Natalie Decker is a Chronic Strength Champion, which means she doesn’t just take control of her pain — she battles back. Read to learn how Natalie is driven to overcome her rheumatoid arthritis.
Most of my life, I’ve known two things for certain: 1) I always wanted to be a NASCAR driver; and 2) being born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) would not stop me from pursuing a fulfilling, active life. Now, at the age of 24, I can happily say I’ve followed through on my commitments to both, as one of the top young drivers on the NASCAR scene and an advocate for other arthritis patients to follow their dreams.
The road to managing RA
Getting to this place in my life has been full of ups and downs. After being diagnosed with JRA at the age of 2, I began a high dosage of a chemo drug once a week for over 10 years. It made me very tired, gave me headaches and left me feeling sick and nauseous all the time. Around the age of 12, I went into remission and got off the medication.
Throughout this time, I continued to stay active. In fact, my pediatrician couldn’t believe all that I could do as a child. Whether it was dance, hockey, soccer or go-kart racing, he told me that the activities should have been physically impossible for me to do, and yet, I persisted. I learned early on the importance of having a great support system and believing in myself to achieve whatever I put my mind to. This helped me manage the symptoms of my disease and stay active while also pursuing my dream of becoming a NASCAR driver.
Today, managing my RA looks different. I came out of remission not long ago, and the pain and stiffness are significantly worse than when I was younger. I am learning how to take care of myself and build in regular breaks throughout my day. Racing in my car for hours at a time in one position can be painful, so I must be prepared, learn how to recover fast and know my limitations in the gym. The Arthritis Foundation’s Vim app has been a helpful tool in setting and tracking goals and accessing the latest information for pain management. Like many patients with RA, I’m currently on infusions to manage the symptoms.
Building a community
My parents did not know about the Arthritis Foundation and all the benefits it provides when I was growing up, but I was fortunate to be surrounded by supportive family throughout my journey. We would travel all over on the weekends to racing events where everyone we met became extended family. It helped me work hard to pursue my dreams, knowing my community of support was cheering me on.
Because I know how important it is to have that community in place, I’ve made it my commitment to partnering with the Arthritis Foundation to help give kids the support they need — just like I did. I’ve become involved with Live Yes! Connect Groups and the JA camps (my favorite!) and see firsthand the immense benefits they provide to young patients. While I wish I had known about them growing up, it’s now my mission to help ensure that other kids go to camp and have access to the resources, local programs and support they need through the Arthritis Foundation.
Having a community of support is so important to empowering young people to chase their dreams and live a full life. For a long time, I was hesitant to share my story, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share it now and hopefully play a small role in inspiring others. Together with the Arthritis Foundation and the public’s help, we can change lives!