Silver Ribbons for Us

I want to give you silver ribbons.

Want to wrap you in them, all silky smooth, and keep you safe.

Since there’s no doing that, please permit me, instead, to shine a light on the Silver Ribbon Coalition. Please let us put our heads together and  be mindful of the need for support of people with brain disorders and disabilities.

Why? Brain Canada reports, “One in three Canadians will be affected by a disease, a disorder or injury of the brain, spinal cord or nervous system at some point in their lives.”

In our global village, “More than 450 million people suffer from mental disorders,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). “Many more have mental problems.”

This is not you?

Don’t be afraid. My friend, wherever you live and whoever you are, this has everything to do with you and me. This is us.

Do you ever wonder how we share the same dreams, you and I? Of falling or flying or losing our teeth? Ever wonder how, when you describe your hurt, I can feel your pain from afar?

There is a life alphabet full of suffering:

Addiction; Alzheimer Disease; Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS); Anxiety; Autism; ADD; Bipolar Disorder; Brain Tumour and Injury; Cerebral Palsy;  Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; Concussions; Depression; Eating Disorders; Epilepsy; Fibromyalgia; Learning Disabilities; Migraines; Multiple Sclerosis; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Panic Disorder; Parkinson’s Disease; Phobias; Postpartum Depression; Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; Schizophrenia; Seasonal Affective Disorder; Sleep Disorders; Stroke; Stuttering and Tourette Syndrome are just some of the more common conditions.

In total, there are over 1,000 diseases, disorders and injuries related to the brain, spinal cord and nervous system.

It’s hard to fathom how such a little thing can cause such havoc. Weighing in at less than three pounds, the human brain is often described as the most complex living structure. Spongy like tofu, it’s loaded with neurons – about 100 billion of them – that communicate by way of biochemical signals in a network of synaptic connections. Imagine snap, crackle, pop – 24/7.

Movement, taste, emotion, memory, behavior, the capacity to reason – everything we can and can’t, we are and were – starts in that singular headquarters, tucked behind skull and skin and hair. Our brains are the boss of us.

No two are alike. (I’ve got one that doesn’t do math.) But they’re all delicate, vulnerable to disease and disorder, dysfunction, chemical imbalance and the stresses of life.

Our brains are the marvel of our existence, the brunt of our ignorance. They age and will fail us.

Mine got pickled, more than a few times, courtesy of wineskin concoctions and magnums of Baby Duck. (The neurons are officially thankful that, on various occasions, bottles froze and exploded in my friends’ parents’ freezers.) I’m also sure I was one of the countless kids who sucked on lead from cheap jewellery. Stress? Aspartame? Ouch. Brain cells shrivel.

A multitude of factors — genes,  life circumstances, environmental toxins,  infections, head injury, trauma, poverty and more —  impact what goes on and goes awry upstairs.  We are not immune, you and I.

Still, I think often, now, of the power of the internet to connect and enlighten us.  To heal. When people such as Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess), Allie, Nicki and others share their personal stories, the response is overwhelming and empowering.

There is much we can do, collectively, to eliminate stigma, raise public awareness and support treatment and research.

Together, we can CHANGE MINDS.


Any wonder why obesity is a growing health issue?

Two, four, six, eight, 10, 12, 14, 16, bang. Run up 16 steps at Walter Baker Sports Centre and there they are – signs advertising “food” in the second-floor café.

Is there any wonder why obesity is a growing health issue?

Kids and parents flock to the facility in Ottawa’s west end to be active, get fit and feel good. They take swimming and skating lessons, splash in the pools, play hockey and ringette, work out in the gym, hit the squash court or take one of numerous fitness classes. Then, presumably, they’re encouraged to head upstairs for a hot dog and fries. It’s the sort of mixed message that’s pervasive in North American life: Come have unhealthy food at our facility devoted to healthy pursuits.

In June, when the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Information were rolling out the Obesity in Canada report, kids in high schools were rolling out of the classrooms and waddling down to the cafeteria for poutine and burgers, fries and chocolate bars. That’s what was available – served, even – to our children at Ontario secondary schools just six weeks ago.

Adolescents as young as 12 were taking notes and being tested, in phys ed class, on Canada’s Food Guide, then heading down to the school lunch room and lining up to eat deep fried, nutrient-free garbage.

Enough of that. In 2010, the Ontario Ministry of Education announced a new School Food and Beverage policy, with nutrition standards, and all publicly funded schools must comply by September 1, 2011. Not only will cafeteria menus change, so will the food and drink choices at vending machines. (It remains to be seen how healthy and appetizing the new options will be.)

The deep fryer has finally been kicked out of school – and it’s well past time.  According to the Obesity in Canada report:

  • Nearly nine percent of kids aged six to 17 are obese, as are about one in four Canadian adults.
  • Since 1981, obesity rates have pretty much doubled in most age groups.
  • The economic costs are over $7 billion when based on costs connected to chronic, obesity-related diseases.
  • Type 2 diabetes, asthma, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, chronic back pain, colorectal, kidney, breast, endometrial, ovarian and pancreatic cancers, hypertension, stroke, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease are health conditions associated with obesity.

Regardless, there’s no shortage of families queuing up to place orders at drive-through windows. A recent article at says youngsters are consuming a whole lot of fast food – even when they’re at home. More Kids Eating High Calorie Takeout Food, New Study points out that research, conducted at the University of North Carolina, shows a third of the food kids eat is cooked outside the home and is high in calories, salt and sugar.

It’s easy to point an increasingly chubby finger at high-profile fast food chains.  Mention the brand McDonald’s and health conscious folks condemn the golden arches for everything from corporate doublespeak to marketing to kids.

But focusing on Happy Meals obscures the facts. Meal and snack options for kids are unhealthy at a lot of places. Take your kids to any so-called family restaurant and nine times out of 10, the kids’ menu will include fries, burgers, chicken nuggets and possibly white pasta with canned sauce. The big difference? Instead of a toy tied to a blockbuster Hollywood movie, you get crayons and a placemat for colouring.

At home, when you switch on the T.V., you might see an attractive, loving mother serve a home-cooked meal to some darling youngsters. It’s a Kraft commercial. There’s mom buttering white bread, then covering it with processed cheese slices for grilled cheese sandwiches. Healthy? Not really.

Walk down the middle aisles at a grocery store or a main aisle at a department store such as Walmart and you’ll notice prominent, eye-catching displays of confectionary items that manage to load chemicals, fat, salt and sugar all in the same bright, kid-appealing packages. After all, there’s huge money in selling junk to eat. The profit-driven marketing machine that propels the kiddie treat, fast food and diet industries feeds on the cash from our wallets.

But what about the public places supported through our tax dollars? They’re dishing out junk too. How many children regularly load up on empty calories from the canteen at the rink, community centre or public fitness facility?

Any time, food is loaded with more than nutrients and calories. It also represents family, nurturing, culture, tradition, pleasure, hospitality, comfort. Too often we know, in this fast-forward era, comfort comes by way of a Double Stackers Value Meal consumed in a moving car.

That’s why there’s no easy fix for what’s eating our super-sized kids. Family circumstances and environmental factors have as much to do with obesity as appetite or lack of physical activity. If your own parent(s) served pop tarts for breakfast, Kraft Dinner for lunch and TV dinners for supper, it’s that much harder to feed your kids well and to teach them about nutrition. Lack of money, education, time, energy, personal experience and know-how all impact parents’ ability to make healthy food choices for their kids.

However, much can be done to make it easier, including changes in public policy. Kids from low-income families should have the opportunity to participate in organized sports and physical activities. Many are cost prohibitive.

And ditching the deep fryers and candy machines at school is just a first step in walking the talk about wellness and nutrition. They should be axed from community centres and public sports facilities as well. That would be another big step in a healthier direction.

Skin Cancer and Scars

It was a mapping exercise in downtown Ottawa. Kids in geography class were going on a school trip to identify landmarks in the capital city: Parliament Hill, Byward Market, Canadian Museum of Nature, the Rideau Canal and others. I shook my head at it, signed the permission slip, handed over the cheque, looked down.

Now there is a map.

My skin tells its own story, a lesson in personal history.

Here and there wrinkled, freckled, etched with both frown and smile lines, it is a surface of many colours, translucent enough to reveal the pale blue crisscross of veins beneath. Blood travels in there. Paths meet. I live.

Slopes make way for valleys slipping into ridges smoothing into plains with hilly whirls of elbows and knees mottled reddish. Age spots, moles and fields of uneven terrain are trail markers that reveal passage of time and the forces of nature. My favourites of these points of interest are the scars. The one on a knee was first, courtesy of a two-wheeler bike and pavement that came up to meet me. Stitches were powder blue, made of thread, a discovery: Doctors can sew.

Next one is hidden in an eyebrow that connected with a brick chimney as cousins played hide and seek indoors in the dark. A diagonal fault line on my left shoulder tells the tale of a horse and a rock and a teen flying sideways. The pizza soup scar is crescent shaped on an index finger. Marking the sharp edge of adulthood, it is a reminder of friends, my mother’s kitchen and the danger of cooking. Palest mauve and vertical, the fleshpost on a shin comes from New Hampshire, rough water and a leap that missed its mark.

This latest scar of mine is an anomaly. I chose it, then it chose me back. It is a sign, I think, of now. After reading a story about skin cancer by Jen Maier, at, I went to a doctor’s office, lay on the exam table, slipped down the sleeve of my shirt. Young, fair, curly haired, freckled himself, the doctor talked to me about being a stay-at-home dad, with two preschoolers and one on the way, as he slipped in the needle to freeze the flesh, then cut away the mole on my right shoulder. His wee daughter plays in the land of Disney princesses, he told me.

Next appointment was different. Scar was healing pink, but soon as I got to the waiting room, a nurse whisked me away. She was wearing scrubs, directing me to a small day surgery room, telling me to don a gown. No Cinderella here. Next one rolled around a metal cart, placed a picnic-style cloth full of instruments, added packets of sterile utensils. It was cold. A surgical light glared overhead as I stretched back on the table while they prepped and placed and swabbed, scurrying about. Orchestral music floated in my head. Pee-wee Herman was the surgeon, or so it seemed. Exuberant, childlike, burbling on a bit, he advised:  “Don’t worry.”

“I’m not,” I told him. “Dig. Go ahead.”

Age marks us. Time claims us. An ever-present reminder, this skin is a map to the future.

My beautiful aunt, belle of balls, once princess of my imagination, eventually poured boiled water into china cups because she could not remember to put tea in the pot. She wandered, unknowing, as did my father – when he managed to press a combination of buttons and leave the locked ward. On a winter’s day, he walked away in his slippers. Dad always was good with numbers.

I wonder that we mask our skin, I mask my skin, with social armour, as though numbers in a bank account, letters after names, corner offices with windows or artisanal niceties can protect us from our selves.

There is no hiding, I believe. Time won’t be denied, nor will skin. But scars, beautiful as signs of life and healing, remind me to wear glass slippers, watch for pumpkins after midnight and keep talking to the dog.

Are you concerned about skin cancer? A history of sunburns? Suspicious moles? Make an appointment now to get checked and get the facts about sun safety.

She was Just Like You

She was a young mom running around after a little kid. Her laugh was big, her legs were skinny and she was enthused about getting up in the morning – even if it was a couple of hours too early, thanks to a toddler.  Life as a stay-at-home mom was going along full tilt that summer on the Phanenhours’ farm.

Until her leg went numb in the bathtub. It was strange, but she wasn’t one to fuss about stuff, so when it got going again, so did she. There were clothes to wash and cookies to bake and a wee boy needing attention.

After she fell a couple of times and the numbness revisited, she headed for the doctor, an older gent who treated her like a daughter. It took awhile and probably lots of tests until somebody figured out what was going on. The name Multiple Sclerosis didn’t mean anything. She didn’t know what it was.

Multiple Sclerosis, also called MS, is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).  It attacks the myelin sheath, which covers and protects the nerves. When myelin is damaged, nerve impulses slow or stop.

My mother was about 24 years old. She had a child still in diapers. It was 1955.

Five years later, when she found out she was pregnant with me, she broke the  news to her own mother. Grandma, anxious about her health, told mom to go to bed. She probably had the flu.

Wrong answer. The Irish lass from the Ottawa Valley was having none of that. Not the flu – or MS either, for that matter.

She wanted a girl – and she got one. There wasn’t much that would stop her – certainly not some disease dancing a tune on her central nervous system. Back then, she didn’t know what we know now:

  •  Canada has one of the world’s highest MS rates.
  • Usually diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 40, it is the most common neurological disease of young Canadian adults.
  • Women are affected more than three times as often as men.

Just like my mom, every year people — often young mothers — get the news they have MS.

There is no cure yet, but there is plenty of research underway. I’m glad about that, since MS – and other autoimmune diseases – seem to run in my family. In the decades after my mother’s diagnosis, two other relatives found out they have the disease.

Thankfully, scientists are working hard to root out causes, risk factors, preventive measures and treatments. Just this spring, the Canadian government announced a monitoring system to identify disease patterns and follow treatments as well as long-term outcomes. For people with Multiple Sclerosis and their loved ones, there is plenty of hope.

Each year, the MS Society of Canada designates May as MS Awareness Month. The aim is to increase awareness and mobilize efforts to end MS. There’s good reason for that.

Eventually, my mother couldn’t get up in the morning at all.

She lived large though, laughed hard, cheered loudly. She taught me if you can’t dance with your legs you dance with your arms.

My mother loved balloons.

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