Amelia Harnish

The Quick, Easy Blood Test That Could Save Your Life

December 18, 2012 at 11:37 am , by

In addition to your mammogram and colonoscopy, the CDC wants you to add another screening to your list: a one-time blood test for hepatitis C.

Ever heard of it? Don’t worry if you haven’t; you’re not alone. When people find out my father died of hepatitis C, I can count on two reactions. The first is, of course, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” The second is confusion.

Hepatitis C starts out as a virus in your blood after a needle stick, blood transfusion or other blood exposure. Some people exposed to the virus can clear it, but for 75 to 85 percent of people the infection becomes chronic and can lead to liver scarring (known as cirrhosis), liver failure and liver cancer. Chronic infections may not cause symptoms for 20 to 30 years, when damage to the liver is already done.

“There are between 3 and 4 million people infected, and the vast majority of them are baby boomers who don’t know it,” says Martha Saly, executive director of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable. That’s why the CDC recently announced recommendations urging anyone born between 1945 and 1965 to get tested.

Before 1992, there wasn’t a test for it, so it was impossible to screen for hepatitis C in the blood supply. As a result, many people were infected from a transfusion they got years ago. Other common ways of transmission include a history of needle drug use or contact with unsterile instruments, say, at a tattoo and piercing parlor or through a needle stick, says Shmuel Shoham, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a member of the LHJ Medical Advisory Board. But there are plenty of people who don’t know how they got it.

While new cases of hepatitis C have remained low since the early ’90s, experts are bracing for the crop of people who were infected years ago and need to be treated. Deaths from hepatitis C have risen steadily for more than a decade to more than 15,000 in 2007, says Bryce Smith, lead health scientist from the CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis.

When my dad was diagnosed in 2004, no one ever talked about hep C, and by the time he got tested he was already really sick. It’s bittersweet to see it in the news so much lately now that new treatments bring the cure rate up to 80 percent. I know the thought of another screening test may sound daunting, but trust me, it’s worth the peace of mind.  If every boomer did it, the CDC estimates that it will save more than 120,000 lives.

Infographic via the CDC. Click here for an enlarged, shareable version you can post on your Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest to spread the word about screening for hepatitis C.


Snapshots from Hurricane Sandy

November 7, 2012 at 1:54 pm , by

As the Northeast hunkers down for another difficult storm today, we wanted to share some pictures we snapped this past week during Hurricane Sandy. LHJ staffers were pretty lucky. We’re all safe, back at work and most of us have power (keyword: most). New York City is crawling back toward normal, but we’re not there yet. So many of our neighbors are without electricity and heat. We’re still cleaning up and assessing the damage. Worst of all, lots of people lost their homes and some even lost their lives.

If you’d like to help, check out these great organizations working to restore New York, New Jersey and other places along the East Coast that are still suffering and make a donation if you can. Share your own experiences or ways to help in the comments.

American Red Cross The Red Cross has 5,400 workers and 250 shelters spread from Virginia to Rhode Island. Donate online or text REDCROSS to 90999.
Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund Tireless New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his wife Mary Pat established a relief fund of their own to restore the hardest-hit areas in New Jersey.
United Way Hurricane Sandy Recovery Fund United Way has set up its own fund to help disaster areas with teams of volunteers and lots of supplies all along the Eastern Seaboard.
The Mayor’s Fund for NYC Hurricane Relief You can donate directly to New York City’s recovery with an online donation or find in-person volunteer opportunities if you’re in the New York-area and want to help out.

Preparing for Hurricane Sandy

Picture 1 of 7

LHJ's health editor Julie Bain believes in being well prepared! Here she tests the batteries on her headlamp before the storm. She lost power at her place in Manhattan on Monday, October 29, and the lights came back on Friday night, November 1. The headlamp was great for walking up and down pitch-black stairwells, leaving her hands free. Read Julie's other lessons for storm preparedness here.


Avon’s New CEO Walks The Talk

October 24, 2012 at 4:48 pm , by

An army of soldiers, wearing everything from pink wigs and tutus to T-shirts with photos of loved ones, invaded New York City last weekend. They were there for the 10th annual Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, and the Journal team was there to capture it. We wanted to meet some of the women (and guys) who raised money to walk up to 26 miles around the island of Manhattan on Saturday, camp out on Randall’s Island and then finish with another 13-mile hike on Sunday. With that kind of commitment, we knew we were bound to find good stories.

We met a woman who signed up in honor of her grandmother and then got diagnosed herself before she finished fundraising. We met a woman with a pink ribbon tattoo on her ankle in memory of her mom, who lost her battle six years ago. We met a group of young men doing the walk for their girlfriends, sisters and mothers. (You’ll get to meet them all, too, in an upcoming issue.)

Sheri McCoy, Avon’s new CEO, joined the charge. She spoke at the opening ceremony and spent the day walking and talking with participants. I got to sit down and chat with McCoy, whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, after she crossed the finish line on day one (that’s her, above). “We had a woman tell her story on stage with me today who was diagnosed when she was only 27 years old. And the woman who spoke after me, her mother died just a few months ago. It was incredible that she was able to tell that story. I couldn’t have done it,” says McCoy, tearing up a little.

She clearly cares about this cause, as well as the more than 6 million Avon representatives she oversees, many of them women, across the United States and in countries all over the world. “As a manager, I want the people who work for Avon to be successful the same way I want my kids to be successful,” she says. “In motherhood and in business, you want to create an environment where people can achieve.” Her husband, who was the oldest of 13 kids growing up, did a lot of the childcare for their three boys, now 24, 22 and 20. “I’ve been fortunate to have the support—and to have worked for companies that are family friendly,” she says. “But I also had to learn to recognize what’s important, to prioritize and say no to things. It took maturity to say I can’t be perfect.”

During the week McCoy is up by 6 a.m. and often is in meetings or traveling until 9 p.m.. But the weekends are all hers. In addition to spending time with her boys, she’s a Zumba fanatic and bookworm. “Most of the time I have to read business journals and work-related things, so I love to pick up a James Patterson mystery. I can finish it in a few hours,” she says, smiling.

McCoy started her career at Johnson & Johnson as a scientist. She stayed with the company for 20 years, eventually leading the pharmaceutical division before coming to Avon in April. This was her first breast-cancer walk. “Avon has always been about empowering women,” she says. “Breast cancer is such a tough disease that touches so many people, so I wanted to be here. I’m inspired by the women participating, and I’m impressed that the foundation isn’t just working on awareness but getting the money to research and care.”

The New York City walkers raised an impressive $8.3 million this year. The majority goes to the Avon Foundation Breast Health Outreach Program, which focuses on screening and education. The rest goes to a variety of programs, including a grant to fund research on inflammatory breast cancer, a less common but very aggressive type of the disease, and support for women undergoing treatment.

Another pink October may be coming to a close, but McCoy is already looking ahead. “I walked with some women from California, and now I can’t wait to do the Santa Barbara walk next year,” she says.


Danger of Online Pharmacies

October 10, 2012 at 1:46 pm , by

 

Of course you know not to click on those spammy “cheap Viagra!” e-mails (right?), but you may not know why going online in search of a deal on prescription meds can be hazardous to your health.

In a survey of Internet users, one in four adults said they’ve bought drugs online, yet close to 30 percent said they had no idea how to identify a fake pharmacy from a real one. Those are scary stats because only 3 percent of online pharmacies comply with U.S. laws, according to a study by the National Boards of Pharmacy.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D., commissioner of the FDA, wants to make people more aware of this problem. Health director Julie Bain and I (right, with Dr. Hamburg in the middle) had a chance to sit down with her in New York last week to discuss it.

LHJ: We didn’t realize so many people shop online for drugs. What are the main reasons for doing it? Is it really as easy as putting something in your shopping cart and pressing enter?

MH: People do it for both convenience and cost. For some, it may be that their insurance company suggests they buy through the internet, and the insurance company recommends a certain site. That’s a safe way to go. But the danger is that when people get used to ordering online, they may start shopping around for cheaper prices on other sites. In these difficult economic times, it’s understandable that people want to look for the best price. But when it comes to medication, if it’s really cheap, then it probably isn’t the real thing.

And if it is as easy as just putting it in your cart, that is a major warning signal. You could never go to your brick and mortar pharmacy and get a prescription drug without a written prescription. So it’s a red flag online.

LHJ: What should women look out for if they do buy drugs online?

MH:
There is real reason for concern that the product may be counterfeit or substandard, meaning it may not have the appropriate amount of the active pharmaceutical ingredients. It might have too little, too much, or it might have other ingredients or additives. Sometimes it can even be toxic, and your heath is too important to take a risk like that.

Safe and licensed online pharmacies exist, but your antenna has to go up every time. There are four key points to look for:

  1. Does the site require a prescription? (Your doctor’s office may need to send it electronically to the site, or sometimes you can scan a paper prescription.)
  2. Does it have a pharmacist available to answer your questions?
  3. Does it list a U.S. address and telephone number?
  4. Is it licensed?

If the answer is no to any of these questions (especially number 1), it may not be a reputable site. How do you determine if it’s licensed? On the BeSafeRx FDA site, click on your state, then scroll down to where you can enter the name of the pharmacy.


Can We Prevent Breast Cancer?

October 4, 2012 at 1:18 pm , by

During one of her recent volunteer shifts at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, AnneMarie Ciccarella (right) visited a woman who was recovering from a mastectomy. “It was the same bed in the same room I woke up in six years ago to the day,” she says. “Stuff like that really gets to me: When are we going to figure this out? How can we end this?”

Breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women in their lifetime. This year, more than 220,000 American women will be diagnosed with it and 40,000 will die. When we met Ciccarella for our October issue story on breast cancer survivors, she said she’s so tired of hearing these numbers. We’ve got to find a way to stop breast cancer.

That’s where the Health of Women (HOW) study comes in, says Ciccarella, who serves as the New York volunteer team coordinator with the Love/Avon Army of Women. Launched by the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, the Army of Women has been enrolling women in different research projects since 2008. Now the foundation is launching its own study to follow a huge group of women over time to learn why the disease develops. The key to all this? Your participation.

Why It’s Important
Many breast cancer patients have no known risk factors. So, does where you work or how much you sleep affect whether you will get breast cancer? Can anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen reduce breast cancer risk? These are the types of thing we want to understand better, and the larger the group of women we study, the more we can learn, says Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D., professor and director of cancer etiology at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope in Los Angeles, a partner in the study.

How It Works
After you answer a questionnaire about your health history, the HOW study will send you e-mails every three to four months when a new module becomes available. The questionnaires are co-created by epidemiologists, statisticians and breast cancer advocates, and participants will have the opportunity to submit questions they want answered, says Naz Sykes, executive director of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation.

The researchers want to follow women for 20 years or more. It’s a commitment, but the modules only take a few minutes to answer. All of your data will be stored in your account and in a database available to researchers—without your name attached.

Where To Sign Up
Go to HealthofWomenStudy.org and create an account. Then get your friends involved. The researchers want healthy women from every ethnicity, plus breast cancer survivors, women with other health issues and even men who’ve had breast cancer. I’ve already enrolled and I hope you will, too. Head to the study’s helpful FAQs page for more info.

Photo by Avery Powell


Get Off Your Butt

September 12, 2012 at 5:07 pm , by

If you sit all day long, you’re putting your health at risk—even if you exercise later, according to a growing pile of studies.

I’ll be the first to admit that when this started popping up again and again in the news recently, I ignored it every time. What am I supposed to do? Quit my job? I have to be at my desk! That’s why it was so refreshing to meet Anup Kanodia, M.D., assistant professor of Clinical Family Medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. He gave me a much-needed crash course in why sitting is so bad and what you can do about it right now. (That’s me, right, after Dr. Kanodia revamped my cube so I could see how it felt to work standing up.)

LHJ: What goes wrong when we sit?

AK: The problem is that without even realizing it, we’re sitting way more than we should. Our bodies are built to sit around three hours a day. The average person now sits eight, maybe even 12 hours a day. There are a few reasons this is bad for you.

First, you’re burning fewer calories. When you sit you burn 100 calories an hour. When you stand, you burn on average 150 calories an hour simply because the muscles in your legs and core have to work to keep you upright. So when you’re sitting all the time, managing your weight is harder, especially if you have trouble finding time to exercise. But the studies also show that independent of exercise, sitting is associated with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. So in other words, a half hour or an hour of exercise at the end of the day doesn’t make up for the damage done earlier in the day.

LHJ: Yikes! A lot of us spend so much of the workday with our butts in a chair. Where does standing start to makes a difference?

AK: It sounds too good to be true, but really every second of standing can make a difference. If you can get out of your chair every half an hour for a minute, you can burn 43 percent more energy throughout your day. And the reason this is so important is because of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which among other things, is responsible for converting your “bad” LDL cholesterol to “good” HDL cholesterol. After one hour of sitting, the production of this enzyme goes down 95 percent. But just getting out of your chair and moving a bit restarts it.

LHJ: Wow, that actually sounds doable.

AK: Yes, it adds up to only about 15 minutes a day. But it’s not the time that matters, it’s kick-starting that enzyme throughout the day. You can burn off a Starbucks latte, just by standing for 30 minutes. Now think of what you could do by standing for an hour or more a day!

Easy Ways To Get Off Your Butt

  • In the mornings, park in the far lot to sneak in more walking.
  • Set the timer on your phone to remind you to get up every half hour.
  • Stand during every phone call.
  • Drink more water. You’ll have to get up to pee eventually, right?
  • Suggest standing or walking meetings.
  • Get up while you read the paper or a long report.

 

 


Will You Stand Up 2 Cancer on Friday?

September 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm , by

Dozens of your favorite celebrities are teaming up against cancer this Friday, September 7, 2012 for the third annual Stand Up 2 Cancer telecast. Will you be joining them?

A-listers Gwyneth Paltrow (who is the executive producer this year), Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson, Emma Stone and more are set to appear during the commercial-free show, which starts at 8 p.m. on multiple networks. Taylor Swift, Coldplay, Alicia Keys and Tim McGraw will also be performing.

And if that’s not enough to grab your interest: stars will be manning the phones themselves.

Stand Up 2 Cancer has raised more than $180 million for cancer research since movie producer Laura Ziskin launched the organization in 2008. (That’s her, above, with Paltrow at the 2010 event.) Ziskin, who produced the Spider-Man movies, lived with breast cancer for seven years before it tragically took her life in June 2011.

Besides tuning in, here are more ways you can get involved and help make a difference:

Launch A Star
Unfortunately, we all know someone who’s been affected by cancer. You can launch a star in a loved one’s honor to The Constellation for a $1 donation or more.

Get Social
Keep in touch with the organization on Facebook and Twitter. And check out the SU2C blog for research updates, patient stories and more.

Start Your Own Group
Inspired yet? Stand Up 2 Cancer isn’t just a telecast—it’s a movement! The goal is to fund collaborative research among top scientists to speed up the discovery of lifesaving treatments, and that takes year-round fund-raising. If you’d like to host your own events to raise money for Stand Up 2 Cancer, check out this grassroots toolkit and learn more about the “dream teams” the organization is currently funding.