Sunday, 24 April 2011

Genetics and the "C" Word

If you have a half functioning heart, no breasts, and eventually no ovaries - what exactly are you??? One BAD-ASS Bionic Woman! (obviously!) And...Me!

There it is in black and white - My genetics SUCK!
I mentioned in my very first blog post that just over a year and half ago my Mom experienced her own health battle, and won against breast cancer. For most woman breast cancer is not actually the result of genetics, over 75% of women develop breast cancer simply because they are women and they are getting older (despite the hype surrounding the "breast cancer gene"). However, this is not the case for my family. After my mother's diagnosis and treatment she insisted on genetic screening because of a family history laced heavily with both Breast and Ovarian cancer, the two cancers linked to the BRCA genes. She tested positive, and now so have I.

GENETICS - you have screwed me again. And my title as a reigning Darwinian Fail remains intact. So what exactly does that mean? Being positive for the BRCA gene does NOT mean that you will get cancer. It DOES mean that your risk of getting breast and ovarian cancer has been significantly increased. If you are woman in the general population, simply because you are a woman, your chances of getting breast cancer are approximately 12%. If you have the BRCA 1 gene (which I do) your risk of developing breast cancer jumps to the range of about 40-70% of developing the disease. I am not a usually a betting woman, and math has never been my strong suit, but those aren't great odds. Anything above 50% when it comes to my health; I don't consider stellar.

If your genetic testing comes back positive you are given a couple options...
1.) You now know you are in a high risk category and if you are over the age of 25 then you can start screening immediately. You are followed by the high-risk cancer team, and you receive screening every 6 month. This option is great, because if there are any abnormalities it will likely be caught early and treatment is that much more effective. The only downside to this approach is that if the screening finds something you will need to proceed with treatment - which would likely include surgery, chemo, and radiation (Not great prospects). Your other option 2.) is to do a preventative full mastectomy and reconstruction (aka get fake ta-tas). This may seem extreme to some, but no boobs = no breast cancer. So that is the option I am going with.

There are many factors that have gone into making this decision, and I obviously approach it from a unique perspective - informed by my muddled medical experiences. But probably one of the most significant influences is my need to maintain a feeling of control or mastery over my own body. I have been in the difficult situation in the past where I would describe my position as helpless. There was a time where I felt absolutely powerless to do anything but abide by the will of my body, and this is not a place I plan to revisit. It is because of those experiences that I try to take such an active approach with my health everyday. And why I will take an active (and to some, perhaps aggressive) approach against this latest genetic set back.

There are many details that still need to be worked out, and it is still early days in terms of taking on my latest Darwinian failure. There is no quick fix, and this is likely to be a long journey - but I will keep you posted all the way along. As Mary Engelbreit so aptly said, "if you don't like something change it; if you can't change it, change the way you think about it." This is something I can't change, so I will accept this as a renewed challenge from an old foe.

Genetics, the war continues! And BRCA 1 gene the stage has been set for our first battle. Saturday June 11th I am running a 10 k Race to Heal Breast Cancer.This race was supposed to be for my Mom, but it is now also for me. This just got personal! I plan to be kicking ass and taking names, while also hopefully raising money and awareness for Breast Cancer Support Services. If you would like to sponsor me please follow this link and join the fight with me.

I have said since the beginning that the idea of genetic fitness includes more than just biology. Fitness is also defined by adaptability, perseverance, and strength – and this is my definition!

Screw you Genetics!
Love your favourite Darwinian Fail,

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Running Away from Genetics

My NEW sneaks! A must-have for running season!
Running has become an integral part of my genetic battle plan. It is also something I have grown to LOVE! Running for me is a challenge, and a competition that I have with myself.

I was never a runner, not even as a kid. When the cross country unit came around in gym class I was always scrambling for any excuse to get out of it. The thought of running long distances made me queasy. I could never understand how people did it. Frankly, long distance running was too hard, and I was not interested in it.

That was how I used to feel, anyways. That was how I used to feel when I chose not to run. That was how I used to feel when I decided that I didn't want to run. I felt differently, however, when I was told I literally could not run, or rather that I should not run. Strenuous cardio exercise of any kind tends to be questionable for those of us with robotic hearts. It is not that exercise is a bad thing, in fact it tends to be just the opposite. Exercise is thought to significantly reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, a very good thing in my books. A regular exercise routine has been proven to improve cardiovascular efficiency, improve inflammation/hemostasis and blood pressure, and can have a profound impact on preventing clinical events. Exercising with a robotic heart can be a bit of a grey area, however, considering the average age of pacemaker implantation is 74. I was 18 when my ICD was implanted, so that puts me 56 years off the pace (ba-dum-bum get it? "pace" ? Its both a running and a pacemaker pun...) So I was typically leading a much more active lifestyle. I wasn't ready to give that up, and I certainly wasn't willing to accept the 50 extra lbs my newly enforced inactive lifestyle had bestowed upon me.

I am competitive by nature, and I spend most of my time competing with myself and my own expectations. I don't like to be told I can't do something, and I especially don't like to feel like I am losing. And there was a time where I felt like I was fighting a losing battle against my own body, but running was my way of fighting back. I am not a woman of inaction and I refuse to sit idly by and be beaten. Running gave me my body back, and I felt empowered! I feel like I dominate my genetics and take control of my health every time I lace up my sneakers and head out the door. Even if running is usually hard, and sometimes not even that fun, I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I complete a run.

My running partner! I never run without it!
For those of you questioning the safety of this type of activity for a defective runner such as myself, please note: I wear a heart rate monitor every time I run. As much as I feel I subjugate genetics every time I run, I am not naive - I am fully aware of my short-comings. I will never be a fast runner. My heart rate needs to stay at a steady rate, and my heart rate naturally runs higher than the average person (I run comfortably at a heart rate of 170-185), so I need to monitor it closely. I can only do so much in terms of cardio training, but as the tortoise say "slow and steady wins the race". Every time I reach a new distance, hit a new time, or wake up feeling sore it feels like I am taking control and conquering my health - and its that feeling that drives me.

This week I started up-ing my distance. I hit 8.6 km on Wednesday. I am working my way up to 10 km for my next race. I signed up for the Healing for Breast Cancer 10k Run on June 11th. Running this race is yet another way to overcome my family's genetics, because running allows me to prevail over my heart condition but it also lets me thwart breast cancer and the BRCA 1 gene that has permeated my family. So on that note, let the training begin. And ...

Love your favourite Darwinian fail,

Friday, 8 April 2011

Friday Cupcake Fun!

For me April signifies the beginning of the many celebrations that take place over the summer. April is the beginning of the spring birthday rush (famous in my family), not to mention the beginning of many wedding showers, baby showers, and actual weddings that I am invited to over the course of the next 6 months! (Tis' that season in life for me I guess haha). There seems to be a reason to celebrate every weekend, which is fabulous for my social life...but less fabulous for the waist line. I am also the resident baker in the family, pies and cupcakes are my specialities.

Busy Busy Baker!
This weekend is my husband's birthday - so a nice dinner and a little dessert is a MUST. I absolutely adore baking! It always feels so decadent to spend an afternoon baking - because it is not something you have to do, it is something you choose to do. I find baking very relaxing - almost meditative. When I set out to bake I loose track of time and all my worries just seem to fall away. I think I really enjoy making something special for my friends and family (and the little sugar fix probably doesn't hurt either). So, I spent the afternoon making him these Westie Cupcakes (recipe courtesy of "Hello Cupcakes" The Westie cupcake is the poster child for their first cookbook, and one of the reasons I bought it. As you can see we have a fabulous little westie of our own, named Clark! I spent the afternoon trying to capture his essence, while Clark spent the afternoon trying to capture a cupcake for himself! Check out my handy work below!
Clark in a cupcake!
Can you see the resemblance?
These cupcakes are by no means healthy, nor would they ever be categorized as diet. (*A lot of icing was used to create the fur!) This is where my 80/20 ratio comes into effect! If I ate all of the delicious treats, desserts, and heavy meals that I will be presented with over the next few months I am confident I would be as big as a house before the summer is over. So picking and choosing what kind of treats I really want to indulge in is going to be important during Celebration Season. So I am going to do my best to maintain a healthy balance, and I will keep you posted on how that all goes!

These cupcakes fall strictly under the category of PLEASURE and BLISS! (*Remember you always have to have a little of that is your life too if you want to lead a truly healthy life!)

Hope your weekend is full of fun and I will talk to everyone soon!
Love your favourite Darwinian fail,

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Daffodil Month - Fight Cancer and Genetics One Flower at a Time

For as long as I can remember we have bought a big bouquet of daffodils every April to support the Canadian Cancer Society. I remember during my early elementary school years accompanying my Mom on walks around the neighbourhood canvessing and collecting daffodil orders. It felt like we were always greeted with a smile at each door we knocked on, and that smile was usually accompanied by a donation. This fact made a profound impact on me; to see all these neighbours, friends, and family members who had all been affected by cancer in one way or another left a lasting impression. Who could have known almost 20 years later how deeply cancer would permeate our own personal family life, and how these daffodils would become a personal symbol of courage and defiance for both me and my family.

"Every 3 minutes a Canadian is faced with fighting cancer". This is just one of the stats featured on the Canadian Cancer Society's website, but by buying daffodils we are all entering that fight with them. Donations collected during the month of April will be used to support people living with cancer, fund research to outsmart cancer, and to prevent cancer before it even starts. As a supporter of the CCS's mission I have spent the last few weeks trying to figure out where I could get one of those daffodil pins. Luckily my husband stumbled upon them last week at work, because the PR campaigne for these things is less than stellar. April 27th is supposed to be Daffodil Day, and everyone is supposed to show their unity and support by taking a stand against cancer and wearing one of these pins. However, you can only find these pins in approximately 7 mildly obsure stores (or at least ones that I do not frequent often). The Brick, Laura's, First Choice Haircutters, Wireless Wave, Booth Wireless, CAA, and Scotiabank are all carrying them. (Admittedly Scotiabank is not obsure, but I am an RBC customer) Anyways, if you are like me and you are looking for them, those are you key locations. You can also go to  and they have this handy mapping feature that helps find a location nearest you - which of course I realized after I had already found one!

Because I am fighting back!
Today on my way home from the library, I saw one the CCS's volunteers canvessing the neighbourhood and I simply could not resist those bright yellow happy buds. I personally have always thought daffodils were kind of goofy looking, although I am not sure why. I think it might have something to do with the characterization of the daffodil in Disney's Alice In Wonderland - that dopey daffodil has always stuck with me. But looking at these little blooms today I felt differently about them. Daffodils are always one of the first flowers to pop up after a long cold winter, which I feel is somewhat defiant and also very appropriate as a designated symbol for the battle against cancer.  Because after a long, dark, and cold experience these little blooms burst out of the ground to remind us that better times are ahead and that they have not been beaten by those harsh conditions. They are quite simply a symbol of LIFE! Their yellow colour is bold and cheerful; resisting those grim thoughts that come to mind when talking about the "C" word. The Cancer Society describes the daffodil as a symbol of courage and strength. It says that we will not give up! It says that we will fight back! And it says that one day we will beat cancer! Seeing those daffodils today seems to speak to everything I felt, and everything this Darwinian fail hopes for in the fight against cancer and my own battle against genetics. So this is one girl who will be wearing my daffodil loud and proud this month!

Talk to you all again soon!
Your favourite Darwinian fail,

Monday, 4 April 2011

My Genetic Battle Plan and Diet Approach

I am 100% obsessed with Michael Pollan, and all of his books on food, diet, and nutrition.

I have tried a lot different types of eating plans throughout my many diet attempts over the years. Some healthy...and others not so much. Everyone, especially those who are worried about their weight, are hoping for a quick fix. And I have definitely been there. With all this convoluted information about nutrition and weight loss - you name it and I have probably given it a whirl. I tried the Grapefruit Gimmick, that's where you eat half a grapefruit before every meal to fill you up. This does not work and you end up spend a lot of time and money focusing on grapefruit. I have been really restrictive with my calories, diligently monitoring every morsel and every crumb of food I ingest. This works, but is NOT healthy and not something you can maintain.  Many women are known to do this to an extreme, and this behaviour can really harm your body, which is the exact opposite of what I am trying to achieve. Food is fuel, so we need to remember that and relinquish our unhealthy attachments to food. I was vegan for about 3 days...that was not for me. 1.) I really like cheese, and 2.) the recipes I tried ended up tasting like bird seed, so no -just NO. I was a vegetarian for almost 5 years, which definitely worked for me and is the lifestyle I used to lose the 50 lbs initially. I realize it is not for everyone, and after falling off the wagon with a pound of chicken wings - I can honestly say I am a carnivore again. The list of various things I have tried is lengthy, and after all of the many gimmicks, quick fixes, and legitimate approaches to nutrition I have experimented with I have learned that extremes don't work, are not healthy, and can not be maintained. This is where my love of Michael Pollan comes in, why my diet approach during my battle with genetics is based on the theories in his books and his sage advice.

I have read, loved, and currently own three books by Michael Pollen, and everything he says makes sense to me. He is a journalist - not a doctor, scientist, or nutritionist. He is not who you would expect to be writing extensively about nutrition, but perhaps because he is also just trying to understand all the same things we are about the grey areas of nutrition his approach just seems so balanced, simple, and correct to me.

One of the things he stresses is the fact that science knows a lot less about nutrition than we would expect. He describes nutrition as "a very young science", because our study of nutrition science started less than 200 years ago. I know that sounds old, it did to me. I thought, "200 years, wow that is a lot of time to collect data and research. I am not really seeing the problem here"... I thought this until he compared that 200 years of research to the same place surgery was in the year 1650! I probably would not have signed up to get a robotic heart in 1650, nor would that have even been an option. So subscribing to the research generated from nutrition science of the same age probably doesn't make much sense either.  

In Defense of Food describes the role nutrition plays on our health, and the problems with the Western lifestyle. Populations that eat a so-called Western diet - which is defined as a diet consisting of lots of processed foods and meats, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, and low on fresh fruits and veggies - end up suffering from high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Some of the stats that go along with this research suggest that 80% of all cases of heart disease, and more than 1/3 of all types of cancers can be linked to this diet. So as a Darwinian fail with both heart disease and a family history heavy on the cancer, what I took away from this is; this diet is a problem!

The good news is that there are really reliable and accurate studies showing that people who get off the Western Diet see dramatic improvements to their health. One study suggests that when a typical North American population departed even modestly from the Western diet and lifestyle they were able to reduce their risk of heart disease by 80%, their chances of type 2 diabetes by 90%, and their chances of getting colon cancer by 70%. Those are some seriously powerful results, and results this Darwinian fail could really get behind!

So after presenting all of his stats, surveys, and research what does Michael Pollan suggest we do to lead a truly healthy life? It all came down to just 7 little words:
Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.
And those 7 words make a lot of sense, because it means we cut out the processed food (since that is not actually food), we stop over eating, and we eat the fruits and veggies we know are good for us! It is just so simple! No mumbo jumbo about antioxidants, trans fats vs saturated fats, gluten, polyphenols, and the like. No biochemistry degree required! Its perfect!

Michael Pollan's next book (Food Rules) is fabulous, because it expands on the research and theories he generates throughout In Defense of Food and formats it into easy to follow rules for the average eater (me!). I have chosen 6 other rules from the 64 he presents in Food Rules to follow during my genetic battle.

1. Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
So that means if you see words like "ethoylated diglycerides" or "xanthan" it means that this product does not really contain whole foods, and it is probably best to be avoided if you are hoping to attain a clean healthy lifestyle. 

2. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
Most supermarkets are set up the same way. Processed food products dominate the center aisles of the store, while the fresh foods - produce, meat, fish, dairy - line the walls. If you keep to the edges you are more likely to end up with real food in your shopping cart.

3. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
In countries where people eat a pound or more of vegetables and fruits a day, the rate of cancer is half what it is in North America. If you are battling against a genetic predisposition to cancer like I am, than eating more vegetables probably wouldn't hurt!

4. Eat your colours.
The colours of many vegetables reflect the different antioxidant phytochemicals they contain. Many of these chemicals help protect against chronic diseases, but each in slightly different ways not yet understood, so the best protection comes from a diet rich in as many different phytochemicals as possible.

5. Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored (or depressed)
Pretty self explanatory I think...

6. Treat treats as treats
You have to live a little, so this is where my 80/20 ratio comes into play. You can't spend your life battling your genetics, but feeling hard done by for doing it - it simply won't work. Plus sometimes I need a delicious decadent meal as a way to celebrate or pamper myself . A healthy life is all about moderation!

So that is it! Those are my food mantras - basic, simple, and easy to follow. Genetics you have been forewarned! I refuse to take your abuse lying down, and I am fighting back with my diet!

Talk to you all again soon!
Love your favourite Darwinian fail,

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Race #1 is Complete (Take That Genetics)

I am clearly happy to grab some water after that horrible hill!
Whew! My first race while giving my family genetics a good butt-kicking was a success! And I am on cloud nine, today could not have gone any better!

The weather was picture perfect for a race today. The sun was out, but the brisk wind made it ideal running conditions. Harry Rosen's Spring Run Off was held in High Park, in the west end of city, and the surrounding area was absolutely filled with green and blue shirts. People where out in the 1000's to support those affected by Prostate Cancer. You could tell the cause was really important to everyone who came out this morning, the spirit and enthusiasm was palpable as a sea of blue and green shirts took over the park.

Me and my inspiration - Grandad! 85 years young and still fighting the good fight!
This race was at a great location and incredibly well organized. The park was an ideal location, it was really picturesque, especially the trails down by the water. The volunteers and all of the organizers did a fabulous job, I really can't say enough good things about this run. If I  had to make one complaint would probably be about the GIANT HILL in the final 500 meters! Why do that to us? I mean really? That is the one part of the run I probably could have done without. But hills aside, the run was fabulous! I ran my 5k in 32 minutes and 26 seconds, which is not too shabby for a Darwinian fail, so I definitely happy with the outcome.

Gran and Grandad made a sign for me! Too Cute!
It was amazing to see and meet so many people whose lives have been touched by one disease. I suppose it should not be surprising, considering 1 out of every 6 men will be diagnosed with Prostate Cancer in his lifetime. And I myself have known 2 men in the last year to be diagnosed with this disease, both of whom I am happy to say are SURVIVORS! I am so glad I got the chance to take part in the event, and I was able to raise a total of $815 for Prostate Cancer Research at the Princess Margaret Hospital. Thanks again to everyone who sponsored me. Hopefully the fundraising we did today will make a big impact in one day developing a cure!  I know after seeing the turn out today I definitely feel inspired to help make a change!

So fellows, I am talking to you now - if you are over the age of 50 or maybe you have some bad genetics in your family too, you need to make sure you are doing the necessary screening required. Research has made this type of cancer very treatable as long as it is detected early. So don't hesitate to meet your own Darwinian failures head on!

Talk to you all again soon!
Love your favourite Darwinian Fail,

Friday, 1 April 2011

Starting the Day off Right!

Everyone always says breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so for Day 1 of my war against genetics I figured I had better start it off right!

I found this healthy alternative to your regular pancake recipe on the back of a pack of Organic Scottish Oatmeal. It sounds like a random purchase, and it kind of was. My husband is obsessed with English Premier League Soccer, and anyone who is a fan knows that in Canada to be able to get all of the games you have to subscribe to Setanta Sports. This channel is constantly on in our house, so I often subconsciously take in random facts even when I don't think I am really paying attention. The random fact that lead me in search of Scottish Oatmeal was that in an interview one of the coaches mentioned that many of the professional soccer players eat this before their games. It is extremely high in  fibre, and really filling, so it gives them enough energy to power through their 90 minute games. I figure if it good enough for them it is good enough for me.

I found Bob's Red Mill brand Organic Scottish Oatmeal at my neighbourhood Loblaws. I have yet to perfect making a delicious and nutritious bowl of oatmeal, but the pancake recipe on the back is Fabulous! It has all the same perks as the oatmeal - high in fibre, very filling, and no extra added preservatives or unwanted sugars. It basically a yummy way to start your morning, and is especially useful before a strenuous workout.

So to make a batch of pancakes you will need all of the above pictured materials...
* 1 1/4 cups of Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
* 3/4 cup Scottish Oatmeal
* 2 tsp Baking Powder
* 1 tsp Salt
* 1/2 tsp Baking Soda
* 1 1/2 cups of Buttermilk
* 2 Eggs (beaten)
* 1/4 cup Margarine (melted)

Mix all of your dry ingredients in a large bowl (flour, oatmeal, baking powder, salt, baking soda), then stir in the Buttermilk, the beaten eggs, and the melted margarine, and stir until smooth. Sometimes the oats can absorb too much of the liquid and the mixture can get too thick and kind of sticky looking. If this happens just add more Buttermilk. Make sure your pan is preheated before you begin, and the pancakes should take about 3-4 minutes each side. The second side always cooks faster!

This recipe makes about 10-12 pancakes - which is a ton! I would say 2-3 pancakes is a good size serving. I had 2 this morning and I am stuffed. So if you are only cooking for 1 or 2 people it probably makes sense to half the recipe. Once they are cooked you can use any type of toppings you like! I serve my pancakes topped with fresh Canadian Maple Syrup (which is in season right now by the way, and available at the Farmer's Market) and strawberries for Vitamin C!

Enjoy! Have Great Morning Everyone!
Love Your Favourite Darwinian Fail