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Emma Hannigan: breast cancer survivor and an inspiration


It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as you probably know.

I was wondering how to mark and promote the event, when a press release came through from the book publisher, Headline. And I just had to share it, as it’s a real inspiration.

Emma Hannigan is an author of women’s fiction who lives in Ireland. But what her readers probably don’t realise is that she has been fighting a colossal battle with breast cancer, having now beaten the disease nine times. No, that’s not a typo. Nine times.

In August 2005 Emma discovered she was carrying the potentially deadly cancer carrying BrCa 1. She made the decision to have a mastectomy (or both breasts removed) and a bi-lateral oopherectomy (or both ovaries removed) to reduce her risk of developing the disease.

Despite that, in 2007 Emma was diagnosed with breast cancer in the neck, shoulder and under her arm along with an auto-immune disease. She fought the disease, and thought she’d won, but a year later it came back, this time as another tumour under her left arm. This pattern repeated itself as she suffered tumours throughout her body, by June 2011 she was diagnosed for the eighth time.

After years of treatments, she was finally told in 2011 that she was in remission.

“If you or someone you love has just been diagnosed with cancer, have hope,” she says. “Take heart in the fact that I am still here, still living life and loving it! I can’t change whether or not I get cancer again, but I promise you one thing – I can damn well chose how I deal with it. So wig on, chin up and remember, nothing can banish a smile from your face unless you allow it. I hope you are all living life to the full and making the most of the good times, while riding the storm during the tough times.’

Emma – a mother of two –  lives in Bray, Ireland. She has published eight novels as well as a memoir, Talk to the Headscarf, which charts her journey through cancer.

Posted in General health.

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Infographics update



Well that’s me told, then.

Only the other day I asked, What’s the deal with infographics?

According to Search Engine Journal, the deal is a pretty big one.

Apparently an infographic is 30 times more likely to be read than a text-based article (30 times – wow). SEJ also suggests people remember 80 percent of what they see and do, compared with just 20 percent of what they read and 10 percent of what they hear.

If I drew a picture of that statistic, you’d probably remember it…

Posted in General health.

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Health goes seriously high tech

Smartphone apps and fitness bands are child’s play compared to some of the latest developments in health technology.

Like a laser that checks blood glucose levels for people with diabetes. Or a smart sock that keeps track of people with Alzheimer’s. Or what about a fridge that keeps track of your nutritional and calorie intake?

Genius or what?

Find out more in the piece I’ve just written for

Posted in General health.

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What’s the deal with infographics?

Honestly, hardly a day goes by right now when some well-meaning PR or other doesn’t send me an infographic.

What? Have we lost the ability to read whole sentences? Can we only absorb information when it’s in bite-sized chunks and accompanied by a cute graphic? What have those smartphones done to our brains?

It’s as if the entire nation – possibly the world – has developed attention-deficit disorder.

There again, if it helps us to learn something, who am I to complain (though complain I do, and frequently)?

Here’s the latest one, called The Truth About Men… And Cosmetic Surgery, supplied by a firm of solicitors that specialises in medical negligence, no less (Paul Rooney Solicitors – okay, give me a break, I have to give them a name check).

I write about cosmetic surgery quite often, so I found it interesting. What it shows is that women aren’t the only ones to succumb to the cosmetic surgeon’s knife (in fact, the number of cosmetic surgery procedures carried out on men is well on the up – though they’re still lagging behind compared to women, with men accounting for just one in 10 of all UK-based cosmetic surgery operations).

See for yourself, you’ll probably get more out of the infographic than from me rattling on about statistics…

Posted in General health, cosmetic surgery.

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Help for mums with autoimmune conditions

If you suffer from an autoimmune disorder, there’s a new website that offers information above and beyond the usual health website articles and blog posts.

And since the majority of people affected by autoimmune conditions are women, the website targets mothers. is – as its name suggests – an American website, but the information will be of great interest to worldwide sufferers of conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, lupus, psoriasis and others (including chronic fatigue) too.

The website’s founder, Katie Cleary, is herself an autoimmune mum, and suffers from Hashimoto’s thyroid, psoriasis and reactive hypoglycaemia. So she knows what she’s talking about.

And since my own mother suffered from MS, it’s something that’s close to my heart.

Thanks to Gwen Stewart, who made me aware of this useful online resource.

Posted in General health, Parenting.

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Positive thinking: the latest weapon in the fight against arthritic pain

Regular readers of Riskfactorphobes Anonymous know only too well how enthusiastic I can get on the subject of positive thinking. Where health is concerned – let alone anything else in life – it has been shown to have a range of benefits, including everything from living longer to lower levels of depression and distress, and even improved resistance to colds.

So when a new study on the subject is published, you can bet I’m going to be interested.

The latest example is a study by University of Sydney researchers published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. And the health issue involved on this particular occasion is rheumatoid arthritis.

So let me explain. The researchers took 104 people with rheumatoid arthritis – a subject I know a little about, owing to the work I do for an inspirational charity called The Arthritic Association – and gave them cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which combines both cognitive therapy and behavioural therapy. What the researchers wanted to find out was which of the two elements of CBT is the most effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis (ie. cognitive or behavioural therapy).

What many people may not realise, however, is that CBT and other types of psychotherapy treatments have already been shown in research as beneficial in treating certain physical heath conditions. What it does is help you overcome any negative thoughts you have and changes your attitude to a more positive one – which, surprise surprise, seems to help people cope with their symptoms, including pain.

So yes, it’s not exactly a new idea. After all positive thinking is like many other things that you know you should do because they make perfect sense – such as flossing your teeth every night instead of once in a blue moon, or taking your make-up off before you go to bed without fail, no matter how tired you are, or being a really responsible adult and taking out life insurance. However, when you’re in the grips of pain, it’s not always that simple (try thinking positive next time you have a migraine, pull a muscle or get toothache and you’ll see what I mean). And that’s why people who experience chronic pain need the help of a trained therapist.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects almost 400,000 people in the UK, with three times more women affected than men. Often more severe than osteoarthritis (which affects an estimated 8.5 million in this country), rheumatoid arthritis is a so-called autoimmune disease because it involves your own immune system attacking your tissues – in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the cells and tissues of the joints, which leads to inflammation and pain. As you might imagine, it can be extremely debilitating. So if you had rheumatoid arthritis, and you were told a psychological therapy such as CBT could ease your pain, wouldn’t you want to try it?

Clare Jacklin, an expert from the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, has been quoted as saying that there is existing and emerging evidence suggesting psychological interventions such as CBT could play an important role in patient care. Even UK’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) sort of recommends it when it says rheumatoid arthritis patients should have access to psychological interventions such as cognitive coping skills if they are having difficulties (and surely there can’t be many people with rheumatoid arthritis who aren’t). The problem, says Clare, is that so few people with rheumatoid arthritis are actually offered access to psychological interventions of any kind.

By the way, in case you were wondering, the outcome of the study was that cognitive therapy on its own proved an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, and that behavioural therapy isn’t really needed.

But that’s not the point – at least not to me.

Here’s what I think the point is. Why do so many people have no other option than relying on what, let’s face it, are some fairly serious drugs – which probably cost the NHS a tidy sum too – when they could get drug-free relief from symptoms such as pain just by learning to change their view of their condition or situation, so they see it in a more positive light?

It may be an oversimplification of the case (though perhaps not as much a simplification as the Daily Mail’s headline: ‘Beating arthritis is all in your head‘). But essentially, isn’t it what it boils down to?

And perhaps here’s the answer. In these cash-strapped times, even fairly expensive drugs are most likely cheaper – or at least easier to dispense and manage,  not to mention quicker to take effect – than shelling out for therapies such as counselling and CBT.

While you ponder that idea, just keep smiling (you never know, it could help keep you healthy).

Posted in General health, Mind/body, Wellbeing, psychology.

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See cream cakes, want cream cakes

After a long blogging absence, I am delighted to re-enter the fray with this week’s prize for the statement of the bleeding obvious.

And wouldn’t you know, it involves research on diet.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – brain scans to you and me – University of Southern California researchers measured the responses of the brains of 13 obese Hispanic young women aged between 15 and 25. And what they discovered was, when the women looked at pictures of cakes, biscuits and hamburgers, they felt more hungry than when they looked at pictures of fruit and vegetables. No kidding?

Forgive me, but I don’t need a researcher to tell me that, when I look at a picture of someone scoffing their face with a Magnum Classic, that I’ll suddenly want one too (whether that has anything to do with hunger or just plain greediness, you be the judge). But, er, isn’t that how advertising works? Especially if you’re the type of person who likes Magnum Classics. And let’s face it, all the photographs of raw carrots in the world aren’t going to make many people crave them – in the Western world, that is. Unless of course you’re really weird.

Interestingly, they gave the women 50g of glucose or fructose in liquid form half way through the tests, and found this only increased their cravings (apparently the fructose stimulated their hunger more than the glucose – though what that actually indicates, please don’t ask me).

The question is, do our brains behave like an advertiser’s dream because of our environment or because of our genes?

I really don’t know. All I do know is that I’m madly craving ice cream now. Damn this brain.

Posted in Uncategorized.

Responsibility Deal: hardly a roaring success?

The Public Health Responsibility Deal is a year old today – hip hip hooray. But hold the celebrations, as according to Which?, the initiative hasn’t exactly been a roaring success.

The deal, which calls on food companies to display calorie information on their products as well as reduce the amount of salt in their foods and remove trans fats (hydrogenated fats), only signs up manufacturers on a voluntary basis. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that, in the past year, only two of the UK’s top 10 restaurants and pub groups have signed up to the deal (Mitchells and Butlers and JD Wetherspoon), while other big-name restaurant chains – including Nando’s, Prezzo, Pizza Express, Café Rougs and Strada – failing to commit.

According to Which?, of the top five coffee shops, just Starbucks and Marks & Spencer (The Café) have agreed to display calories, while others – including Costa Coffee and Caffe Nero – have declined. And while the consumer watchdog claims there has been some good progress made in terms of companies committing to reduce the level of salt in their food, many big-name brands – including Iceland, Findus, Princes and Birds Eye – have yet to join the deal. Where trans fats are concerned, most major companies have thankfully removed them from their products, but many smaller companies (such as take-aways and other caterers) have not signed up to the initiative.

So, all in all, Which? is calling for the government to do more if it is to tackle the obesity problem in the UK.

“We have the worst obesity rates in Europe and diet-related diseases, like heart disease and stroke, are blighting the public’s health,” says Which? executive director Richard Lloyd. “Our audit of progress made under the Government’s Responsibility Deal has shown the current approach is overly reliant on vague voluntary promises by the food industry. This has so far failed to bring about change on anything like the scale needed.

“The Government relies too much on voluntary deals with industry rather than showing real leadership. If food companies don’t agree to help people eat more healthily, then we must see legislation to force them to do so for the sake of the health of the nation.”

Where calorie labelling in chain restaurants is concerned, Which? suggests that if restaurants do not voluntarily display calories by this coming September, then the government must legislate (which in effect will force the restaurants to comply). The problem is, as restaurants know only too well, that many health-conscious people could stop eating out altogether if they are confronted with the number of calories they could be eating on a night out. Well it would make you think twice, wouldn’t it?

If food manufacturers can man up and put calorie information on the products we buy every week from the supermarket, then why shouldn’t restaurants and cafes do the same? Even if you were a dab hand at counting calories, when you eat out at a restaurant you can only take a rough guess as to the calorific value of the meal you’re about to eat. And perhaps it would force restaurants to use healthier ingredients if they were to start seeing their more calorie-laden dishes become less popular (please all you chefs out there, stop trying to kill us and use less cheese, less cream, less butter, less oil… surely that’s not too much to ask)?

Posted in Food and drink, General health, Weightloss.

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It’s the little things that make you feel good

With the global financial situation not looking to get much – if any – better in 2012, it’s encouraging to hear that many people get a dose of happiness from things that cost absolutely nothing. At least that’s according to a poll by UK health insurer PruHealth. The company’s survey shows that it’s the simple things in life that put a smile on our faces every day.

So to kick the new year off on a positive note, here are the top 10 things that – according to the survey – give us that feel-good factor…

1.  Spending time with family (56%)
2.  Achievements by loved ones including children or grandchildren (30%)
3.  Someone being nice or smiling at me (27%)
4.  Taking a walk on a beautiful day (24%)
4.  Getting a good night’s sleep (24%)
5.   Doing something for someone else (17%)
5.   Being secure in my job/financial security (17%)
6.   Spending time with pets (13%)
6.   A night out or going to a concert (13%)
7.   Keeping fit (12%)
8.   Finding a great deal that saves me money (11%)
9.   Work achievements (9%)
10.  Personal pampering (8%)

Well okay, not all of these things come free, but most of them are. And since feeling good is linked to better physical and emotional health, many of these things are worth much more than money anyway.

The survey also discovered the top 10 ways to reward yourself – a few of these are free too…

1.  Going out for a meal (46%)
2.  Spending time with friends / family (41%)
3.  Going on holiday (40%)
4.  Staying in, curled up on the sofa (28%)
5.  Indulging in foods I don’t have regularly (28%)
6.  Chocolate (28%)
7.  Watching films (26%)
8.  Watching TV (26%)
9.  Entertaining / treating my friends / family (23%)
10. Retail therapy (21%)

Happy New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized.

Clean teeth equal a healthy heart

There’s nothing new in the idea that oral health is linked to heart health – there are plenty of studies that suggest the better you look after your teeth, the better your chance of avoiding heart disease.
And now there’s a new study that, er, says exactly the same. Recently presented by Taiwanese researchers at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions, the study found that people who have their teeth cleaned by a dentist have a 24 percent lower risk of a heart attack and 13 percent lower risk of having a stroke, compared with people have never bothered going for a scale and polish.
A visit to a dental hygienist may not exactly be the highlight of your week, but I like it when research shows you can be actively involved in staying healthy – in this case, by going to the dentist. It’s something we can all do – if we have the cash, that is. I dare say some people may struggle to find the £40 or so that a session with a dental hygienist costs, especially in these cash-strapped times.
The British Heart Foundation has, of course, something to say on the subject. “It’s already known that poor oral hygiene may be associated with more well known risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking and poor diet,” says senior cardiac nurse Natasha Stewart.  “So it’s important to make sure that good personal hygiene forms a basic part of a healthy lifestyle.
“Keeping your teeth clean and visiting the dentist is important but if you really want to help look after your heart, make sure you eat a balanced diet, avoid  smoking and take part in regular physical activity .
Not bad advice at all.

Posted in General health.

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