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January 4, 2024

NBC's Chloe Melas reveals symptom she ignored for months before bowel disease diagnosis

Over the years, Chloe Melas grappled with ulcerative colitis ruining big moments.
Thanks to better medical management and lifestyle changes, she finally has fewer symptoms. Jan. 4, 2024, 12:04 PM EST / Source: TODAY     By Meghan Holohan

At 23, Chloe Melas was embracing life in Manhattan and enjoying everything it had to offer. One day, she noticed bright red blood in her stool. While she felt worried, she thought little of it.

“I can’t explain to you why I ignored it,” the 37-year-old NBC News entertainment correspondent recalls to “Eventually I went to a gastroenterologist, and I was diagnosed with something called proctitis, which is basically an inflammation of the rectum.” 

Melas at work around the time she was diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease called ulcerative colitis. Steven Stuts / Courtesy Chloe Melas

Her doctor gave her medication, but she didn’t improve. Then she started feeling an urgency to defecate but couldn’t, causing her to frequently rush to the bathroom. She returned to the doctor, underwent a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease.

“I want to speak about the things that are tough to talk about because I know there are people suffering in silence,” she says.

Disruptive gastrointestinal symptoms lead to a life-changing diagnosis

When Melas arrived in New York City after college, she worked long days and late nights.

“I was burning the candle at both ends like you do in your 20s when you’re working and making friends and enjoying all that the Big Apple has to offer,” she recalls. “Working out and eating healthy really was not a priority of mine.”

Melas was rarely getting eight hours of sleep or eating balanced meals. About two months after she first spotted blood in her stool, she saw a doctor, who diagnosed her with proctitis, "basically an inflammation of the rectum." She felt stunned.

“They could not tell me what it was from. (I was wondering) is this something in my diet? Is it due to stress? Is it genetic?” she recalls. “No one in my family had any (gastrointestinal) issues."

The doctor prescribed suppositories, a type of medication inserted into the rectum, to treat the proctitis. She often forgot to use them.

“I was not diligent about using those suppositories,” she says. “I don’t know if my nonstop lifestyle contributed to the fact that (my condition) progressed very quickly.”

Melas started frequently feeling an urge to defecate but couldn't. She later learned that inflammation in her bowels was causing this problem. What’s more, she continued to find blood in her stool.

Melas struggled with symptoms for about two years before her doctor ordered a colonoscopy, which led to her ulcerative colitis diagnosis in 2012.

Having bowel problems in her mid-20s felt isolating. “I was completely in denial,” she says. “I didn’t have one friend that ever had a colonoscopy.”

She began taking a medication for ulcerative colitis, but her symptoms continued.

“Out of nowhere, I’d have something called a flare,” Melas says. “I (would) feel like I have to go to the bathroom immediately. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to hold it.”

The next line of attack to ease Melas' symptoms was a steroid, but it didn’t seem to work, and she felt like her health was worsening.

She continued to see blood in her stool and feel the urgency to poop but couldn’t. She became extremely constipated, causing her stomach to distend, and she lost a lot of weight. Again, doctors prescribed steroids to try to help.

Melas and her now-husband in Utah to cover the Sundance Film Festival.Courtesy Chloe Melas

Still, her ulcerative colitis flared, often in embarrassing ways. Melas recalls reporting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where she was wearing all white and suddenly needed to run to the bathroom. She didn’t make it.

“That’s horrifying. I can’t even believe I’m saying that out loud,” she says. “I spent a decade thinking about my bowel movements. It consumed my entire life, and it was so stressful.” 

When her now-husband proposed to her, they celebrated by vacationing in Greece.

“(It) was pretty unromantic. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the photos,” she says. “In the photos, I look so beautiful."

But behind the scenes looked different.

Melas was losing weight and struggling with other ulcerative colitis symptoms when she got engaged in 2012. Courtesy Chloe Melas

“He was helping me use colorectal steroids,” she says. “It was horrifying.”

Grappling with her sometimes-uncontrollable symptoms made her feel anxious, embarrassed and scared. Melas tried eating a paleo diet and cutting out alcohol to lessen her symptoms.

“Having a really clean diet definitely helped the symptoms I had digestive wise,” she says. “It did not really cure or really help my ulcerative colitis.”

When she was about 30, her doctors began considering removing part of her colon, which would've required her to use a colostomy bag at least temporarily.

“I wanted another opinion ... and found another doctor,” she says. “He changed the dosage of the medication I was taking, and with a couple of little tricks on his end, he was able to put me in remission.”

Managing ulcerative colitis

“Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammatory condition that involves the large intestine,” Dr. Thomas Ullman, chief of the division of gastroenterology at Montefiore Health System and professor in the department of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, tells “It’s one of what are called the inflammatory bowel diseases, or IBD.”

About 1.3% of U.S. adults, or about 3 million people, are living with either Crohn's or ulcerative colitis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Irritable bowel disease is often confused with irritable bowel syndrome, commonly referred to as IBS. But they're different conditions, as inflammatory bowel diseases damage the intestine, whereas IBS is not associated with long-term injury.

While experts remain uncertain what causes ulcerative colitis, one possible explanation is that the immune system is malfunctioning and targeting cells in the digestive tract, according to Mayo Clinic — or as Ullman explains it, the body is “inappropriately” reacting to the “normal content of stool."

Symptoms of ulcerative colitis include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Diarrhea with blood
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Joint swelling
  • Skin rashes

“Blood in your stool is always a tip off that one should talk to their physician,” says Ullman, who treats Melas. “Blood can come from a number of different things. Ulcerative colitis is one of them.”

People who experience diarrhea for more than two weeks should also speak to their doctor. Doctors diagnose ulcerative colitis through a colonoscopy, and it’s treated with anti-inflammatory medications that target the large intestine. More severe cases of ulcerative colitis might require steroids and in some cases surgery.

Sometimes dietary changes can help patients feel better, but Ullman says there isn't much high-quality research on the impact of diet on ulcerative colitis. Ullman says he doesn't want his ulcerative colitis patients to be "stuck with very little to eat."

“My goal ... when I’m taking care of patients is to minimize the effect of whatever illness they might have," he explains. "I don’t want people thinking that they have ulcerative colitis every time they open a menu or every time they go to a grocery store.”

Ullman's goal for his patients is to have the daily steps they take to manage their condition feel as unobtrusive as oral hygiene.

“(You’ve) got to do a little bit of maintenance every day or quitting a single food or two. But I really don’t want them bothered about it," he says. 

"First normal colonoscopy"

While Melas still has occasional ulcerative colitis flares, she's learned to manage the condition, which she attributes in part to medication and adding extra fiber into her diet. In fact, her journey with inflammatory bowel disease inspired her friend Shannon Race to co-found a company, Bio.Me, which sells fiber and gut health products. (Melas' husband, Brian Mazza, is a partner in the company.)

Melas prepares for her colonoscopy in May 2023, which she later learned was her first normal one ever.Courtesy Chloe Melas

“A couple of months ago, I had my first normal colonoscopy in years, and it’s amazing,” Melas says. “I don’t think about going to the bathroom anymore. I always know, though, in the back of my mind that it is just very temporary because you never know when ulcerative colitis can rear its head.”

In addition to eating more fiber, Melas has also incorporated other healthy habits into her life, such as sleeping enough, drinking more water and reducing stress. These changes transformed her life.

“I’m able to go to the bathroom stress-free, and that’s something that for so long I didn’t have. But I don’t take it for granted,” she says. “If you’re having issues in the bathroom, you need to go see a gastroenterologist immediately. It could be a symptom of something much larger.