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April 23, 2014

Left with not a sausage

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New health research threatened to leave Dr Ruairi Hanley with a headache if he was to be left without his morning ritual of two sausages from the local petrol station.

Having recently become a father, I felt it was time to undertake a general review of my lifestyle. In the past, I have comforted myself with the knowledge that I am a non-smoking, moderate drinker with a normal cholesterol level and a healthy BMI.  I therefore decided that complacency was more than justified. Previous such reviews usually ended with me awarding myself top marks and then going for a pint!

Regrettably, recently published evidence in national newspapers has forced me to confront my unhealthiest habit, one that I have clung to for many years now. I am referring to my fondness for petrol station sausages. Permit me to explain.

Ever since I left hospital medicine in 2007, I have very rarely eaten breakfast at home. My morning routine consists of a drive to work, with a pit stop at a service station that provides freshly cooked pork products. A large white coffee with two sugars is purchased, along with two sausages in a paper bag. These are then consumed en route to the surgery.

As I have been forced to move job on multiple occasions over the past five years, I have brought this routine to dozens of petrol stations throughout the north east in an effort to find the best quality meat available. Only a handful of establishments have proven themselves worthy of my custom. These are typically the type of enlightened facilities that use quality sausages specially prepared by local butchers, and not the mass-produced stuff that appears on supermarket shelves.

Those working in these shops have very quickly learned to recognise me and my particular brand of eccentricity. As a result, I usually find my sausages waiting for me at the counter while I am sleepily attending to the coffee machine.

Dioxin crisis
Naturally, down the years there have been a few setbacks. The most notable of these was the ‘Great Irish Pork Dioxin Crisis’ of 2008. This famous incident resulted in the disappearance of every pork product in the country for a few days as a result of some contaminated pig feed down in Co Carlow.

For some people, this event had a negligible impact. For others, it was a minor inconvenience. For me, it nearly triggered a full-blown nervous breakdown.

I vividly remember the dark day back in 2008 as I approached the door of a Spar shop in Drogheda, having heard the news the night before. I was in denial, utterly convinced that this retailer had somehow obtained a supply of toxin-free pork.

‘Why does the food I like have to be so bloody lethal?’

As I walked in the door, the Eastern European lady who looked after the deli counter instantly recognised me. She promptly burst out laughing and announced, in a wonderful Slavic twang: “No sausage for you today! The pigs are all poisoned!” Clearly, she had been looking forward to using this line all morning and was visibly thrilled with herself.

To be fair, my facial expression must have looked fairly comical, so I can’t blame her.

Yes indeed, that was a bad week for me in Drogheda.

These days, my petrol station of choice is located midway between Slane and Navan in County Meath.

Unfortunately, thanks to several appearances in The Meath Chronicle, the employees of this wonderful establishment have discovered my occupation. This occasionally leads to remarks such as “The Doctor must not be worried about his cholesterol!” which I have become very good at ignoring. In truth, I am not really a morning person anyway and my sense of humour only appears at around midday.

Overall, I think it fair to say that I was quite content with my breakfast routine until one day last January when I made the mistake of buying The Daily Telegraph. It did not take long for me to stumble on the article with the grim headline ‘A sausage a day increases risk of deadly pancreatic cancer’ (http://tgr.ph/y6QcwB).

Apparently, Swedish researchers have concluded that those who consume processed meats are significantly more likely to end up with this truly dreadful and incurable disease. In the case of someone who eats 50g of the stuff daily, the risk apparently increases by a whopping 19 per cent.

Words cannot do justice to how I felt when I read this. My first reaction was to engage in an irrational and childish mental rant along the lines of, ‘Why can researchers never find something good about sausages? Wouldn’t it be nice if they contained a chemical that prevents dementia or something? Why does the food I like have to be so bloody lethal?’

‘Cured’ meats
Eventually, I decided that I was going to have to review my sausage habit and, in all probability, abandon it completely. However, just when all seemed lost, along came a piece of wonderful news.

On March 21, The Irish Times (http://bit.ly/GHcVxs) reported a recent Lancet study which suggests that taking Aspirin as infrequently as once a month might reduce pancreatic cancer risk by 26 per cent, while more regular intake reduced it by 35 per cent.

Truly, this was a joyous moment for me. A quick piece of mental arithmetic suggests that if I take an odd soluble Disprin with my morning coffee and sausages, I will actually have cut my chances of getting pancreatic cancer by 7 per cent. Oh Happy days!

I therefore have decided to keep eating sausages for now and to start taking aspirin. That marks the end of my lifestyle review until the next health scare comes along.