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Originally published Monday, March 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Grandmother's wits help RA sufferers

As a child, Food Network star Sandra Lee remembers her grandmother rubbing her stiff and sore hands to help alleviate pain. Rheumatoid arthritis was a...

Staten Island (N.Y.) Advance

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NEW YORK — As a child, Food Network star Sandra Lee remembers her grandmother rubbing her stiff and sore hands to help alleviate pain. Rheumatoid arthritis was a constant in Grandma Lorraine's life.

While the chronic autoimmune disease that causes joints to ache and throb often made life difficult for the cafeteria worker who took care of Lee and her younger sister, Cindy, she usually didn't complain.

Instead, she found ways to navigate around the kitchen and simplify cooking and household chores.

"She always had everything kind of on the countertop and it was so neat, or the shelves were open and everything was right there," said Lee. "Much of my set is that way. I have things right out and available at all times."

Grandma Lorraine's techniques and tips helped influence Lee's "Semi-Homemade" television series, which offers cooking shortcuts that rely heavily on store-bought ingredients and less on homemade ones.

"She was the first semi-homemaker," said Lee.

Now, the perky blond cook and home stylist has teamed up with the Arthritis Foundation and Bristol-Myers Squibb on a campaign to help make life easier in the kitchen for people with rheumatoid arthritis through ICanWithRA.com.

The Web site offers easy-to-make recipes, ways to organize the kitchen to make meal preparation less of a hassle, and a self-assessment tool to help RA sufferers track how their condition is impacting their daily tasks — an important clue for rheumatologists in planning a patient's treatment.

"When I hear things like, 'I used to be able to open a jar and now I can't.' 'I used to be able to button my coat and now I can't.' These are very helpful insights for me to know," said Patricia Daul, a nurse practitioner specializing in rheumatology.

Daul joined Lee recently at the Chandler Chicco Agency, a health care public relations firm in Manhattan, to help launch the Web site.

"Trying to get people educated about this disease is extremely important," said Daul, executive director of clinical services at the Buffalo (N.Y.) Infusion Center and a member of the Arthritis Foundation of Western New York.

About 1.3 million adults in the United States have RA, 75 percent of whom are women. The disease generally occurs between the ages of 40 and 60, but can also affect children (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis) and the elderly.

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RA is an inflammation in the lining of the joints that causes swelling, redness and pain, and can lead to joint deformity. It typically occurs in joints on both sides of the body, such as the hands, wrists and knees.

While there is no cure for the disease, there are medications that can help reduce pain and inflammation and, in some cases, slow joint damage. As a last option, surgery can repair injured joints.

"We know a lot about rheumatoid arthritis, and yet there's still a lot that we don't know," said Daul.

What remains a mystery is the cause. It is thought to be brought on by a combination of genetic, hormonal and environmental factors.

Doctors don't know exactly what role genetics plays, but it is believed that people can inherit a predisposition to the disease.

At age 41, Lee does not have any of the signs or symptoms that afflicted her grandmother.

What Lee does share with the family matriarch is a knack for simplifying meal preparation — burdensome for most, impossible at times for those with RA.

Need to chop herbs? Try a two-handed rocker knife, that saves wear and tear on wrists, said Lee.

Don't want the fuss and muss of cutting vegetables and fruits? Buy them cut and ready to use.

"In the grocery store, there are so many things that can work for you," said Lee. "Salad bars are like my new best friend. They have everything pre-sliced and pre-diced. Slicing and dicing make life a lot more difficult."

Another helpful tip, and one she shares on the Web site, is to make extra food and plan for leftovers. By doubling a recipe and freezing the extras, RA sufferers will have a meal ready to be reheated for "bad" days.

"It's such a debilitating disease," said Lee. "When you don't feel good, you don't want to go and cook."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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