Amelia Harnish

Behind the Scenes Photo: What We Did With All That Flour And Sugar

December 30, 2013 at 12:08 pm , by

Have you read Emily Sandford’s story in our December/January issue yet? Here’s a little tease: “I’ve been fat my whole life. I was a chubby kid, an obese teenager and at 24 I weighed 445 pounds. I’m still big so this is definitely not your typical miracle makeover article. But it is a story of hope because I’ve finally realized that I had to change how I felt inside before I could change the outside. I’m learning to love myself. And I’m already 113 pounds lighter.” If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, click here.

That’s Emily on the left, me in the middle and LHJ photo director Clare Lissaman on the right. And that big pile of 5-pound bags of flour and sugar in front of us? Our props for Emily’s photo shoot. At her highest weight, Emily was as heavy as 91 of those brick-like bags, which we used in the photos to symbolize all she’s conquered since beginning her weight-loss journey a few years ago.

After the shoot, we donated all of it to the Food Bank For New York City, which provides programs and services to 1.5 million New Yorkers in need.

An End to Breast Cancer By 2020?

October 21, 2013 at 4:42 pm , by

In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress with his ambitious plan to land a man on the moon before the end of that decade. Critics across the country balked. How could NASA possibly pull off something so incredible in such a short time? But the following year John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. And on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted a flag on the moon.

Today, Fran Visco, president of National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC), says we need a similarly bold goal to end breast cancer—not in some distant future for our daughter’s daughters, but by the year 2020. “The Apollo Project looked at where technology was at the time, and simply asked, ‘How can we apply this to getting on the moon?’ NBCC is doing the same thing,” she explains.

Two Octobers ago, LHJ ran an interview with Visco (right) to mark the launch of NBCC’s deadline. (Click here to read that interview to get a primer on Visco and NBCC.) Recently, we caught up with her to chat about the progress so far.

LHJ: The last time you talked with us, NBCC had just announced its ambitious goal to end breast cancer by 2020. What’s the latest?

FV: The scientists we’re working with have made progress in identifying targets for a preventive vaccine against breast cancer, and we’re on track to be in Phase 1 clinical trials with it in three years. We’re also making progress in our work on stopping metastasis.

We’ve been able to change the conversation among the research community, which is huge. To give you an example, recently I was invited to speak to an auditorium full of clinicians and researchers at a major cancer center. When I asked the organizers why they wanted me to speak, they said the researchers talk about the deadline campaign a lot among themselves when they talk about their work. That’s exciting because no one even thought this was a possibility when we started, and now there’s enthusiasm and momentum. Instead of asking us, “How on earth are you going to end breast cancer?,” researchers and doctors are now asking us, “How can I help you end breast cancer?” That’s a big deal because the National Breast Cancer Coalition isn’t going to do this alone.

LHJ: What drove your decision to focus on those two areas—metastasis and developing a vaccine?

FV: What we want to do is move away from toxic drugs. If you were diagnosed with breast cancer today, you would be treated with drugs and possibly radiation, both of which can have life-threatening side effects. One of my dear friends, Carolina Hinestrosa, who was the executive vice president of NBCC, died in 2009 of a cancer caused by the radiation treatment she got for her breast cancer. That’s why we’re focusing on developing a safe preventive vaccine—so women don’t have to go through that in the first place.

For the most part, women do not die from a breast tumor. Metastasis is responsible for 90 percent of all breast cancer deaths. If we could stop that process, so that if you do get breast cancer you won’t die from it, that would be enormous. Most recently we put together a think tank of 17 scientists and advocates to look at the issue of tumor dormancy. Why does cancer stay dormant for months or years in some women? Can we learn how to keep it that way? I recall reading several years ago about a group of engineers who were talking about filters for blood flow to “catch” cancer cells. I have no idea if that is even possible but that is the kind of innovative thinking we want to encourage. We still lose too many women to this disease, and unfortunately, early detection is not the answer.

LHJ: Do you think the major focus on early detection has actually slowed progress?

FV: The problem is early detection can only do so much. We’ve spent way too much energy, attention and resources on early detection and it hasn’t gotten us very far. This year, an estimated 108 women will die of breast cancer every day. In 1991, just a few years after I was diagnosed, that number was 119.

The world has raised billions of dollars for breast cancer research, but the mortality rates haven’t changed very much. So it’s not that we’re not catching breast cancer early enough or that we haven’t raised enough money, it’s that we’re not focusing our efforts on the right things. That’s why we want NBCC to have an oversight role, which means we want to set priorities and oversee how the money is being spent.

LHJ: You are also lobbying Congress to pass the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act. What would the bill accomplish? And we have to ask, has the current political climate in Washington gotten in the way?

FV: It is definitely slowing things down because Congress is dealing with other pressing issues, but I hope it won’t be a barrier to getting it done.

What we are trying to do with the bill is create a systematic way to leverage the investments we’ve already made in research. We’re not asking for more money, we’re asking to create an entity that can bring people together to collaborate. We have a lot of tools, technology and knowledge already, but none of this stuff is being translated into things that actually help people. That’s exactly how this is like the Apollo project. Let’s look at where the science is and figure out how to accomplish the goal, rather than just making another drug or another tool. I truly believe that now is the time to do that. Let’s take all this awareness, all this funding and work together to end breast cancer for good.

To learn more about NBCC’s work and how you can help, head to

Cate Edwards To Advanced Breast Cancer Patients: You’re Not Alone

October 10, 2013 at 6:15 pm , by

Back in 2004, on the same day the Democratic ticket lost the bid for the White House, Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had been campaigning tirelessly with her husband Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic nominee for Vice President. You’d think a lost election and a breast cancer diagnosis would slow someone down, but it wasn’t so for Elizabeth.

Over the next two years, while she was being treated and monitored for her disease, she became a tireless advocate for women’s health, published a best-selling book and started back on the campaign trail with John when he ran for President.

Her oldest daughter, Cate (right), remembers how at first, her mom thought of her cancer as something she’d have to deal with for a while but ultimately would conquer. Then in 2007, after she’d been in remission for a while, Elizabeth learned that her cancer had spread. It sunk in that she’d be living with breast cancer for the rest of her life. “It was a big change in how my whole family thought about the disease,” Cate explains.

If you’re one of the thousands of women living with advanced breast cancer, or caring for a loved one with the disease, you’re probably very familiar with the change Cate is talking about.

This year about 230,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. New treatments and greater awareness have lead to better outcomes for early stage disease. But about 30 percent of those women may have their cancer return and metastasize, which is called advanced breast cancer. These women and their families face specific challenges and a lot of uncertainty—issues that aren’t a major focus in the “bigger pink movement,” Cate says.

“I had this notion in my head of breast cancer patients falling into two categories: you either become a survivor or you become someone who ‘lost their battle,’” she says. “And that’s just not true. There are so many people living with cancer.” That’s why Cate has joined forces with the Count Us, Know Us, Join Us campaign, a new effort sponsored by Novartis Oncology to raise awareness and connect advanced breast cancer patients to resources and foster community.

Elizabeth passed away in 2010, but not before making the most of her time left. She continued on the campaign trail with John, even amid rumors of his affair. She became President Obama’s adviser on health-care issues during his first campaign, and she published another best-selling book. She and John eventually separated after one of the ugliest public breakups in history. But she remained an inspiration, writing on her Facebook page the day before she died: “I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.”

“She didn’t know how long she had, but she recognized that none of us do,” Cate says. “By watching her go through everything, I learned how to be strong, but also gentle and supportive in times of difficulty. Her mantra was to live every day with purpose, and she exemplified that.”

To learn more about the campaign, head to You’ll find resources from  advocacy groups like and The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, as well as info on navigating treatment and forums for connecting with other patients.

Help Laura Mercier Stop The Silent Killer

September 26, 2013 at 1:51 pm , by

Ovarian cancer isn’t pretty. Known as the “silent killer” because of its tricky symptoms, this cancer is too often diagnosed in the advanced stages when it is hardest to treat. The numbers are heartbreaking: only 15 percent of ovarian cancers are diagnosed in the early stage when it’s most treatable, according to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. (The five-year survival rate is 93 percent for early stage disease, but so far there is no reliable screening test

“When my sister was diagnosed, I was shocked to learn that only a fraction of women in advanced stages of the disease survive,” says Claudia Poccia, CEO of Gurwitch Products (the parent company of the Laura Mercier brand) and co-founder of the Laura Mercier Ovarian Cancer Fund. Poccia lost her younger sister to the disease in 2011. That’s why she joined forces with Mercier to raise money for research, education and support for women with ovarian cancer. When you buy any of the three products pictured above, 100 percent of the proceeds will go toward research grants and awareness projects. You can purchase all three here.

But don’t stop there. The best thing you can do to help is learn about the subtle symptoms and spread the word:

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Feeling like you have to pee urgently and often

These symptoms are common and could easily be something else—so don’t freak out! But if you experience any of these for longer than two weeks or more than 12 days in the course of a month, talk to your gynecologist, especially if you have a family history. Up to 15 percent of all ovarian cancers are hereditary.

The Dos and Don’ts of Helping A Sick Friend

May 16, 2013 at 11:51 am , by

When activist and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she was surprised at how not sick she felt—until word spread among her friends. Some loved ones avoided her completely. Others seemed tongue-tied or awkwardly danced around the issue in conversation. “Instead of, ‘Hey, how are you?’ everyone started asking ‘Oh, how are you?’ in that tone that says they’re painfully worried about you,” she says. She realized that many people have no idea how to act around someone who’s dealing with an illness. At the time of her diagnosis, Pogrebin was working on a novel but decided to shift gears and instead write her latest book, How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick.

Based on her own experience as well as interviews with 80 other patients, the book covers what to say in response to bad news, how to help and even what to bring to the hospital when you visit. I had the pleasure of meeting Pogrebin and collecting a few dos and don’ts.

Do ask her what she wants. “Everybody wants different things. Some people want to be treated as though they’re not even sick. Some people want you to sit and listen,” Pogrebin explains. You may feel like you shouldn’t ask, you should just act. But it can be liberating, not to mention extremely helpful, to give the sick person the opportunity to tell you exactly what she needs.

Do keep your good fortune to yourself. You should be honest if she asks how things are going in your life, but she doesn’t need to hear every detail about your promotion or the great vacation you’re planning. Keep it vague, and start conversations about current events or other interests you share, like movies, sports or politics, Pogrebin suggests.

Don’t ask, “How are you?” at all. If you’re someone dealing with chronic pain or chemotherapy, that’s a very awkward question to answer, says Pogrebin. “It’s the most basic opening line in human conversation, and it’s the most problematic for a sick person.” Instead, ask her, what’s new? This way, the conversation doesn’t begin with her having to acknowledge she’s not doing so well, and it’s open-ended. She can say “Not much,” or she can tell you about her treatment if she wants, or she can tell you her mother called.

Don’t tell her about that miracle treatment you heard about. It’s natural for you to feel like you should offer advice, but fight the urge. “Part of why disease makes us so uncomfortable is that we feel powerless,” says Pogrebin. “But so much advice is dizzying. She has a doctor for that. She needs you to be her friend.”

Help Spread the Word About Maternal Mortality

April 10, 2013 at 4:04 pm , by

What does supermodel Christy Turlington Burns have in common with women in Malawi, Haiti and Guatemala? Nine years ago, Burns had a hemorrhage after the birth of her daughter. She recovered, but she learned that the same complication she survived kills thousands of women each year, mainly because they don’t have access to basic care.

“That shocked me,” said Burns, speaking last week about global maternal mortality at the Women in the World Summit. “Pregnancy is not a disease, yet 15 percent of all pregnancies result in a life-threatening complication.” (That’s her in the center, speaking with other panel members. You can get the full recap here.)

You may be thinking, as I was as I sat in the audience, that this is only a problem in far-off villages, not here in the United States where we have hospitals and prenatal care. But it turns out the rate of maternal mortality in the U.S. has doubled in the past 20 years, and we now have a higher rate of death in childbirth than Bosnia and Kuwait.

On top of that, the number of women who have complications but don’t die—what experts call “near misses”—are on the rise. “In the U.S. right now, about 52,000 pregnant women a year, or one every 10 minutes, will have a serious problem,” says ob-gyn Priya Agrawal, executive director of Merck for Mothers, Merck’s initiative to end maternal death in childbirth. Merck for Mothers sponsored the panel. The most common complications are hemorrhage, preeclampsia and blood clots, all of which can have lifelong health consequences. For example, preeclampsia, which is high blood pressure during pregnancy, can raise your risk for heart disease later on. “Ninety percent of these cases are preventable, but there is a huge lack of awareness, even in the United States,” says Dr. Agrawal.

Organizations like Merck for Mothers and Every Mother Counts (founded by Burns in 2010) are working to improve and standardize care in the United States and beyond so that all pregnancies and births can be joyous occasions. Meanwhile, there are simple ways you can help.

Watch Christy Turlington Burns’ Documentary No Woman, No Cry
The film follows four stories from Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala and the United States to show you everything you need to know about the issue. You can download it on iTunes, buy the DVD or get in touch with Every Woman Counts to arrange a screening in your area. Get all the info here.

Share Your Birth Story on the Merck for Mothers Facebook page
Did you have a complication? Like the Merck for Mothers page on Facebook to share your story, get the facts and help the organization spread awareness.

Photo by Marc Byron Brown


Strength Training Tips for Beginners

April 4, 2013 at 11:39 am , by

Why do you need to think about your muscles? Well, aside from making you look toned and fabulous, weight training also protects your joints, strengthens your bones and even revs your metabolism. As important as it is to get your heart rate up with walking, jogging or other aerobic activities, strength training is worth its weight in added health benefits. And with swimsuit season rapidly approaching, now is the perfect time to get started. Here are a few beginners’ tips from Deborah McConnell, a global master fitness trainer from the Life Fitness Academy.

Warm up first: “You want to wake up your joints and loosen up a bit beforehand to prevent injuries,” says McConnell. Power walking, jogging or a little time on a treadmill or elliptical are all good options. Do it for at least five to 10 minutes.

Find the right routine: You’ll need to do a bit of homework to find a training program that’s right for you. “In general, I recommend beginners start with a full body routine. Do eight to 10 exercises that hit all the major muscle groups, and start with eight to 12 reps each,” says McConnell. Try this basic routine from Jillian Michaels or check out the American Council on Exercise’s Kick-Start Challenge.

Practice good form: A strong core is essential for weight lifting, whether you’re using dumbbells, cable machines or your own body weight. Be sure to engage your core for every repetition, and don’t forget to breathe. “Every movement should be slow and controlled. You can get hurt rushing through it,” says McConnell. If you’re using weights, make sure it’s challenging, but light enough for you to get through each set with proper form.

Space out your sessions: Your muscles need time to rest and recover to get stronger. Shoot for two to three strength training workouts a week, with at least 24 hours between each one, says McConnell.

Don’t forget to stretch: Evidence is mounting that you shouldn’t stretch before exercise, but there is still good reason to stretch afterward. In fact, it’s a good idea to break between sets to stretch and relax the muscles you just worked on, says McConnell. When stretching, gently hold until the muscle relaxes. Sudden movements or bouncing can lead to injury.

Photo copyright Artem Furman,