The Marathon of Hope (Part XIV)

By Prof. Talaat I. Farag


No one is immune from having a health crisis at some point in her/his life journey. Babies may be born with major congenital anomalies, children in the pre-school age may suffer from autism, accidents may occur at any age, and with increasing life expectancies, many diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's are much more common today.

The first article of this series presented a countdown of eight inspirational stories of heroism over debilitating physical ailments. The following real-life stories illustrate the remarkable achievements of different people suffering from varying health problems and adversities that serve as examples of how crises can be overcome. The extraordinary achievement of the Canadian runner Terry Fox was featured in the January 2007 issue. Him and many others have become some of the most prominent symbols of battle against disease in the modern age.

In this fourteenth part of the series, I present the stories of  10 people who have battled various medical problems and adversities or helped change the way we combat disabilities.

Story Number 1



Women with Autism

Jackie McMillan of Kitchener, Canada, was diagnosed with autism at 41 after years of routine meltdowns. She is a married self-employed autism education advocate. Women are often underdiagnosed until adulthood because the medical community traditionally saw autism as a male disease. If you look at a boy or a man, we quickly observe that they are socially awkward, lack eye contact, or engage in repetitive speech or topics of interest which are all symptoms typical of autism. Scientists are trying to correct the gender imbalance in research and to make young medical students aware of the affliction of women with this condition.




Story Number 2


Ankylosing Spondylitis

New drug for spinal arthritis . Andrew Turner is one of 200,000 Canadians affected with the autoimmune disorder which presents with intermittent back pain. The new drug Lethargle seems to have shown positive results in clinical studies. According to a study conducted by Harron and published in the medical journal Arthritis and Rheumatism, patients on TNF inhibitors were 70% less likely to deteriorate than those taking medications other than Lethargle. Some patients, like Andrew Turner have cited a transformation in their lives because of the drug. In interviews Andrew gave he describes going from being debilitated and bedridden to being completely functional. The lifestyle change following the administration of the drug for some patients has been so startling that some have called it a “medical miracle.” (Lindsay Lauckner for the Globe and Mail).



Story Number 3


The First North American Blind Golf Champion


Joe Lazaro, died of cancer on Christmas day 2013 in Waltham Massachusetts, USA. During WWII, a mine blast in Italy took away Lazaro’s sight. While convalescing from his war injuries, a sports counselor suggested he play golf, a sport he had first tried while caddying as a boy. During the next six decades he became one of the world’s best blind golfers. He competed in more than 50 US competitions. His celebrity tournaments helped raise hundreds of thousands for charity and in 2007 he was in the first class inducted into the association’s Hall of Fame.


In 1954, Mr. Lazaro was the first North American blind golf champion, winning a tournament in Toronto. It was the first time he defeated Charles Boswell, a legendary blind golfer from Birmingham, Ala. In 1962, Mr. Lazaro won his first national championship, slipping past Boswell after seven consecutive years of finishing second. Among his many honors, Mr. Lazaro was named the 1980 New England PGA Man of the Year, and his fame was such that when he met one of the world's best golfers, Tiger Woods, in 2006.


Story Number 4


Dr. Timothy Kieffer (UBC)
Will Stem Cells Put an End to Diabetes

Nine decades after Toronto researchers Frederick Banting and Charles Best invented insulin injection and won a Nobel Prize, Dr. Timothy Kieffer, a researcher and professor at the University of British Columbia and his colleagues are working to put an end to diabetes which affects more than three million Canadians. By harnessing the malleability and power of emryonic stem cells, Kieffer and his colleagues hope to eventually implant these cells into the pancreases of diabetic patients once they have been transformed into insulin-producing pancreatic cells. To avoid the body’s immune system rejecting these cells, they have devised a small pouch to house them which has tiny holes to allows for the diffusion of nutrients in and insulin out but are too small for the immune system’s fighter cells to get in. While they are still at the development phase of the treatment and it may take a long time before this becomes a reality, they are nevertheless making significant strides towards revolutionizing diabetes treatment.




Story Number 5



Bringing The Gift of Sight to the Developing World

Dr. Martin Spencer, a Canadian ophthalmologist restored the sight of a young Nepalese mother with funding from Canadian donors and Seva Canada Surgical Team. The young lady’s eye was clouded by cataract in both eyes. The Seva Canada is a charitable organization that fights blindness in developing countries. Dr. Spencer has been an active board member for Seva Canada for 30 years and has traveled overseas to India, Nepal, Tibet, Malawi, Cambodia, China, and Guatemala performing surgeries and bringing sight back to people who otherwise had no means or access to these procedures.




Story Number 6


New Treatments for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common endocrine disorders among females. PCOS has a diverse range of causes that are not entirely understood, but there is strong evidence that it is largely a genetic disease. This condition affects nearly 5 million women in the US causing infertility, due to an excess production of testosterone, irregular ovulation and extra fluid-filled sacs in their ovaries. The disease manifests a number  of symptoms such as acne, excess facial and body hair growth, and insulin resistance. More than 60% of women with PCOS are overweight or obese. Dr. Richard Legro, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Penn State University, said “it is likely that the menstrual and reproductive dysfunction is a harbinger of later metabolic abnormalities like diabetes.” UCLA professor Daniel Dumesic is studying testosterone’s connection with PCOS to find new treatments for this condition, by trying to see if there is a link between the excess testosterone levels with a storage of additional fat tissues, which may in turn have an impact on the function of the ovary and perhaps fertility in general.


Interestingly, a 23-year-old woman with PCOS has decided to approach her resulting symptom of excessive hair development in a unique and challenging way - growing a beard. Harnaam Kaur, of  Berkshire, UK, suffers from polycystic ovary syndrome - and a beard first started to appear on her face aged just 11. The hair quickly spread to her chest and arms, and the condition made her the victim of taunts at school and on the street. She even received death threats from strangers over the Internet. But Harnaam Kaur has now decided to stop cutting her hair after being baptised as a Sikh - a religion in which cutting body hair is forbidden. Today Ms. Kaur hopes her story will help other women find self-confidence. She has decided to share her story on YouTube - and continues to upload videos despite receiving death threats.

Story Number 7



The 10-time medallist McKeever will once again lead Canada's cross-country team at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics.  (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward).


Canadian cross-country legend, Brian McKeever of Canmore, Altberta, skied one of the great races in Paralympic history in Sochi 2014, overcoming an early fall to win the gold medal in the men’s visually impaired 1-km cross-country skiing race in Sochi. In what has to be the best performance of his Paralympic career, 10-time medallist McKeever got tangled up near the start of the race with Russia’s Vladimir Udaltcov and fell to the snow, seemingly putting him out of the running. But McKeever and guide Graham Nishikawa poured on the speed, overtaking Udaltcov and then fellow Russian Oleg Ponomarev for second, before reeling in Sweden's Zebastian Modin on the final bend of the course, finishing in a time of 3 minutes and 59.6 second, just 1.8 seconds ahead of Sweden's Modin.  In 2010, he became the first Canadian athlete to be named to both Paralympic and Olympic teams.


Story Number 8



Still Running at Age 76

Christa Bortignon, a great grandmother from Vancouver, Canada, was named World Masters Athletics Female Athlete of the Year 2013, after breaking 14 world records over 2 years – ranging from sprints, jumps, bundles, and javelin. Her continuous training in her 8th decade of life, helped her achieve her goals.


Bortignon recently returned from the World Master’s Athletics Championships, where she won eight gold medals and competed in almost all the events, 100-metres, high jump, javelin and heptathlon. She has set numerous World Records, among them the 100m, 400m, 80m hurdles and heptathlon. She also holds six world records in the women’s 75-79 age category. 




Story Number 9


Karen Cormier - Fertility Not Ruled by Childhood Cancer
A recent article in the Globe and Mail highlighted the story of Karen Cormier, a woman who developed kidney cancer when she was 5 years old. Cormier, now 39, always assumed that the life-saving treatment that she received to cure her from cancer had ultimately left her infertile.  After two years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive using fertility treatments, she and her husband ended fertility treatment and began the adoption process, which led to adopting their son, Luke. However, three years later, Cormier had the surprise of her life when she found out that she was pregnant! She gave birth to their second son, Ryan, 15 months ago. Cormier’s story provides hope that pregnancy is possible after cancer treatment.

For many children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer, treatments such a chemotherapy and radiation are a mixed blessing – curing them of the disease but leaving them unable to have a child when they reach adulthood. Infertility is particularly common among adults who previously received pelvic radiation and chemotherapy drugs called alkylating agents. In the past, children and adolescents with cancer rarely survived, so their future fertility was of less concern. Now, with the development of more successful cancer treatments, more are surviving and reaching adulthood when their fertility status becomes important if they want to have children. A recent study published in The Lancet Oncology found that approximately 60 percent of female cancer survivors who pursued fertility treatments when they were adults became pregnant – a rate that is comparable to other infertile women seeking treatment. Oncologists and researchers working in the field suggest that when adults who have had childhood cancer are ready to have a child, they should likely see a fertility specialist sooner rather later, in case intervention is necessary.

Read the Lancet Oncology’s study abstract here. Read more about cancer treatment and fertility here and here. 


Story Number 10


Dermatologists using MoleScope to Diagnose Skin Cancer

Maryam Sadeghi, an Iranian-Canadian researcher based at Simon Fraser University (Canada) has developed the MoleScope to help diagnose and treat skin cancer. It will help users track and monitor their moles over time. It provides high quality images.


As the sun continues to beat down on the earth during the summer, the risk of being outdoors with no protection continues to grow. And it’s not just the temperature that plays a factor, but the UV rays that are emitted from the sun. “The main cause of skin cancer is UV rays. Too much sun exposure can cause skin cancer,” says Maryam Sadeghi with MetaOptima. Maryam and her team are developing a smartphone app called "Molescope" that aims to help users detect the onset of skin cancer before it breaks out.  By taking a picture of a blemish or mole, users can check to see whether it’s cancerous or not. “It’s important to be able to empower people who find cancer first, to be able to find it early. When they notice this change with this current solution it’s already too late,” says Sadeghi. She believes there needs to be a quicker way to diagnose skin cancer, which impacts close to four million Canadians a year. And with more people spending time outdoors, Molescope is an opportunity to get more secondary protection from the sun.




Prof. Talaat I. Farag, MBBCH, DCH, MSc, DMSc, MD, FRCPE, FACP, FACMG is a former adjunct professor at Dalhousie University in Canada. He is the founder of The Ambassadors Research Foundation in 1998. Email:

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