Matt Iseman has been a physician, a standup comic and, most recently, host of American Ninja Warrior. He was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis fifteen years ago when he was 31, and has since been an active member in the RA community.
Matt and I had similar pasts as college pitchers, and I was lucky to have an opportunity to speak with him over the phone about his experience as a man with RA. He was kind, honest and fun, and I found we shared a similar outlook on the disease and on life. I’m thankful to Matt for his time.
HealthCentral: What is the hardest part about having rheumatoid arthritis?
Matt Iseman: For me, the onset of the disease was such a physical blow. I had bad pain in my hands and feet, and stiffness and fatigue. I was 30 and felt like I was being transformed into an old man. With the symptoms came such a sense of physical vulnerability. I went a year and a half without an official diagnosis, so for a long time I felt like I was losing my sense of self. It sounds crazy to say that when I was finally diagnosed with RA, I felt a sense of relief! I knew at last that this wasn’t in my head. In this case, I feel knowing your enemy makes it easier.
HC: What has been your biggest sacrifice since getting RA?
MI: I don’t feel I’ve had to [sacrifice] really. Sure, I’ve had to change my mindset. Physically, I can’t do high impact stuff anymore. I’ll never be able to play basketball or run like I used to, as I’ve had some erosive damage that won’t be reversed. So changing my mindset, learning what I can do, has been important. I’ve changed to yoga, pilates, swimming. But I don’t think of it as a big sacrifice or anything. So much of dealing with this disease is mental, figuring out how you decide to view it. I have days in the gym when I feel the impact, but I focus on what I can do.
HC: What medications do you take, if any?
MI: I’m on infusion therapy. It works well for me. But I’ve found there are so many different treatment options, and I think this is something people don’t always explore as much as they could. I’m a big advocate for being your own champion; talk to your doctor, work to find the best approach for you. RA has a fast-growing community, which means we can talk to other people on various forums and find what works for them. From there, we learn that what works for one person may not work for another. No one knows your body like you do, and if you feel like a treatment is working for you, fantastic, and if not, you can stand up to your doctor.
HC: How did you get so involved/active in RA community? What prompted your involvement?
MI: I’ve got a background in medicine, have seen people face chronic disease, have faced the symptoms and diagnosis that changed my life. I know what it’s like to not know anyone with RA. It’s a lonely feeling. I had family, friends, sure, but no one with the shared experience. In a sense, I want to be there for people. Additionally, when you look up a disease, you see worst case scenarios. I wanted to provide the opposite of that experience. I want to be the face people attach to the idea that RA doesn’t have to be a worst case scenario.
Most people wouldn’t know I have RA. I want people to know, this disease doesn’t mean you can’t live your dream. I get to have a fun job, running around Hollywood pretending I’m a six-year-old in Universal Studios. This can also be the face of chronic disease, too. This can give a reassuring sense of what it’s like to have RA. You can lead a full life, be active, and vibrant. At the same time, when we have bad days, it’s important to have a community there, and I strive to be the sympathetic shoulder that we all need at times.
HC: As a comedian, do you use humor when reconciling RA, with peers and with yourself?
MI: It’s kind of the old cliché; laughter is the best medicine. When the RA was hitting my body, before I was diagnosed, the thing that kept me going was standup comedy. Being in comedy clubs, telling jokes, making people laugh, and laughing myself, was a psychological and physical relief. I love having a crowd and making them laugh. Anytime I tell my story about RA, I love to put humor into it.
When you talk about chronic disease to people, often times they don’t know how to react. So when you are able to find humor in it, it makes people understand your comfort, and puts people at ease. I’ve found humor is an important tool to cope with the disease. When you’re laughing, you’re living, and in the face of chronic disease, as long as you're able to still find humor, psychologically it puts you in a better place and lets people know you’re doing okay.