Saturday, April 11, 2015

Perceived Lead to Gold: The Real Value of a Liberal Arts Education

In the fall of 2013, my wife and I were completing our portfolios to graduate with our Masters of Sociology. Her step-father brought us an article from a national newspaper, the title of which read something like, "The Top 10 Worst-Paying College Degrees to Have." Including my Masters of Sociology, I had three of the top 10 "worst college degrees" on their list, all of them in Liberal Arts. These articles proliferate occasionally, especially with the advent of social media where a lot of this sort of information gets disseminated widely and without a lot of close examination. I found one such article on, a reputable source. I am not suggesting that these articles are not well vetted or "truthy", merely that this is not the whole story. A Liberal Arts education/degree is so much more than just what the degree states.  We will have to dig a little bit deeper to find the golden opportunities for these majors...

There is a lot of angst within the Liberal Arts community - and rightly so. We are in the midst of a crisis of conscience of sorts when it comes to a Liberal Arts education and some pretty smart people are beginning to weigh in. ran an article in 2011, asking if we should "kill the liberal arts degree", suggesting that in a highly competitive and technically skill-driven economy it is going to become much more difficult for candidates with philosophy and writing degrees to find competitive work opportunities. The Salon article references an even more bleak 2011 article from the New York Times which suggested that "...The median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who entered the work force in 2006 to 2008...That is a decline of 10 percent, even before taking inflation into account." The numbers don't lie; even if you come from a very prestigious school with an immaculate academic resume and a quality four-year degree, it is doubtful that a fruitful economic work opportunity will land in your lap upon graduation, even under the best of conditions.

Dr. Fareed Zakaria, who is something of a journalistic hero of mine, came on as a guest to WBUR Boston's OnPoint radio program this month to argue the virtues of Liberal Arts education - of which there are many! In the introduction to his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Dr. Zakaria writes that college enrollment has been growing exponentially over the past decades (good!), but not across all college majors (which is not so good). As he points out, "...English and philosophy has declined sharply. In 1971, for example, 7.6 percent of all bachelor's degrees were awarded in English language and literature. By 2012, that number had fallen to 3.0 percent. During that same period, the percentage of business majors in the undergraduate population rose from 13.7 to 20.5...". You do not have to be Dr. Fareed Zakaria to understand why students are flocking to business and finance, but as he states in his book, "As you can see, we do not have an oversupply of students studying history, literature, philosophy, or physics and math for that matter. A majority is specializing in fields because they see them as directly related to the job market..." And there is the rub! I cannot tell you how much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth I have experienced as the result of being a professional with three Liberal Arts degrees and tens of thousands in student loan debt to pay. What should someone who is attracted to the Liberal Arts do? Should creative and liberally-minded authors and artists trade in for degrees in seemingly fruitful fields like accounting and engineering? 
I recently read an article in The Atlantic (December 2014), entitled "Death of the Artist - and Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur", which gave a compressed history of art and its status evolutions from artisan trade to vessel of eternal truth and beauty and, more recently, its subsequent decline back to artisan commodity. The essence of the article is that in the "pre-art era", art was a functional commodity which was utilized as a craft.  After this, the idea of art was a master status which imbued the best of creativity and skill to translate radiant truth. In this case, radiant truth was the territory of the Roman Catholic Church and its benefactors and a great deal of the commissioned art from the Enlightenment and Romantic periods was commissioned by those who wanted to reinforce artists as translators of the divine. And so it began...

There is a groundswell of support for us to change the discussion from "field specialization", as Dr. Zakaria sees it, toward a model that will really suit both the 21st century workforce and the people who have a propensity for creative thinking. This change in the climate of collegiate training is coming from the Career Services offices, not necessarily from the Liberal Arts colleges themselves. Andy Chan is the Vice President for Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. Mr. Chan gave a TED Talk in May of 2013 entitled, "Career Services Must Die." Mr. Chan suggests that the way we approach career services and career development in college must change - and I agree, as does Dr. Kelli Smith, Director of University Career Services at the Fleishman Center for Career and Professional Development at Binghamton University. Dr. Smith writes about Mr. Chan's TED talk and the subsequent changes coming for Career Services at the NACE blog. What Mr. Chan is eluding to and Dr. Smith is trumpeting is the Rethinking Success Movement, a Wake Forest University initiative that has become an emerging model for career placement at the college level.

There is some evidence to support the course that the Rethinking Success Movement is plotting. The traditional idea of Career Services at colleges and universities was to match students with promising job leads by working with industry partners in the local, regional, and national workforce. The problem with this traditional model is that the 21st century workforce is being changed and challenged by advances in technology and application, creating new job sectors and job opportunities which might not fit tidily into a single major.  So what should academia and industry do to find new ways of meeting increasingly complex work and career problems? One suggestion comes from Mr. Chan, his colleagues and the Rethinking Success model. They posit that the answer to this problem comes in the form of vision or, more precisely, adding vision to the training that students are receiving as they progress academically. The Rethinking Success model from Wake Forest University suggests that "more schools are incorporating experiential learning and 'outside of the classroom' experiences to help students transition from an academic setting to real world application." Adding vision for students in  Liberal Arts majors as they progress in their college career will enable them to better see how application matters in regard to what they are learning as much as the academic theory, style, structure, and other tenants that they receive in their classwork do. In the 2013 Rethinking Success conference report, Mr. Chan relates the stark environment facing Liberal Arts Career Placement professionals when he states, "Low job placement rates and ever-increasing tuition price tags opened the door for critics to portray liberal arts institutions as overpriced and under-delivering. In conjunction, some national leaders, especially those in politics, called for increased vocational education that would correlate directly to a line of work and the elimination of academic degrees that they declared worthless." That sounds pretty dire - and it would be, if there were no solutions. Fortunately for those of us in the Liberal Arts community, we are much more than fluffy BA degrees in a down market.

Another argument for making Liberal Arts degrees more marketable is to create Generalists, or people who have knowledge and applied training and experience in multiple fields of study. There is a lot of reason to believe that this will be a strong model moving forward, as well. One might think that recognizing the need for "generalists" in practice may come from the Liberal Arts' attempt to make themselves more valuable to perspective employers when, in fact, it came from the legal industry. In William Henderson's essay, Three Generations of U.S. Lawyers: Generalists, Specialists, Project Managers, Mr. Henderson tells of the history of "generalist" lawyers. What is interesting about his essay is that it is not written strictly for academic or historical context but rather in response to current economic conditions in the current job market, as he states,
"As this Essay is being written, the legal services industry is in the midst of a significant economic recession. In response to harsh economic conditions, the nation’s corporate clients have tightened their legal budgets and altered their spending habits. As a result, large law firms, who in recent years hired roughly twenty-five percent of all law school graduates, have dramatically cut the sizes of their incoming associate classes.

"In turn, highly qualified law school graduates have expanded their job searches to markets and to employers that are normally reserved for the broad middle tier of law school graduates. As the downturn cascades through the entire entry-level market, a disturbingly large number of recent law school graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. Although many of us who are middle aged or older can remember prior economic recession." 
Henderson touts the forward thinking of Paul Cravath of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, LLP in his development of junior lawyers in the early 20th century. According to Henderson, "One important part of the Cravath system was an incentive structure that rewarded lawyers for working together as a team for the benefit of clients". These generalist attorneys would share information, best practices, and experience for the benefit of the firm's clients and in turn strengthened the skill sets of the firm's attorneys.  Cravath also felt that should these junior lawyers choose to leave the firm to start their own practice or work for someone else, they would have a well-rounded and "generalist" understanding and practice of law that would benefit the community as whole  - all of which was a win/win. 

This built-in flexibility does not apply only to the legal field; other professional fields are picking up the mantle of generalist thinking in other industries, as well.  Bio-medicine and applied Biology would appear to be the gold standard of STEM training, which has recently become the hottest of academic career fields. However, even some professionals in Molecular Biology are calling for their students and practitioners to see beyond the microscope and look at how their training could benefit different fields of study and practice. According to a journal article written by Regis B. Kelly and Douglas Crawford for the National Institute of Health, there is also a need for generalists in their field if they intend to remain relevant.  As they point out,
"Universities are without peer in their ability to discover the fundamental principles of science and are responsible for much innovation in our society. The creativity and nimbleness of their science is unfortunately not matched by equal creativity and nimbleness in administration and management. Although service innovation is now widely seen as contributing to economic growth and addressing societal needs as effectively as science innovation, universities in general continue to operate using time-honored, unchallenged principles. This must change. We need to evaluate how effectively we perform our public mission, and whether our exclusive focus on specialization precludes our usefulness."
If Law and Bio-Medicine can see the benefit of expanding their roles to re-purpose their expertise for other work, why can't Liberal Arts? In part, the answer may be an unwillingness to change. For some academics and students, "slumming for paychecks" is beneath their highly valued ideals, but it need not be that way at all. Liz Coleman gave one of the most compelling and cogent TED Talk is regarding the ethereal and literal value of a Liberal Arts education in the 21st century. President Coleman had been at the helm of Bennington College for over 25 years and had seen many changes and developments in higher education by the time of her retirement at the end of 2012. However, it was not her past experience in higher education which was her focus but rather its future. She is one of the most sincere voices calling for Liberal Arts to shake its fear of inconsequential status and find its voice - here and now! 

Fareed Zakaria, Andy Chan, and Liz Coleman are coming from different perspectives but are all facing the same way - toward the future. These leaders and many others are seeking to empower Liberal Arts majors and graduates to engage them in the process of creating their own futures. Vision and a cross-disciplinary approach are just two of the ideas being propagated to improve our students and, in the process, our society. If we fail as academic mentors, advisors, and instructors, we are doing a disservice to a generation of Liberal Arts students who have a great deal to offer the world about humanities, ethics, creativity, and ingenuity - and that is not the future we want.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Millennials: Best. Generation. Ever?

I was watching Melissa Harris Perry on MSNBC this morning. She was hosting an extended segment on her show to interview four millennials about one of their favorite generational topics: themselves. The conversation hovered around this central idea: Are millennials going to be the generation that "changes the game" as the largest cohort in human history or are they a lot of generational hype? The jury is out and will be for quite some time.

I paused the program this morning (to fetch a second cup of coffee) and when I returned, I found that I had captured this happy accident (see above!) It is Dr. Melissa Harris Perry, professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University popping up in the background to introduce the next segment with her millennial panel and in the foreground are four millennials, seen in what has been found to be their natural habitat: Looking at their phones

As millennials have reached a "critical age"also known as emerging adulthood, they are being criticized as the generation which will ruin humanity as we have known and enjoyed it until now. As recently as the early 1940s, Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D. published his watershed book, Seduction of the Innocent which laid bare the negative effects comic books had on the minds of emerging youths. Dr Wertham famously wrote that "Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed - a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems - the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child's natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic' magazine" ( The prevailing wisdom of our elder statesmen was that comic books were ruining young minds by polluting their innocence with images of graphic sex and violence. This case went as far as a Senate subcommittee in 1954, wherein Dr. Wertham testified that comic books were linked to juvenile delinquency. The charges filed against comic books issued an era of regulation via the Comics Code Authority which has endured until 2011, as a bar against inappropriate material reaching impressionable minds. 

With such moral safeguards in place, America had salvaged a generation from the abyss...that is until...Rock n Roll. "Elvis the pelvis" and his lot brought a new generation of morally questionable content into family living rooms, via black and white television and by the time that "Beetle-mania" had reached America's shores, there was little doubt that all would be lost on a generation of ignoramus-moptops with "no more sense than God gave a turnip" - this would be the generation that would kill or destroy us all. (It is interesting to note though, that the generation that literally nearly killed us all was the "Greatest Generation" with the atomic bomb). One reason that this generation of up and comers in the 1950s and 1960s is so interesting to us demographically speaking is because they were the largest generational cohort to date: the "Baby Boom" generation. According to, "More babies were born in 1946 than ever before. 3.4 million, 20 percent more than in 1945...In 1947, another 3.8 million babies were born; 3.9 million were born in 1952; and more than 4 million were born every year from 1954 until 1964, when the boom finally tapered off."

This is obviously a major happening in human history and development, particularly at a time when the United States was left as the only super-power standing "economically unscathed" upon exiting World War II. The boomers have changed many aspects of life as they have encountered them. The youth and sexual revolutions in the late 1960s, proliferation of drug use and greed in the 1970s and 80s as well as their standards regarding aging and wealth are unprecedented, leading up to today. According to the U.S. Census, "this cohort is projected to continue to influence characteristics of the nation in the years to come. The baby boomers began turning 65 in 2011 and are now driving growth at the older ages of the population. By 2029, when all of the baby boomers will be 65 years and over, more than 20 percent of the total U.S. population will be over the age of 65." If American life were to diminish along with the Baby Boomers, then there would be nothing left to say, but there is - because we have another generation that is coming out that will be even larger and more impressive then that Baby Boom generation...or so we are told.

As we can see from the above chart, the "Boomers" at age 48-66 as of 2012 were the largest cohort in (known) human history with 75.6 million. My generation, "Gen X" came in at a measly 54 million and now we have the Millenials rising in the ranks of young adulthood with 76.6 million, edging out the baby boomers, which brings us back to our original point. Melissa Harris Perry is not the only scholarly mind who is closely watching this developing generation of thinkers, consumers, and leaders. In fact, there are reams of data regarding all things millenial, including: 
  1. What do they want?
  2. How do they communicate?
  3. How do they shop?
  4. How much time do they spend watching television?
  5. How often do they go to church?
  6. Do they marry?
  7. What do they think about current affairs?
  8. What are their career aspirations and desires?
  9. Will this finally be the generation that drives us off the "societal cliff"?
As has been previously stated, the jury remains out. Not only are millennials the largest cohort in history they also have some other significant and distinctive features. According to the Pew Research Center, the following are also true of these newly and soon-to-be minted adults:

  • They are the most ethnically and racially diverse cohort of youth in the nation’s history. Among those ages 13 to 29: 18.5% are Hispanic; 14.2% are black; 4.3% are Asian; 3.2% are mixed race or other; and 59.8%, a record low, are white.They are the first generation in human history who regard behaviors like tweeting and texting, along with websites like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Wikipedia, not as astonishing innovations of the digital era, but as everyday parts of their social lives and their search for understanding.
  • They are more inclined toward trust in institutions than were either of their two predecessor generations — Gen Xers (who are now ages 30 to 45) and Baby Boomers (now ages 46 to 64) when they were coming of age

It is the third fact which is most troubling to our once touted "ruffian" now turned elder statesmen themselves Baby Boomers - technology. This will the first generation to come of age with high speed internet. With this high-powered technology comes access to more information from more sources then ever before! But what does this mean?! With all of the worlds knowledge, and access to more data and sources than ever before, will this be the generation which will truly realize its societal potential?! Maybe. It would appear that "technology" has become the "Elvis the pelvis" of this generation. Smart phones have become the "comic book" surge of generations past and iPads are the Rock n Roll nonsense which will rot kids brains! Why think and remember when you can "Google" the answer. And while part of this is hyperbole, there this some fact in the mix. 

Nicholas Carr in a 2008 article from The Atlantic Monthly asked, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Which is not a stupid question, but what Mr. Carr was asking was more of a existential congnitive reckoning than a biological phenomenon. Is technology changing our biology? Will this generation be the first to be physically changed by the internet? Maybe. Evolutionary biologists have determined that while we have larger brains than neanderthals, that our human ancestors had more grey matter. Who cares? I will just Google it to find out the answer, a millennial might say... The fact is that it is grey matter is the part of the brain that reacts to sensory and motor information form the nerve endings in the body, but it is also where our brain structures and categorizes information. Neanderthals needed more grey matter because everything that they needed to know had to remain "upstairs". There was no outsourcing their thoughts and memories onto a stone tablet or cave wall for later recollection, much less an app that would allow them to make to do lists, capitalize on an extended social network and browse news archives with such ease as is accessed in a smart phone today. US News and World Report reported earlier this year that it is true - smart phones are changing our brains. "Using a smartphone physically alters the human brain, a new study finds. By swiping through Angry Birds or Twitter or Tinder or Facebook with one’s thumbs – appendages that have allowed humans to build and grasp tools and triumph over all other species on planet Earth – certain regions of the brain will grow larger, researchers say." Does this mean that we are all becoming smarted due to increased access to technology or...uh...less smarter? There is no real answer to this. What this means in actual terms is that this generation, the millennial generation is the first "truly native" digital generation and their connectivity to and interaction with internet technology will make them different from any generation that has come before - for the better or the worse. 

Isn't this all enough to make your head hurt? Well wait, there's more. While the newest generation, Gen We, Not as large or as powerful as Generation millennial, but this group has their own technological neurosis attached to their reliance and development with technology as well. The Atlantic published an extensive article in 2013 titled The Touchscreen Generation, which rightly asked: Are iPads making our toddlers stupid? What is our societal precept with stupidity, as though there is a single "magic bullet" for generational ignorance. Anyway, the questions asked by Hannah Rosen, a mother herself who worried about the amount of time her little ones were using their iPads came away with a surprising answer - According to researchers  iPads are actually making kids smarter and along with the collective sigh of relief that iPads aren't "bad" for children, Ms. Rosen came away with a similar perspective on generational angst...

"Every new medium has, within a short time of its introduction, been condemned as a threat to young people. Pulp novels would destroy their morals, TV would wreck their eyesight, video games would make them violent. Each one has been accused of seducing kids into wasting time that would otherwise be spent learning about the presidents, playing with friends, or digging their toes into the sand. In our generation, the worries focus on kids’ brainpower, about unused synapses withering as children stare at the screen. People fret about television and ADHD, although that concern is largely based on a single study that has been roundly criticized and doesn’t jibe with anything we know about the disorder."

Will millennials be the greatest generation to date? Probably not. They have been criticized as being narcissistic, coddled, self-absorbed, short-attention spanned, over-indoctrinated, and over-medicated. To be honest though, I do not believe that our fear is that the next generation will let us down as much as the fear that we have let them down already. With age comes wisdom, which can only be earned through the experiences, hardships, and mistakes that come with growing up - the hard way - the only way there is. 

Editors note:

I wrote a blog entry on June 17, 2011 about how 1 in 5 people on the planet are under the age of 25

I wrote a blog entry on June 18, 2011 regarding the number of hours children will spend online growing up.

Finally, I wrote a blog entry on June 30, 2011 regarding the effect violent video games can have on the minds of players

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Killer Heartburn

This is a picture of my Dad, Bob McAteer. This was his favorite portage of himself - healthy, poised, and full of vitality. He was a dear, sweet, intelligent, and polished man. Unfortunately, he lost his battle with esophageal cancer at the end of November, 2012. In the end, he looked nothing like this man; cancer had taken him completely apart in less than six months after his initial diagnosis. This post is dedicated to his life and memory, not the way that he passed away...

It is fitting that this essay should start with my father since he had esophageal cancer specifically. While the American Cancer Society notes that there are a variety of factors which can cause esophageal cancer, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, it is likely caused by changed in DNA. DNA or Deoxyribonucleic acid are the building blocks of life and "the instructions for how our cells function,"( What is often the case and is likely the case in most esophageal cancer is that the DNA in the esophagus is changed from a (oncogene) "tumor suppressing gene" to a tumor-producing gene. This is not true of all cancers, but is definitely a factor in this particular type of cancer. While some cancers have a genetic predisposition, like breast cancer, this particular form of cancer "does not seem to run in families, and inherited gene mutations are not thought to be a major cause of this disease,"(

Cancer, as a disease has been with us for a very, very long time. There is some archeological evidence from the "Ebers papyrus", named after the gentleman, George Ebers who discovered it in the 19th century between the legs of a mummy, that the ancient Egyptians had encountered cancer. The papyrus is dated from approx. 1534 BC, the rein of Amenhotep I. The papyrus references "tumors in the soft tissue" which would likely indicate that the papyrus contained treatment and remedies for said tumors. Since there is no archeological evidence to support the oncological diagnosis, it is impossible to say if the Egyptians who what cancer was or if they knew how to treat it properly. It was reported earlier this year by the BBC that the skeleton of a young Egyptian man, 1200 BC, which predates the Ebers papyrus may have died from aggressive cancer, but again, it is impossible to say how much the ancient Egyptians knew about cancer and oncological study.

Oncology or the study and treatment of cancer was not developed until 1761, "when Giovani Morgani of Padua was the first to perform autopsies and pathologic findings after death. This laid the foundation for scientific study of cancer" (American Cancer Society). The development of more complex medical and scientific instruments (microscope) in the 19th century brought about developments in understanding the structure of cancer.

And while cancer is nothing new to civilization and the advances in medical treatment have brought about miraculous treatment and survival rates for cancers of all types, this does not mean that cancer is a disease of the past - it is ever present! The following is a complete list of the most common forms of cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute

Notice that esophageal cancer is not in the top 13 types of cancer listed here. In fact, Lung cancer is still the most frequently diagnosed cancer with 224,210 followed by Prostate cancer with affects 233,000+ men every year.  This list of cancers might be surprising to some and not to others. The fact that lung cancer kills 2.5X the number of people that breast cancer does annually, but receives little media coverage or awareness. In fact, pancreatic cancer kills more people than melanoma, breast cancer, and leukemia, but does not garner the same amount of attention. 

And to be honest, unless my father was diagnosed with and passed away from esophageal cancer, 
I probably would not be that conceded with this type of cancer myself or be aware of the warning signs as I am now. 

That's not to say that esophageal cancer is something not to worry about, it is! Especially if you are a man. A noted above, esophageal cancer does not have a strong connection via heredity, but it does have a strong correlation with lifestyle factors - such as drinking, smoking, and consistent and periodic heartburn. It is the last risk that we believe caused my father's cancer. For years, as a child, I remember him making "Alka Seltzer cocktails" at night to combat heartburn.  *It is important to note that heartburn is a periodic symptom of acid "splashing" out of your stomach, wherein acid reflux disease is a much more serious condition, typically caused by a hiatal hernia and may require surgery to correct. In any case, heartburn is very common in our population and is typically harmless if treated accordingly. According to
  • 25 million adults suffer from heartburn on a daily basis
  • Experts estimate that 40% of adults experience heartburn monthly
  • 65% of people who get daytime heartburn will also experience it at night
This last statistic from the web site is the most interesting to me because it strikes at what is the most common cause of heartburn in the population - over-eating, eating spicy food, and eating too late at night, and according to, "94% of adults surveyed believed over-eating is a heartburn cause." It is difficult to speculate, without being largely presumptive as to why esophageal cancer is much for frequently diagnosed in men over women and in African-American men over Caucasian men. The American Cancer Society, American Cancer Institute, and The Society of Thoracic Surgeons all recognize that there is a disparity in esophageal cancer when it comes to gender, with men taking 3/4 of all diagnoses, but they all fall short of addressing why this is. While a less reputable source, does take a stab at an answer of sorts, including: excessive alcohol use, smoking, not eating enough fruits and vegetables, and being overweight as reasons why men might be more susceptible than women. While all of these are possible factors when looking at a cancer that attacks the part of the body necessary for ingestion, it is still rather unsatisfying.

According to a Gallup poll regarding alcohol consumption, "40% of Americans reported having had with men generally drinking a bit more than women, but not drastically so. Furthermore, the Gallup poll reports that "one in five drinkers - representing 14% of all U.S. adults - say they sometimes drink too much. The rates are particularly high among men and younger adults, making younger men the most at risk of this behavior." This is of particular interest when looking at Barrett's Esophagus, which is a condition which can precede esophageal cancer, wherein the lining of the esophagus is changes from "esophageal cells" to "stomach lining cells" due to excessive acid reflux. My Dad's cancer was not diagnosed until it had already progressed substantially, but it appeared that he had developed Barrett's Esophagus prior to Esophageal Cancer. One of the tell-tale symptoms of Barrett's esophagus would be when one experiences heartburn over a long period and suddenly ceases to. While this might be a symptom of relief at first, it is actually a "red flag" in that it means that your body has changed the cells of the bottom of your esophagus to stomach lining cells in an attempt to prevent further damage to your body! To say this in fewer words - it is a faulty repair to your system

Tobacco use or (smoking) is another factor which can lead to esophageal cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "an estimated 42.1 million or 18% of all adults (aged 18 years or older), in the United States smokes cigarettes." According to the same CDC report, cigarette smoking is more common among men over women, but only by 5% (men over women) - not a drastic difference and not enough of a difference to attribute smoking as a factor for esophageal cancer in my mind.  

This leads us to two of the last areas that have been marked as significant, according to eating fruits and vegetables and weight issues. Much to my surprise, the National Library of Medicine has a list (provided by the American Cancer Society) that prescribes diets for differing types of cancers, including breast, prostate, rectal, and esophageal. According to the list, folks who wish to reduce their risk of stomach and esophageal cancer should, "eat at least 2 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables daily. Lower your intake of processed meats, smoked, nitrate-cured, and salt-preserved foods, get regular physical activity, and maintain a health body weight." It is tempting to believe and it is sometime purported that some diets and "super foods" can reduce or prevent cancer altogether. In fact, Cancer Research UK in the United Kingdom reports that "the link between diet and cancer is complex and often difficult to unravel. This is because our diet is made up of lots of different foods and nutrients. Many of these could affect our risk of cancer, often in combination with one another." Cancer Research UK also reports that they are in the process of sorting out the results of a HUGE study of over 500,000 people from 10 European countries to discover more discernible links between cancer and diet, but the results of that study are not available at the time of this article. Given this information, I would have to say that while there is a possible link between diet and weight, there is not a strong link between obesity and cancer, as far as men are concerned since African-American women are at the highest risk of obesity in the United States, followed by Latino men. 

Where does this leave us? Inconclusive. There is some evidence that there is a discernible link between cancer and lifestyle, but just as much as esophageal cancer as there is for breast, rectal, and stomach cancers. My father was a heavy smoker and drinker when he was young. Could those habits, while ceased for over 40 years prior to his passing have sealed his fate? Could the sins of the 20-something come back to haunt the elderly? I hope not. More than that, I hope that we find better ways of detecting and treating esophageal cancer. I would never wish his health condition on anyone - cancer is cruel - always cruel. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Breast Cancer by State

On July 25th, my wife's life changed forever. 

At 47, she had experienced her first mammogram about a week prior and the surgeon found a very small calcification that looked suspicious and wanted to biopsy. She had no family history and we had no reason to believe that she was in any danger. We were wrong. The doctor came back and said that she had DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ) which equated to an early form of breast cancer in her case. Along with the diagnosis came a myriad of tough choices which we had to make over a relatively short period of time. She chose a double mastectomy with reconstruction. With the double mastectomy and pathology report complete, we have been advised by her surgeon that we are as medically "clear of cancer" as we can be.

As my wife was being prepared for surgery on the morning on October 7th, the anesthesiologist mentioned that there was a high rate of breast cancer in the state of West Virginia. They did not want to speculate as to why - maybe environmental conditions? That got me thinking. I tend to think of breast cancer as a "national" disease in that it seems to affect women all over the country similarly. What if that were not the case? What if there were higher rates of breast cancer in certain regions or states? What would that mean? And why?

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 200,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year. The Joan C. Edwards Comprehensive Cancer Center reports that "about 12 out of every 100 women born today will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lives", which makes the threat of breast cancer a significant threat for all women. 

First of all, let's look at the good news about breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the death rate from breast cancer has decreased by 34% since 1990. Much of this has to do with early detection, improved mammography technology including digital tomosynthesis, and raised awareness about breast cancer as a whole. Cost appears to be a problem associated with women choosing to be diagnosed in the first place. While there may be some common fears associated with mammography, chiefly pain and discomfort, the primary problem associated with women failing to receive a preliminary or regular mammogram appears to be access to health care insurance. The following chart from the American Cancer Society shows the rate of women seeking mammography based on access to health insurance and level of education: 

The areas in pink show the number of women who have health insurance who are seeking mammograms, roughly 71%, leaving 29% with insurance who are not seeking a mammogram. For uninsured women, the statistics show that over 2/3 of these women are not seeking a mammogram. It is important to know that women who would like to have a mammogram and do not have health insurance can contact the National Cancer Institute for a list of government agencies with phone numbers to call to receive information or financial aid to help pay or completely pay for a mammogram. 

Another interesting component to the chart from the National Cancer Society is that 75% of college-educated women are seeking mammograms while only 52% of non-college educated women are. There could be a correlation between college attainment and access to health insurance which would help to explain this disparity, as well as greater awareness of health risks, regular access to medical care, and genetic factors. According to a 2007 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there was a strong link between level of education and risk of breast cancer. The site states that "breast cancer mortality rates were higher among women with less education than among women with more education" and that there was an increased risk for women of color over white women, "for black women [it was] 25.2 versus 18.6 per 100,000, respectively, for white women).It is important to note that there is no cure for breast cancer and that there is no discernible data to indicate what causes breast cancer or why there is a deliberate increased risk for less-educated women or women of color. Again, it could be due to increased environmental risks, cultural and genetic factors. According to a fact sheet from the Susan G. Komen organization, "White women have the highest breast cancer incidence rate of any racial or ethnic group. Under age 45, African American women have a higher incidence of breast cancer than white women." The bad news, according to that same fact sheet, is that "African American women are more likely to die from breast cancer. Studies have found that they often have aggressive tumors with a poorer prognosis (chance for recovery)." Again, there are a variety of complicated reasons as to why African-American women might be diagnosed later, have larger tumors and "poorer prognosis", which cannot be easily identified.

We can say with a degree of certainty that there is a higher correlation of seeking treatment by college-educated and health insured women over the less educated and at health-risk population. The Affordable Care Act (2011) has adopted some guidelines to ensure that women can receive mammograms if they so choose. According to the ACA's Healthy Women guidelines, "women’s preventive health care – such as mammograms, screenings for cervical cancer, prenatal care, and other services – generally must be covered by health plans with no cost sharing". The wording for this is somewhat vague and the Health and Human Services site does not give a great deal of information about specifics as to how this should be implemented on a case by case basis. The HHS site doe give some specific data on a state-by-state basis as to the rates of Medicaid coverage and some resources for more information as needed. 

This brings me back to my initial question - was the anesthesiologist right? Is there are a higher rate of breast cancer in one state over another? How about in one region over another?According to the National Cancer Institute, the following is a map of the United States which shows the rate of incidence of breast cancer by state from 2007 - 2011:

The states in dark blue (108-116 per 100,000) show the lowest instances, going into medium blue to light blue and light yellow being the average instances. Orange being the higher rate of instances and red (129-143 per 100,000) indicate the states with the highest incidents of breast cancer. (Nevada is the only state with a diagonal line pattern which indicates that there was insufficient data to add to this data set). We cannot derive anything regarding rates of health insurance coverage from this map (i.e., those who have insurance vs those who do not), but we can deduce that the states with the highest incidents of breast cancer are states with a largely white population, while the southern states with a larger Latino and African-American population are not as affected. Also, while many of the mid-western states have a largely white population, they are also more rural which might account for fewer numbers of reported incidents per the 100,000 population. 

This map, also from the National Cancer Institute, shows the rate of mortality from breast cancer, (with the colors corresponding with dark blue being the least occurring and red being the most frequent occurrence). We can see from this image that there is a correlation between higher rates of mortality in states with a larger African-American population, largely in the Southeastern United States with fewer in the northeastern, Midwest, and Pacific region. 

From the looks of these maps, (see above) it is apparent that West Virginia does NOT have the highest rate of breast cancer, not even close. How could the anesthesiologist get that wrong? Quite easily as it turns out. According to the National Cancer Institute, West Virginia is above the national average in occurrence for all cancers. The rate of all cancer in West Virginia is 478.6 with the national average (for all 50 states) being 459.8. Furthermore, of the 22 types of cancer listed, West Virginia was above the national average for 14 of them and equal to the national average in 2 more! There were only a couple of types of cancer that West Virginia was actually under the national average - 2 of them were breast cancers: Breast cancer in West Virginia averages at 110.5 with the national average being 122.7 and In Situ breast cancer (the type that my wife had) in West Virginia is 21.8 with the national average being 31.0. 

The final word is this - breast cancer is an elusive and insidious disease. It can strike women of all ages, race and ethnicity, but white women are more likely to contract it, educated women are more likely to get screened for it, and women of color are more likely to die from it. If anything, I hope that reading this hardens you, dear reader, to the fact that we must find a cure! We must to save the women that we love and respect.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Not Passing the Sniff Test

My wife and I live and work in Charleston, West Virginia and were, in fact, born and raised here. Growing up in the Kanawha Valley, we were always aware of the dangers of living in the Charleston area due to the large Union Carbide plant that loomed a few miles up the river from our homes. Over the years, there would be periodic chemical leaks and the air sirens would alert the residents to close their doors and windows and block airways into our homes for a short period of time to ensure that the air was not hazardous to breathe. To us, it seemed like a cost of living in "chemical valley", like it or love it. In 1984, a Union Carbide facility in Bhopal, India leaked an insecticide which killed 8,000 people immediately and 20,000 people since, according to GreenPeace. As Charleston residents, we have always been aware of the risk of any chemical-related accidents or problems in our area, but became somewhat complacent over the years as time went on and disaster never struck in a major way.  

The water crisis which has hit the state this week is far more serious than a twenty minute delay in keeping our windows closed and remaining indoors during a minor leak into the local environment. What we are facing now is far more devastating to residents and should be of grave concern to West Virginians and other U.S. states which rely on industry for sustenance. According to GreenPeace, "just 300 of the 6,000+ high-risk chemical sites across the U.S. put more than 100 million Americans at risk if attacked". This is an alarming albeit nebulous fact which should make one wonder: Do I live near a high-risk chemical site, and if so what can I do about it? Greenpeace has a list of the more than 12,000 chemical facilities in the United States. It is important for the citizenry to remain informed about what chemicals are being produced in their area so that they might be better informed about how to best protect themselves from possibly hazardous conditions. To some, this might sound like an alarmist or "doomer" perspective, but again, according to Greenpeace, this is a real risk to individuals and families across the United States. "One in three Americans is at risk of a poison gas disaster by living near one of hundreds of chemical facilities that store and use highly toxic chemicals" ( 

This issue of potential chemical spills and leaks is important because it can happen in rural as well as urban areas. According to the Greenpeace map, there are no less than 5 chemical sites in New York City area, 7 in the Detroit area, 9 chemical sites in the Philadelphia area, and 10 in the larger Chicago area. There is no evidence of any instances at plants in locations near these cities, but that does not mean that it cannot happen. A chemical spill in central Hubei province killed over 220,000 pounds of fish in 2013, following a spill that killed over 16,000 pigs the previous year. The BBC article noted that one man described the fish this way: "the dead fish covered the entire river and looked like snowflakes " ( The spill was responsible for $70,000 yuan  - or $11,000 - in daily earnings to the village's affected fishermen. This makes this spill not just an environmental cost. It is unclear at this point what the cost will be for the cleanup of the West Virginia chemical spill by the city and state as well as the amount of lost revenue for local businesses and individual employees - the cost could be in the millions of dollars, all told. 

According to a recent OpEd from Jeff McIntyre, the CEO of West Virginia American Water, the problem with the United States water supply is much more difficult and costly to restore than imaginable, due largely because our water infrastructure in some cases was installed over 100 years ago. According to McIntyre, "Much of our water and wastewater infrastructure in West Virginia, as well as nationally, was installed in the first half of the 20th century or just after World War II. In the oldest parts of Charleston, Huntington and other West Virginia cities, pipes [are] more than 100 years old" ( Furthermore, McIntyre speculates that the cost to maintain the water supply in the U.S. going forward will run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than $335 billion is needed to replace aging water infrastructure over the next 20 years. In its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers grades both water and wastewater infrastructure at a 'D' level. In West Virginia alone, the report cites $1 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs and $3 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years" ( As a result, our water system infrastructure even on its best day appears to be in fairly bad shape.

Why are we (the city, state and citizens) paying for the aftermath of a preventable disaster? The short answer is speed and cost-effectiveness, which might be partly to blame for the lax regulation of chemical and fossil fuel industries. Donna Lisenby directly links the spill of MCHM into the Elk river to the coal industry which uses the said chemical as part of the "coal cleaning" process. "Our continuing dependence on fossil fuels as a source of 'cheap' energy has many costs that are not reflected in our power bills and prices at the pump. In addition to billions of dollars in environmental damage, the Charleston [WV] spill illustrates another example of the coal industry imposing the costs of its inherently dirty practices on Americans, not to mention poisoning the water supplies of hundreds of thousands of people. This spill demonstrates yet again that 'clean coal is a dirty lie" ( This is important to note, because while the Charleston area is known as "chemical valley", the state of West Viriginia has been historically known for its coal production, a fossil fuel which powers a large part of the country's electric energy. Much has been made by the coal industry in West Virginia to buy approval from its citizens with the Friends of Coal, a non-profit marketing campaign paid for by the coal industry. While West Virginians might be the life-long friends of coal, coal is not their friend in return. According to a report produced by the National Mining Association, Wyoming has the all-time highest coal production on record in 2008 with 476,644 million tons of in 2008. West Virginia's best year of coal production was in 1947 with less than 40% of that of Wyoming, a mere 176,157 million tons and in fact, Pennsylvania beats out West Virginia in coal production with 277,377 million tons in 1918. Additionally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration gives a monthly account of coal production between the two largest coal producers (Wyoming and West Virginia) showing the disparity in production even as late as last month. According to the EIA, the state of Wyoming produced 387,000 tons of coal in the month of December 2013, while West Virginia only produced 116,000 tons, and those numbers are on track to continue to show the disparity in the industry between the two states. If that is the case, then it looks like West Virginia needs to take a closer look at who their friends are and who is going to befriend them in the future if their water supply is tainted. 

Yet another state that appears beholden to potentially dangerous industry is Louisiana, another state with limited options for making industrial friends. According to an article by Alexander Nazaryan from Newsweek magazine, Louisiana is also paying a high price for the privilege of housing potentially dangerous chemicals in an environmentally fragile area. The article is about a 750-foot sinkhole that is forming in the now deserted and unlivable town of Bayou Corne due to a mining-related disaster. While the sinkhole is a surprise to the families who have lost their homes to its increasing expansion, the potential danger has been known for quite some time. According to Nazaryan, the sinkhole is a byproduct of industry known by residents as "Cancer Alley."According to Nazaryan, "Cancer Alley, a stretch of about 100 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is home to some 150 petrochemical plants, making these swamplands perhaps the most industrialized (and polluted) region in the United States" ( According to one longtime resident of Cancer Alley, "We have the best government in Louisiana that the oil and gas business can buy" ( Having seen friends and neighbors live without access to potable water for the past five days (and counting), I would say that we have the best government that coal and chemicals can buy in West Virginia. 

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, "thank god I don't live in crappy states like West Virginia and Louisiana who cannot afford to say no to industry, no matter how dangerous!" But, think again! NPR and The Center For Public Integrity have produced a map of the United States which shows the more than "17,000 facilities which have emitted hazardous chemicals into the air" ( Most of the heaviest air pollution is in the NorthEastern seaboard and running down through the "rust belt" of Pennsylvania and Ohio, but there are sites offending in every state in the continental United States. This means that while a chemically-related air- or waterborne disaster has not happened to you, it does not mean that it can't or won't in the future. 

One of the most difficult aspects of this disaster was learning that the spill was discovered ONLY because residents reported an odor akin to licorice wafting from the river. If there was no scent associated with the chemical (MCHM), then it is possible that we would not have known there was a threat to the water supply until 100,000+ residents became deathly ill. This demonstrates that there is an inappropriate and dysfunctional system at work between the private industry who is rushing to produce chemicals and energy products at high speed and state governments who cannot or will not pay to regulate and maintain necessary infrastructure to keep us safe. 

There is a well-known story retold from generations of West Virginia coal miners that in earlier mining days, the work was quite dangerous to the men who went into the mines. There were no regulatory agencies at the time to provide for their safety, so the miners would reportedly bring a canary into the mine as a safeguard against methane gas levels in the trapped environment. If the canary died while the miners were working, they would know that the methane levels were dangerously high and to evacuate immediately. 

Fortunately, mining standards have improved drastically over the past hundred years in spite of recent mining disasters in the news. In the wake of water pollution due to a coal-related chemical company, I cannot help but feel that we are living in a new age of dangerous conditions, not in the mine this time, but in the state as a whole. It seems to me that if the proverbial canary drank out of the Elk River this week, it would probably croak. Does that mean that the residents should evacuate immediately? Probably not. With a large elderly population coupled with a large rural population, many of the residents of West Virginia have no desire to leave and possibly nowhere to go. Furthermore, with the number of chemical plants numbering in the thousands in the U.S. and the rate of air pollution and lack of funding for proper state and federal regulation, it looks like we are all canaries in the continental coal mine, hoping that the air we breathe and the water we drink lasts longer than the pollutants that follow. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Weight Loss, At Your Own Peril?

 Qnexa has been approved by the FDA to be the first anti-obesity drug in the U.S.

They say that in treating alcoholism and drug addiction, that the chemical dependency is merely a symptom of a larger problem - simply not drinking will not be enough. The same could be said for the treatment of eating disorders, as we see with anorexia and bulimia.

If you are in the know regarding eating disorders, then you know that the consequences of not maintaining a healthy body weight can be severe. Anorexia Nervosa is probably the best-known eating disorder to the public. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, Anorexia Nervosa is defined as "a psychiatric disorder characterized by abnormal eating behavior, severe self-induced weight loss, and psychiatric comorbidities." But, they are also quick to point out that the behaviors of controlling your intake of calories is not about food at all. It is about emotional control. "Anorexia is an emotional disorder that focuses on food, but it is actually an attempt to deal with perfectionism and a desire to gain control by strictly regulating food and weight. People with anorexia often feel that their self esteem is tied to how thin they are" ( This is important to know, because unless we understand the underlying reasons for the eating disorder, then we would continue to chase the symptoms and never treat the disease. 

Anorexia Nervosa's counterpart, Bulimia Nervosa is equally devastating for the sufferer. According to the Mayo Clinic, Bulimia Nervosa has a differing set of symptoms, but is often times a misguided and hazardous attempt to control one's body image. "If you have bulimia nervosa, you are probably preoccupied with your weight and body shape, and may judge yourself severely and harshly for your self-perceived flaws" ( Once again, it is not so much about the food as it is is the need to control your body image. "Because it's related to self-image — and not just about food — bulimia nervosa can be difficult to overcome. But effective bulimia nervosa treatment can help you feel better about yourself, adopt healthier eating patterns and reverse serious complications" (
But, what if your problem wasn't starving yourself into submission to a body image, but rather, an inability to control the amount of food that you take in - at any cost.
AND, what if there were serious physical side effects to having an eating disorder? There are...It is not difficult to imagine the human body like you would an engine. We are powered (fueled) by food after all, and if you don't give your body proper fuel at appropriate intervals, then you cannot imagine your body reacting very well. Imagine if you will, what would happen if you had a serious eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia. In the case of anorexia, you are forcing your body to run on very little fuel at all, which causes a caustic breakdown in your internal systems. Likewise, with bulimia, you are over-filling your system with food and then to offset the consumption, you are forcefully expelling the fuel by vomiting or laxatives or over-exercising to reduce your caloric intake.

The physical repercussions of this extreme behavior is devastating to that persons body. Even if they are capable of fully recovering from the eating disorder, which is not likely, they are still likely to face a lifetime of serious health problems, if they do not expire completely in the course. For example, someone with advanced anorexia could very likely experience any of the following health problems:
  • Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which mean that the heart muscle
    is changing. The risk for heart failure rises as heart rate and blood pressure levels sink
    lower and lower.
  •  Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), which results in dry, brittle bones. 
  • Muscle loss and weakness.
  •  Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure. 
  • Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness. 
  • Dry hair and skin, hair loss is common. 
  • Growth of a downy layer of hair called lanugo all over the body, including the face, in
    an effort to keep the body warm. (

Similarly, bulimia carries its own physical consequences to the body, from extreme neglect:
  • Electrolyte imbalances that can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure
    and death. Electrolyte imbalance is caused by dehydration and loss of potassium and
    sodium from the body as a result of purging behaviors.
  • Inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus from frequent vomiting.
  • Tooth decay and staining from stomach acids released during frequent vomiting.
  • Chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation as a result of laxative abuse.
  • Gastric rupture is an uncommon but possible side effect of binge eating.(
Believe it or not, I am not all that interested in discussing anorexia (which affects between 0.5–1% of American women) and bulimia (which affects affects 1-2% of adolescent and young adult women) in this blog. What I really want to talk about is a new anti-obesity drug which has very recently been approved by the FDA, Qnexa.

Obesity is an area of eating disorders which is gaining much more attention now, then it has in the past, and for good reason. According to CDC data "about one-third of U.S. adults (33.8%) are obese" ( In addition, the CDC reports that the obesity problem is getting increasingly worse over time, not better.

With such an emphasis on obesity - particularly childhood obesity and obesity in minority populations, there can be little doubt that we must do something! And something is being done, by way of Qnexa, the first anti-obesity medication to hit the market in a very long time. The only problem is that it is causing quite a stir in the medical profession...

In case you have not been reading the major newspapers, especially the "Health" section, as I do online, then you might not have heard about Qnexa.
Qnexa is the brand name for (phentermine and topiramate), two powerful pharmaceutical medications. According to, phentermine is a "stimulant that is similar to an amphetamine. Phentermine is an appetite suppressant that affects the central nervous system." Also, according to that same web site, "Adult obese subjects instructed in dietary management and treated with "anorectic" drugs lose more weight on the average than those treated with placebo and diet, as determined in relatively short-term clinical trials." According to the clinical trials associated with Phentermine, there was weight loss associated with the drug, but only "a fraction of a pound a week." also rightly points out that "The natural history of obesity is measured in years, whereas the studies cited are restricted to a few weeks' duration; thus, the total impact of drug-induced weight loss over that of diet alone must be considered clinically limited." This is important to note, considering that the trials were not terribly long, and their proven effectiveness was a fraction of a pound a week. You do not need to perform clinical trials to see that you could probably achieve the same outcomes through light aerobic exercise, three times a week! 

Furthermore, there are side effects to taking Phentermine:  Bad taste in mouth; changes in sex drive; constipation; diarrhea; difficulty sleeping; dizziness; dry mouth; exaggerated sense of well being; headache; impotence; nervousness; over-stimulation; restlessness; sleeplessness; upset stomach. That's not too bad, I guess, but you don't get any of these side effects from walking or light aerobic exercise either.

The second component of Qnexa is a bit more tricky and may be the reason that Qnexa was denied by the FDA its first time around, in 2010. Topiramate is an anti-seizure drug (typically) prescribed to control seizures, treat Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and treat migraine headaches. ( So, why is an anti-seizure medication being introduced with an amphetamine to control appetite? I do not know. I am not a pharmacologist, so I cannot say what the benefits of the drug would be in suppressing appetite. What I can say is this - Topiramate can be quite hazardous to your health. 

When first investigating this new drug, I was primarily interested in the media buzz associated with the FDA approval. As I mentioned before, the FDA rejected Qnexa for approval due to serious side effects, such as heart disease and birth defects. Again, the side effects were attributed to Qnexa as a complete drug product, but I am suggesting that the culprit was Topiramate. This is a list of side effects for Topiramate, given by the NIH: numbness, burning, or tingling in the hands or feet, slowed reactions, difficulty concentrating, speech problems, especially difficulty thinking of specific words, memory problems, lack of coordination, confusion, nervousness, aggressive behavior, irritability, mood swings, depression, headache, drowsiness, weakness, excessive movement, uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body, uncontrollable eye movements, extreme thirst, weight loss, constipation, diarrhea, gas, heartburn, change in ability to taste food, swelling of the tongue, overgrowth of the gums, dry mouth, increased saliva, trouble swallowing, nosebleed, teary or dry eyes, back, muscle, or bone pain, missed menstrual periods, excessive menstrual bleeding, skin problems or changes in skin color, dandruff, hair loss, growth of hair in unusual places, ringing in the ears, difficulty falling or staying asleep, swelling of the hands, arms, feet, ankles, or lower legs, difficulty urinating or pain when urinating. This list of side effects would be comical if they were not serious. Notice that "weight loss" is a side effect of Topiramate. That would explain its inclusion as an anti-obesity drug. 

I innocently mentioned to a friend that I had heard that Qnexa was being approved by the FDA. My friend, whom I knew had a family history of migraines was outraged at the prospect of this drug being prescribed for any purpose other than its originally-intended purpose as an anti-seizure medication. She had been prescribed Topiramate for migraine headaches and experienced many of the side effects listed above. According to my friend, her time on the drug was nothing short of hellish.

According to my friend, she began experiencing side-effects two days after starting using the drug as prescribed. She described experiencing "chronic headaches" until the time that she stopped taking the medication. This is somewhat ironic considering that the family member was prescribed Topirmate as an anti-migraine medication. She also described the combination of side effects listed above, such as "slowed reactions", "speech problems" and "confusion." Listed in this way, they sound mild and tolerable if one really needs the medication. In my friends experience, these side effects were not mild in the least:

"Then it started knocking me out as soon as I'd take it. I don't mean grogginess, I mean I was GONE. Then as I upped the dose, instead of Wong knocked out, it wouldn't let me sleep. At. All. It made me extremely cold all the time. I had swelling in my hands and legs, my hair stared falling out and generally thinning, I was grasping for words CONSTANTLY. I could see it in my head no could see the milk carton in the fridge of the home of the people for whom I used to babysit, I could hear the baby crying, could see myself preparing a bottle with that milk an yet I couldn't get the word out of my mouth. Then it started happening all the time. I would be driving and all of the sudden not know where I was going. I'd have to pull over ad evaluate what time it was, determine what road I was on and then try to figure out of I was going home, to work, to pick up [my son], etc. there's a 4 month period from which I remember absolutely nothing"
Also somewhat ironic, while my friend does not have a weight issue, she gained "20 pounds in 2 weeks." That seems dramatic, especially for an ingredient in an anti-obesity medication. Again, I am not a physician or a pharmacologist. There could be a very good reason for prescribing Qnexa for anti-obesity medication, but I am just not buying it personally.

One thing that I know for certain is that, as a nation, we are addicted to two things: taking medicine and feeling good. And the pharmaceutical industry is aware of our propensity for wanting to take the path of least resistance when it comes to our overall health. Vivus, the company producing Qnexa states at the top of their page for Qnexa that "By 2030, if trends in the escalating rates of obesity continue, health care costs attributable to obesity may reach $956 billion, accounting for up to 18% of total health care costs, or $1 in every $6 spent on health care." I do not doubt the validity of this statement, but at the same time, Vivus stands to make billions of dollars in profits on the marketing of their drug to every doctor, clinic, hospital and medical facility who is treating the morbidly obese (approximately 3% of the U.S. population or 6.8 million people), according to the USAToday.And according to Forbes, Vivus will stand to be the ultimate winners in this, whether the drugs performs as expected or not. "Given past sales figures for diet drugs, Vivus can expect to make a boatload of cash on Qnexa and shareholders will smile all the way to the bank" ( 

Another thing that I know for sure is that as a country, we have developed a very unhealthy relationship to our food. I have written a couple of blogs about how the population of African-Amerians is disproportionately slanted toward obesity, as is 1 in 3 children born after 2000. Unless we stop the trends that we have developed concerning food and nutrition, I am fearful that we will lose a whole generation of young people, particularly young women to either Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa at one of the spectrum and morbid obesity at the other. There is no pill that the FDA can approve which will change that.