Laniese Penner is breaking down stereotypes about arthritis by sharing her story with others.
Growing up, friends, classmates and complete strangers encouraged Laniese Penner to “buck up” and “push through” what they thought was just a little stiffness and soreness. They had no idea how much she sometimes struggled – partly because she made having arthritis look so easy and never spoke up about her challenges.
But Penner is done hiding her arthritis. The biochemistry major, aspiring rheumatologist and freshman at John Brown University in Arkansas is breaking down arthritis stereotypes by openly sharing her success stories and struggles with the disease.
Searching for Answers
As a child, Laniese participated in competitive gymnastics. Although she complained about ankle and wrist pain for several years, she and her mom thought it was from the stress of tumbling. But pain was taking over Laniese’s body, and no one knew why. Eventually, the pain got so bad that Laniese had to drop out of gymnastics and quit piano lessons because it hurt to press the keys. She couldn’t even keep up with her family on a quarter mile hike during summer vacation.
After years of unknowns and several doctor’s visits later, at age 9, Laniese and her family finally received an answer: she had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, also known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis today.
“When I was first diagnosed, my friends told me their grandma had the same thing and didn’t understand why I had to miss so much school,” she says. “I felt so alone, like no one else my age knew what I was experiencing.”
So, Laniese stopped explaining herself and hid her pain to fit in. She says she would show up to school with swollen, red joints, but tell everyone she was fine and that nothing was wrong. Now, 19, Laniese realizes it wasn’t her burden to carry alone.
“I want every child with arthritis to know that they should never hide their pain,” she says. “It’s not something to be ashamed of, and it certainly doesn’t define you.”
What It’s Really Like to Have Arthritis
As an Arthritis Foundation Advocate, Laniese wants others to understand that arthritis is more than a little hurting or pain.
“People don’t understand what arthritis is. It’s not like having a twisted ankle that will heal in two weeks,” she says. “It’s constant and never goes away. Some days, the pain makes me so exhausted that I could sleep for a week and still be tired.”
During her senior year of high school, Laniese had to miss several days of school because of a sinus infection, which confused a lot her classmates. They didn’t understand that one of the complications of having an autoimmune disease like juvenile arthritis is having a weaker immune system.
Between fighting a sinus infection and dealing with arthritis flares, Laniese had to miss her first basketball game of the year – a difficult concession for the then varsity player to make. Plus, arthritis in her hands made it tough to keep up with class assignments – especially in English class.
“My hand would be red and swollen after just five minutes of writing,” she says. “People think it’s just a little pain, but when you’re 16 and having surgeries and a hip replacement, that’s not normal and shouldn’t be happening.”
Stronger Than Arthritis
Despite the pain arthritis sometimes brings, Laniese knows she is stronger than her disease.
“Being an Arthritis Warrior means breaking through walls and stereotypes,” she says. She refuses to allow people to put her in a box or put limitations on what she can accomplish because of her arthritis.
“You can show the world you can play varsity basketball, run cross-country, be student council president, become valedictorian, receive a perfect score in music class, share your story with your congress representative and much more,” she says, listing her own accomplishments. “I am stronger than arthritis, and I’m just getting started.”
Laniese credits her much of grit, determination and positive attitude to her relationship with the Arthritis Foundation.
“For a long time, I felt so alone, but after going to my first JA conference, I realized there were so many other kids my age who were struggling like me,” she says. “It was the first time I felt understood. The most helpful treatment I’ve found for my disease is surrounding myself with people who I can share with and who I can trust and ask for help.”
Without the Arthritis Foundation, she says, she wouldn’t have met her best friend or have the relationships that helped shape the person she is today.
The Arthritis Champions Scholarship has afforded Laniese with opportunities to help advance her career choice to be a rheumatologist. The school she attends has a high acceptance rate for medical schools, smaller class sizes and a convenient campus.
She also says that the scholarship has made it easier to share her story with other students.
“We’ll be talking about school and what scholarships we have, and whenever people find out that I have [the Arthritis Champions Scholarship], they’ll ask questions about it,” she says. “That way, I end up telling others without it feeling forced or awkward.”
But even though she’s speaks about her arthritis freely now, Laniese admits it was initially a struggle to share her story.
“At the beginning of the year, I was concerned about making new friends and I didn’t want to talk about my arthritis, because I didn’t want to be ‘the sick girl’ again,” she says. “It was a slower process, but eventually I realized that if that makes people stray away from me, then they weren’t real friends anyway.”
Although Laniese knows that some may stereotype her because of her arthritis, she says it’s important to face her fears and be honest with those around her.
“I think part of the reason so many people don’t know much about juvenile arthritis is because people like me don’t want to talk about what they’re going through,” she says. “But it’s important that we overcome that fear and share our stories. Not just for people who don’t have any experience, but also for those who feel alone because they’ve never heard someone else’s story.”