Sailor not deterred by rare disease

PO2 Jennifer Lawrence with her family, who give her much-needed support as she copes with her rare disease.

PO2 Jennifer Lawrence with her family, who give her much-needed support as she copes with her rare disease.

Peter Mallett
Staff Writer

An instructor from Naval Fleet School Pacific is going public about her rare medical condition in hopes of breaking the stigma for others in the same boat.

PO2 Jennifer Lawrence, 33, has been living with a rare and incurable auto-immune disease known as Linear Scleroderma Morphea.

The condition is caused by her body’s immune system attacking her skin.

“The easiest way to describe it is most people have several layers of skin and then muscle; whereas I have a thin layer of skin and then just muscle with nothing in-between to protect the muscle. Getting bumped or hit in any part of my body where the morphea exists is excruciatingly painful.”

She isn’t suffering with the disease, she says. She has learned to live and thrive while battling the disease.

This year marks her 14th year of service in the Canadian Armed Forces and her seventh year in the regular forces.  She currently works as a Steward Instructor, is married to a military member, and is a military mom with a busy family life.

Instead of keeping her medical condition a closely guarded secret, she is open and honest about condition.

“We need to raise awareness amongst military members, civilian employees, and managers that there are others who work at the base battling rare diseases and its okay for us to be part of the defence team.”

Morpheas affects less than three out of 100,000 people. A full understanding about the causes of the disease and its many variants are inconclusive, says PO2 Lawrence.

Her Linear Scleroderma is a morphea that appears on the arms and legs in school-aged children, commonly appearing as single band of thick discoloured skin, but it can also affect muscles, joints, and bones and lead to cosmetic deformities.

Her condition is limited to her right hip. It’s out of view except when she wears a bathing suit or tight-fitting clothing; that’s when a concave shape created by the disease is visible.

She was diagnosed at 12 after bumping her side while playing with her brothers. She felt excruciating pain. Numerous trips to various dermatologists and then Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto did little to alleviate her symptoms.

“I was in and out of doctor’s offices all the time when I was young, so much so that it sometimes made me feel like a lab rat. But I just carried on with my life and it never stopped me from doing anything. I have done most of it without pain killers or other medications.”

Carrying on with her life included playing sports in high school and cadet activities with the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets, which convinced her that a career in the military was the right path for her.

Her family has provided much-needed hope and optimism at a time when her disease is having more unwanted and concerning side effects. She is coping with the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, which often occurs in those diagnosed with her disease.

On top of that, her auto-immune deficiency makes her more susceptible to colds and flu, leading to heightened anxiety over the past year from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her main method of treatment is exercise, specifically weightlifting.

PO2 Jennifer Lawrence

PO2 Jennifer Lawrence

“When I don’t exercise, I find the pain and depression is much worse. I lift weights to lift my spirits. Keeping the body moving actually helps reduce my arthritic pain.”

She is currently training to compete in the Vancouver Island Showdown Pro/Am women’s bodybuilding and physique competition in June 2022. 

“Time spent in the gym lifting weights and doing cardio and training for competitions like this has been the best thing for my physical and mental health. It has made me a huge advocate of regular exercise for people coping with a wide range of physical and mental problems.”

She says the passing of Rare Disease Day on Feb. 28 compelled her to speak up and follow its mantra of building awareness and understanding.

“I know there are other people out there going through the same difficulties. I want to empower others with rare diseases to step forward, and I want people to think twice about someone’s rare medical condition and get all of the information before jumping to conclusions.”

That she believes will go a long way to improve the lives of those living and working with rare diseases.


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