British Columbia

Why one B.C. woman uses art and exercise to fight Parkinson's disease

April is Parkinson's awareness month, although the disease is currently incurable, treatment and exercise can keep patients leading active and healthy lives.

Robyn Levy was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's in her 40s and wrote a book about the struggle

Art from Robyn Levy showcases her struggle with Parkinson's disease and breast cancer. (Robyn Levy)

Robyn Levy never anticipated she'd be diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in her 40s.

But at just 43 years old, she started to exhibit symptoms of young onset Parkinson's, including loss of balance and difficulty moving her arm. Typically, Parkinson's disease affects people after the age of 60.

"The shock was so profound," she told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's BC Almanac.

April is Parkinson's awareness month, and while Levy admits that living with a neurodegenerative disease is challenging at times, she says she's found a way to cope. In the ten years that she's battled Parkinson's, she's written a published book, taken up painting as a hobby, and become an avid swimmer.

In fact, living an active lifestyle like Levy's can actually reduce the symptoms of the disease.

Medical meltdown

​Parkinson's is a neurodegenerative disease that takes place when the body's cells producing dopamine — a neurotransmitter that affects emotions and movements — die. Symptoms include tremors, slowed movement and speech changes.

Robyn Levy is the author of "Most of Me: Surviving My Medical Meltdown," which also chronicles her subsequent battle with breast cancer. (Robyn Levy)

"Parkinson's is different for everybody — no journey is the same," she said. "It affects so many things — everything from your physical body to your emotional state, stress and diet and connection with your community."

There's over 100,000 Canadians living with the incurable disease. One of them is Levy's father, who was diagnosed shortly before her.

"We have an understanding and a compassion and a level of understanding that you can't really get unless you are familiar with the disease."

Levy's battle with the disease is chronicled in her memoir Most of Me: Surviving My Medical Meltdown. The book shares her own unique glimpse of the disease that affects 10 million people worldwide, highlighting how she's managed to live with it alongside a subsequent diagnosis of breast cancer.

"What I'm trying to do in my life now is not define myself or let Parkinson's define who I am," she said. "I'm just choosing to focus on other activities and family and friends ... and learning how to impact and possibly change and hoping to reverse some of the symptoms — and that's through [meditation] and reading and exercise and painting."

Physical exercise

Maintaining an active lifestyle is a form of treatment that many doctors encourage. 

"We do know that exercise is very good for the disease, and probably slows the progress," said Dr. Martin McKeown, director of the Pacific Parkinson's Research Centre at UBC.

McKeown cautions that every case of Parkinson's is different, and that there's no consensus on what forms of exercise are most beneficial. He says exercises like Tai Chi can be good for sustaining balance, but more aerobic activity has the potential to promote brain repair.

A large part of what keeps Parkinson's patients coming back to boxing practice is the camaraderie and social interaction that comes with it. (Havard Gould/CBC)

He says some of the work at the centre focuses on determining which exercises would prove most effective.

Some research has already shown that activities like dancing and boxing are beneficial.

"The idea of rapidly punching a bag seems to be a particular useful exercise for people living with Parkinson's."

With files from CBC's BC Almanac