutrition during which she studied counseling and the theories behind dozens of diets.
Rosas' path to success isn't a silver bullet for everyone, however.
Kaiser Permanente gastroenterologist Steve Cheng, who initially treated Rosas, said there's little scientific evidence to show that a specialized diet will help someone with severe bowel disease.
However, he also noted that he's seen a few cases like Rosas -- individuals who've been hospitalized multiple times and haven't responded to drugs -- who improved using unconventional treatments.
"I don't have a great explanation to that, but I think there is some credence to alternative approaches, and it does warrant further medical investigation," Cheng said.
Whatever the reason for Rosas' recovery, it means everything to her.
"I have a boyfriend now. I can travel. I don't have to worry about looking for a bathroom anymore," she said. "I feel great. I have my life back."
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.
For more information about Rosas and her health coaching, click on her website at http://crohnsbabe.com.