Each month, OC shines the spotlight on the great things our volunteers and partners are doing to improve the lives of individuals living with obesity. This month we shift the focus to Candace Villhan, one of our amazing patient advocates and a member of our Public Engagement Committee.  

The committee is responsible for helping Obesity Canada drive patient-centered initiatives and elevate the voice of individuals living with obesity in everything we do.  As advocates, some committee members also share their stories and experiences in educational settings for health professionals, industry and policy makers. This is vital in shifting the narrative about obesity, recognizing the complexity of the disease and also reminding everyone of the human element, that we all deserve dignity and respect.

Tell us about yourself and your role with Obesity Canada.

I am a behaviourist at a bariatric centre in Ottawa, providing behavioural and mental health education, assessment and counselling support for patients living with obesity. I’ve been married for 20 years and am a mom to two wonderful teenage daughters, who are 16 and 19. I enjoy helping others, yoga, travelling and spending time with my family and friends.

I have struggled with my weight since my teen years. Like many, I was bullied about it mercilessly and rarely stood up for myself, as it came from a deep sense of shame that something was wrong with me. I felt unlovable, like I had no self-control compared to others, and always thought things would be better once I simply lost the weight. I have been 305 pounds at my heaviest and so many weights in between which has taken a toll on my confidence level at times. Regardless of the weight, my feelings about myself didn’t change and, like others, my weight has been a constant roller coaster.

Why did you get involved with Obesity Canada?

As a professional in this field, I know that obesity (where excess adiposity impairs health) is a chronic disease that needs lifelong management. I have been a member of Obesity Canada as a professional and have heard many stories of weight bias and discrimination from patients, which angered me. I want to lend my voice and experience to make a difference. I believe that sharing my experience living with a larger body could in some way help others understand that they are not alone and hopefully shift the thinking about obesity.   

Ironically, the thing that I had hated about myself for years MAY be helpful to those of all sizes in a positive way. I have always had a deep compassion for those living with obesity, but I have realized I need to extend that same compassion to myself, and integrate this belief into my day-to-day life.

Why do you think patient advocacy is important for obesity?

Weight bias and discrimination is very prevalent in Canada and is sadly one of the socially acceptable forms of discrimination that has yet to be addressed. This is a disease we wear, it’s out there for people to see, there’s no hiding it. For whatever reason, people feel quite comfortable offering advice or commenting on our weight. Even worse, in health care obesity is not fully understood. Health professionals in general are not adequately  trained in weight management, and it is not treated in the same way other chronic diseases are. I believe that the only way to change this is if we speak up as patients and demand better. I advocate to help bring awareness to this issue and there is so much work to be done.

Speaking and learning with other advocates has been a powerful experience I want to share with others who struggle like I have.  I feel like I belong, I’m accepted, and I deserve better. I fight to make a difference, for my daughters, my friends, my patients, and myself.

As a patient advocate, what do you want to accomplish in the next 5 years? What is the dream outcome for your efforts?  

I want to change the narrative of how obesity is perceived and to advocate for patients to receive quality healthcare no matter what their body size.

I want our world to be accessible and accommodating for bodies of all sizes..

I want body diversity and acceptance to be promoted with kids at an early age to help stop bullying. I want each of us to be kind to one another and stand up for those who may not have found their voice yet.

I want there to be understanding that a person’s body size does not indicate their health or worth.

Specifically, in the next five years, I want obesity to be fully recognized as the chronic disease it is. I want all provincial medical associations and provincial governments to join The Canadian Medical Association, World Health Organization and virtually all experts in recognizing obesity as a chronic disease.

I want healthcare professionals to treat obesity with dignity and respect. I want people who live with obesity to feel safe asking their doctor and medical providers for help.

I want to help those who live with obesity to realize discrimination is unacceptable, that this disease is not their fault, and that they have the power to create change with their voice.