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Choosing “Tragically Hips” as the name for her team in the annual Walk For Arthritis was a no-brainer for Brantford, ON-resident Jane Grant-Henderson. “Not only was The Tragically Hip my favourite band, but I liked the idea of having a punchy reference to my knee and hip replacement – which turned my life around.”

Maintain an upbeat attitude has been crucial for the 59-year-old single mother of four, who was diagnosed with osteoarthritis almost 20 years ago – and subsequently, rheumatoid arthritis as well.

When it came to choosing a name for her Walk for Arthritis team, Jane Grant-Henderson thought Tragically Hips was fitting.

Myths about arthritis are rampant – that it’s an “older person’s disease and there’s little one can do about the chronic illness that affects more than six million Canadians and one of every three women. (Grant-Henderson was in her late 30s and the mother of three adolescent children when she was diagnosed. Clearly, arthritis can strike anyone – at any time.) There are at least 100 types of arthritis, but the most common is osteoarthritis (OA). It’s a progressive disease that leads to the breakdown of joint cartilage and the underlying bone. Cartilage wears away, bones spurs can form, and joints rub against each other, which results in pain – often debilitating pain – inflammation, stiffness and difficult movement.

Grant-Henderson first realized something was wrong while playing baseball: “I kind of wiped out on third base and went to see a sports doctor, thinking I’d suffered a groin injury. Eventually I went to my family physician and, after a series of appointments, I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis.”

Interestingly, Grant-Henderson thought she might have rheumatoid arthritis, an additional diagnosis that came several years later. “I watched my mother suffer painfully for years from rheumatoid arthritis,” she says. “She endured everything from gold injections to hot wax baths for her hands.”

It takes a team to tackle arthritis

Thankfully, treatment has evolved – especially with respect to pain management. Few realize that pain limits the lives of 40 percent of Canadians who live with arthritis.  However, the baseball-loving Grant-Henderson hit a home run with her healthcare team: “I have an amazing rheumatologist, a family physician who’s up-to-date with arthritis information (not every doctor is, unfortunately), a supportive nurse practitioner, a great physiotherapist and an incredible surgeon who had the wisdom to determine hip and knee replacements were the course for me.” (In fact, 99 percent of knee replacements are caused by arthritis.)

The breadth of Grant-Henderson’s healthcare team is a reflection of how pervasively osteoarthritis attacks the body and derails people’s lives.

Communicating the far-reaching havoc of osteoarthritis has been a decades-long challenge, according to Dr. Gillian Hawker, professor and chair of medicine at the University of Toronto, and a clinician scientist in the division of rheumatology in the department of medicine, University of Toronto, where she has focused on the treatment of arthritis. “People with arthritis live with pain, often chronic pain on a daily basis, which can severely impact one’s ability to carry on with their career, or raise children,” explains Dr. Hawker. “With that round-the-clock pain comes lack of sleep and persistent fatigue – all of which can lead to depression and overall poor mental health. It’s a vicious circle.”

Let’s talk about arthritis!

What’s really needed is a groundswell of support to raise awareness and funds for arthritis research, says Janet Yale, president and CEO of the Arthritis Society (Canada). “Arthritis is a disease that swells, stiffens and can irreversibly damage any of the moveable joints in the human body. And osteoarthritis, which accounts for 75 percent of the diagnosed cases of arthritis, is often simply dismissed as a part of aging – and that’s so wrong and potentially harmful to the person who’s suffering. It’s vital that people understand that this disease results in inflammation that can affect internal organs and eyesight and can contribute to premature death or life-threatening diseases, such as heart disease or cancer. Canadians with arthritis are twice as likely to suffer mental heath problems compared to the larger population. And more than half of Canadian adults with arthritis are out of the workforce.”

“Osteoarthritis is often simply dismissed as a part of aging – and that’s so wrong and potentially harmful to the person who’s living with the life-altering disease.”

Thankfully, the Arthritis Society is doubling up its efforts to raise awareness and help those living with arthritis. Yale’s team operates a website that offers up-to-date information and resources – all vetted by professionals who are experts in the treatment of arthritis, especially osteoarthritis. “It’s important for Canadians to realize that you can cope with this form of arthritis – and that it’s okay to talk about your pain,” says Yale, “We’ve got to put an end to this grin-and-bear-it mentality.”

Another useful tool, one which Dr. Hawker encourages all Canadians to check out is the Arthritis Symptom Checker where people can determine if they’re prone to the disease.

Arthritis, a natural part of aging? Meh.

“While there’s been no magic bullet cure, there has been a dramatic change in our understanding of the disease and especially our understanding of pain,” says Dr. Hawker. “We now know that there are different kinds of pain at different stages of the disease. We’re better able to customize treatments and medication plans to help people – but we need to do more research and testing. Increased funding will help – immensely. We’re also working the College of Physicians to distribute a tool kit that will help doctors treat patients who are living with osteoarthritis.”

Earlier this year, the Arthritis Society updated its logo, replacing the long-standing blue bird with yellow crossfire wings. Said Yale, whose husband lives with arthritis yet golfs and cycles, “The new logo is designed to inspire with its sense of movement and motion – which are crucial for people living with arthritis.” Yale liked it so much she had it tattooed on her wrist. “For me, the wings say, ‘We’re going to help you. Lift you up with hope and inspiration.’” What better way to approach the pain of arthritis?

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Doug O'Neill
O’Neill, formerly Executive Editor of Canadian Living, writes on all manner of topics for a variety of Canadian publications – but has a preference for storytelling that gets to the heart of things. “Writing about journeys has always fascinated me,'” says contributor Doug O’Neill, “whether I’m scribbling about my own travels around the world or about other people’s inspiring journeys as they navigate from one life stage to another.”