Updated 16 hours ago

Cara Zanella of North Huntingdon has a drive to keep moving — competitive figure skating, exercising and working — to help her maintain her quality of life in a decade-long battle against the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis.

“I lead a very active life, but rheumatoid arthritis will take that away,” said Zanella, 51, who is director of development and communications for Franklin Regional and executive director for the Franklin Regional Panther Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for the school district.Zanella has turned to competitive skating and takes exercise so seriously that she gets out of bed at 4 a.m. to do her workout. She was chosen to speak at Saturday’s Arthritis Expo in Cranberry, which about 150 people were expected to attend.

Her advice to fellow rheumatoid arthritis sufferers: “You need to step up to the plate and manage your disease, or the disease will manage you.”

Zanella, 51, said she keeps moving “or I will stiffen up,” and she’s been in remission for three years.

Zanella was selected to speak at the Arthritis Expo because of her drive to fight arthritis through skating, said Hannah Ornowski, community engagement director for the Arthritis Foundation of Central and Western Pennsylvania, which sponsored the expo.

“Our goal is to identify individuals who are champions of ‘yes’ in face of their arthritis. Arthritis puts everyday ‘nos’ in front of our community,” Ornowski said.

The disease targets the joints and causes inflammation and a stiffening, said Dr. Susan Manzi, a rheumatologist and chair of the medicine department at Allegheny Health Network.

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As an autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis attacks the body’s immune system. Patients can get fluid around their heart and lungs, and it can cause premature coronary disease that leads to heart attacks, Manzi said.

Zanella still takes a biologic medication for her rheumatoid arthritis that can have serious long-term effects on health, but allows her to maintain her lifestyle.

She is careful with her diet, eliminating foods that can cause a flare-up like sugars and white flour, she said.

“I do cheat, but I have to be fully prepared that I will be in pain,” Zanella said.

She abstains from drinking alcohol for the same reasons, but does turn to juicers that extract juice from organic kale, carrots, celery, collard greens and apples and oranges. Zanella was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was 40, following a miscarriage. The diagnosis came after blood tests, prompted by weight loss and bone pain, she said. “I did not think much of it” at first, Zanella said, but learned that the autoimmune disease “is life-altering.”

Fighting the disease after diagnosis was no easy chore. Driving was a challenge, because the steering requires moving the hands. Dressing was so difficult that she turned to help from her husband, Bob, whom she calls part of her great support system.

Taking medication also wasn’t smooth sailing. One medication caused her hair to fall out, at a time when she was working as a communications director for Gateway School District.

As part of her fight, she turned to figure skating, which she did as a youngster growing up in McKeesport and attending Serra Catholic High School.

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She has won medals in pattern dancing with her skating partner, Lance Holton of North Huntingdon, at events such as the 2012 Pikes Park Classic in Colorado Springs, Colo. They also won a gold medal at a Lake Placid event in 2010, in open competition against skaters still in high school. She also brought the gold home in a competition last year.

When she is in training, Zanella heads after work to the Center Ice Arena in Delmont, where she practices. The ice skating, in a cold, dry environment, actually is good for her arthritis, she said.

“I do what I do to manage my lifestyle. It will give me a fighting chance to have a quality life,” Zanella said.

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