Friday, February 09, 2007
Handling a friend's diagnosis
Sitting on my desk is a get-well card. It's addressed and stamped, but the inside is blank. A woman I know recently learned she has cancer. She's not a close friend, but her gentle spirit and beautiful smile always have touched me. I want her to know that if she needs anything, I am her girl, but I don't want to appear too nosy. I also want to be optimistic, yet I don't want to come off as a "Pollyanna." After all, cancer is serious business.

Not exactly sure what to do, I called Christine Miserandino. She is the founder of butyoudontlooksick.com. Christine has lupus and she talks with other seriously ill people all the time. "People get weird," says Christine. "Often they think you don't want to do the same things you did before, like get your nails done or go to the movies... but as I remind people, it's the same me." Christine also offers these suggestions:

1) Forget the flowers - think more practical. "What girl doesn't love flowers?" says Christine. But after a while, the house or hospital room may start looking like a mortuary. Christine suggests buying a gift certificate for something your friend needs, like a maid or grocery-delivery service. Remember when people are sick, energy is low and money is often tight.

2) When visiting, come prepared. Boredom is often a side effect of illness. When visiting, bring something you can do together, like a movie or a game. Christine says she started making scrapbooks and it was a great way to think about happy times.

3) Do your research. Find out whether your friend is on a special diet or is craving a special treat. Also some hospitals don't allow balloons or flowers. Some treatments can also mess with the sense of smell, so before you invest in bath supplies or candles, ask.

4) Call Ahead. Know your friend's schedule, when he or she gets treatment or is sleeping. Also, even if you have made plans, call an hour before, to make sure they are still up for a visit.

5) Get real. When Christine's lupus was diagnosed, it drove her crazy how some people would pussy foot around the diagnosis. "Don't tell me I will feel better. I might not." Christine has a wicked sense of humor, so she designed a shirt with the words "Lupus Sucks." That shirt, she says, built bridges with her lupus brethren and broke the ice with countless other people.

That card is still sitting on my desk, but I now know what I will write.

What are some things you do to support someone who is seriously ill? Have you ever been annoyed by a well-meaning friend when you were sick?
Thursday, February 08, 2007
Cheesesteaks... My only weakness!!
I love cheesesteaks, really more than any other food on the planet. I'm a Philadelphia transplant, so when a restaurant here in Atlanta serves a "Philly cheesesteak" I'm at the head of the line to try it. I'm usually disappointed!

Not surprisingly, in 2001, Philadelphia was named America's fattest city in the country on the annual "Fittest and Fattest Cities" list from Men's Fitness magazine. Naturally, I was outraged. They've got pizzas the size of small cars in New York and Chicago, fried everything here in the South, In N' Out Burgers out in California (my second favorite food). How could Philly be the fattest?

A few years later in 2005, we were picking cities for our first CNN Fit Nation Tour, and Philadelphia kept coming up as a city that was doing things right. So we called Men's Fitness and asked, "What's up?"

Editor-in-chief Neal Boulton had a good answer. He said that magazine staffers were also surprised when the city's new mayor, John F. Street, called and asked them to take a second look. Boulton and his team went, and found out that when he took office in 2001, Street had taken Philly's "fat" ranking as inspiration for change.

The city began sponsoring weight-loss support programs, the mayor himself met with families who struggled with obesity and personally mentored them to better health, and he appointed a "fitness czar." (Full Story)

He didn't mess with the cheesesteak though. That would have been sacreligious.

Just yesterday, Men's Fitness came out with its latest list. Guess what? Philly is No. 20 - on the FIT list!

Las Vegas, Nevada, was named the fattest city, followed by San Antonio, Texas, and Miami, Florida. On the Fittest list, Albuquerque, New Mexico, is tops - up from No. 13 last year. Nos. 2 and 3 are Seattle, Washington, and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

None of those last three had to deal with a cheesesteak addiction. Life can be so unfair.

To check out the full list, go to Men's Fitness Magazine online. The latest issue hits newsstands nationwide this weekend.
Cupcake controversy
Today, I am going to blog about cupcakes. Yes, this surprises even me. There's a story circulating about school districts banning cupcakes and other non-nutritious treats from schools, even for birthdays and other events. Cupcakes, lathered with sticky frosting and rainbow sprinkles... mmm... are under fire. (Watch Video )

The arguments are easy to state on each side. On one hand, childhood obesity rates are killing America's youth. The rates are starting to approach 20 percent, and our junk food diets are a large part of that equation. Add in that cupcakes have increased tremendously in size. They used to be golf-ball sized. Some are now bigger than softballs. If there are around 25 kids in a classroom, and several holidays, all of a sudden you have lots of calories on lots of days. Those who oppose cupcakes say they are non-nutritious and have no place in the schools.

There are, however, plenty of cupcake defenders springing up all over the country. In Texas, Democratic state Rep Jim Dunnam has been one of the most vocal. He sponsored legislation to allow parents to bring in whatever they want. He became involved after one of the schools in his district banned a father from bringing non-nutritious food to his child's class for a birthday. Dunnam's argument is that cupcakes aren't the problem. Instead, it is lack of activity and overall diet.

No doubt, it is controversial, more so than I would've thought. One school superintendent, who chose not to be named, actually received threatening e-mail after her school district supported the ban. What do you think? Is banning cupcakes going too far? Or, is it a logical way to target the childhood obesity epidemic?
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
3G contraceptives (part 2)
Thank you all for your comments and personal stories. To answer one of the more frequent questions, the nine drugs that Public Citizen is taking issue with (Full Story), and that Dr. Gupta listed this morning on CNN are as follows:

- Kariva (Duramed/Barr)

- Desogen (Organon)

- Mircette (Duramed/Barr)

- Velivet(Duramed)

- Apri-28 (Duramed/Barr)

- Ortho-Cept (Ortho-McNeil)

- Reclipsen (Watson)

- Cyclessa (Organon)

- Desogestrel and Ethinyl Estradiol (Duramed/Barr and Watson Pharmaceuticals)

It's important to remember though, that all types of birth control pills contain a risk and a written warning about increased risk of blood clots and those containing desogesterol have an additional warning that the risk for blood clots may be even greater.

In addition, the drug companies say their drugs are safe when taken as directed. Two manufacturers issued statements to CNN:


"The labeling that accompanies the company's oral contraceptive product provides all the necessary warnings and precautions for the appropriate use of the products."

-Statement from Barr Pharmaceuticals


"When used as labeled, Ortho-Cept is a safe and effective birth control choice."

-Statement from Ortho Women's Health & Urology
3G birth control a difficult pill to swallow...

This morning, we reported about a recent petition by Public Citizen about birth control pills. The consumer advocacy group is calling for all third-generation birth control pills (the newest kind) containing desogestrel to be banned. (Full Story) Its concern: These pills can double the risk of life-threatening blood clots. (See the list of medications Public Citizen is concerned about).

The blood clots, besides being painful, can travel to the lung and cause severe shock or death. We found studies dating back to 1995 that validated this increased risk of blood clots. In fact, the FDA publicly announced the higher blood clot risk years ago, yet the drugs still remain on the market.

According to the national prescription drug audit, 7.5 million prescriptions were filled last year. So why are these medications still available? As with most things, you have to dig a little deeper for the answer.

First of all, keep in mind the absolute numbers are very small. The risk of having a blood clot while taking the second-generation birth control pills was about 1 per 1,000 users and went up to around 2 per 1,000 on the third generation (according to a 2001 report in the New England Journal of Medicine). Also, some women find the third-generation pills to be a better pill. They don't get as sick while taking them, compared with some of the older pills.

Public Citizen cites a slightly lower blood clot rate but says there are no additional benefits to the third generation pills compared with the older pills.

So, what is the FDA's role here? Should they remove the pills from the market or is this more a case of buyer beware?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Planting the seeds of change
The Northern California fields that produce much of the lettuce and spinach you're likely to eat this summer haven't been planted yet. The seeds go in the ground in less than 60 days - time farmers still need to determine how to best prevent a repeat of last year's deadly bacteria outbreaks linked to their crops. The problem-solving is becoming contentious.

In mid-January, farmers, hoping to control their own fate through self-regulation, met to hash out a plan for better safety standards. A state senator dissatisfied with that plan presented bills last week that would give the state control. The federal government spoke out last week, too. In a highly critical report, the Government Accountability Office described the nation's food safety measures as "inconsistent" and "ineffective." The president's 2008 budget calls for $341 million for the Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative, an increase of $19 million, or almost 6 percent more money compared with 2007 spending.

But how can that be done when farmers and even top scientists don't fully understand how bacteria such as E.coli, which can taint salad greens, operate?

"It's there one minute but it's gone the next," Dale Huss, a grower who helps manage a medium-size farm, said. "We're being asked to build metrics around something that is a phantasma."

A microscopic bio-ghost, but Huss is optimistic, kneeling into his soil to smell the dirt. It smells fresh - the kind, he says, that will grow a good crop. Huss says he knows the dirt is safe because it's routinely tested. But not all farms in California do that - just one example of a system with vulnerabilities and a new planting season looming.

What food safety issues concern you the most?
Faces and races: Maybe we're all a bit blind
What if every face you saw was new to you every time you saw it? That's what face blindness can be like. Also known as prosopagnosia, face blindness is a visual memory problem that makes it hard for some people to remember the faces of people they've already seen. Sometimes they can't even remember the faces of family or they have trouble remembering what they themselves look like.

As many as one out of 50 people might have some form of face blindness, according to the latest studies. That means someone I know probably has the condition - that someone could even be me! Heck, I've been known to forget a few faces, much to my chagrin.

But that statistic also reminds me of a funny scene in "Rush Hour 2" where Chris Tucker accidentally punches Jackie Chan in the middle of a fight with Asian gangsters and then apologetically but exasperatedly explains, "All y'all look alike!" They make fun of something I bet is pretty common: thinking people from another race look similar.

It's happened to me a few times, where someone gets me and another south Asian woman mixed up. I know it's an honest mistake, so I usually just brush it off, but now I'm wondering whether my transgressors could have some sort of ethno-specific face blindness?

When I asked Dr. Brad Duchaine, a face blindness expert at University College London, he said a lot of people who are face blind admit it's harder to recognize faces from other races. But then again, if you're the only one who's of a different race from everyone else, he points out, it may be easier for a face blind person to recognize you. There's not enough research to prove whether some people are more blind to certain ethnicities than others.

While I was researching the subject, though, I learned something about race and physical features that I think is worth mentioning: Humans are 99.9% genetically identical to one another. There's only a teeny tiny bit of genetic variation among us, and about 85% of that variation exists within local groups of people, among Romanians or among Bengalis, for example.

Also, certain facial features thought to be linked to race are actually spread out all over the globe. For example, Germans tend to have nose widths more similar to Arabs than to Norwegians, despite their respective races. So even though genetic differences do exist among us, those differences don't necessarily reflect race. Interesting.

Anyway, let's be honest here - do you sometimes have a hard time distinguishing people from another race? Or, have you been confused with another person from your race? Or both?

To learn more about face blindness, and to take a diagnostic face recognition test, go to www.faceblind.org.
Monday, February 05, 2007
Three questions for your doctor
"Ask your doctor."

You've heard it in a million pharmaceutical advertisements, but do you really know what to ask? Dr. Rick Kellerman, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, says that in any medical situation, a patient or their family should ask three vital questions:

- What do I have?

- What is the treatment?

- What is going to happen to me?

Simple enough, but too often basic communication breaks down. Consumer Reports just published a survey that asked 39,090 patients and 335 primary care doctors what they like about each other and what drives them up the wall.

The No. 1 complaint of doctors, 59 percent of them, is patients who don't follow the prescribed treatment (No. 1 patient complaint: doctors who keep you waiting). Of course, not following doctor's orders because you didn't understand what he or she said can lead to serious health consequences.

If you're like me, when you finally get through the waiting room, you're tongue-tied. Kellerman suggests keeping a running list of complaints and questions, so you don't forget them at the moment of truth. He also says that to avoid confusion, you should bring in all your medications, in a bag. Consumer Reports suggests bringing printouts of "credible" information from the Internet.

What else to ask? Other doctors gave me some interesting suggestions, from "What tests would be important to check my risk of heart disease, stroke or cancer?" to "How would you treat me, if you didn't have a prescription pad?"

Whatever you want to know, communication flows better with a doctor you know well and who makes you comfortable. That's why Kellerman says it's so important to see a primary care physician on a regular basis. If you do that, the three basic questions are less likely to produce an alarming answer.

What would you really like to ask your doctor?
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