Last week an author I follow announced on his Facebook page that a recent scan indicated that the radiation treatment he had undergone for stomach cancer has not been effective and the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Almost immediately people began to comment offering a wide variety of alternative medical cures this author should have done or try. It was utterly predictable. How do I know? Because I experienced the exact same thing.
In September 2009 I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma of a significant depth that increased the odds that it had metastasized to my lymph nodes so I had a 5 hour long sentinel lymph node biopsy. Three years later I was diagnosed with uterine cancer and had a hysterectomy. In both cases the cancer was detected early enough that no further treatment other than surgical removal was necessary. While my doctors , nurses and hospital staff prepared me for the realities of surgery, nothing prepared me for the harsh realities of being a cancer patient.
No one warns you that, if you get cancer, a friend and even a family member may abandon you out of fear of their own mortality or simply a selfish need to not be in close contact with someone who triggers painful memories. In the season of life when you most need support from people you would rightly assume would provide it, you discover that these few individuals have distanced themselves from you. The relationship you thought you had been building for years turned out to not able to survive your cancer crisis. The good side, at least for me, was that a few casual acquaintances stepped up and came along side of me offering encouragement and prayers, if only for a season. I still tear up in gratitude when I recall their kindnesses.
But far more prevalent are the people who, unsolicited, offer you advice on how you should be treating your cancer. First it was too much sugar, followed by exhortations to not eat “white foods” or that my body was too acidic and I needed to make it more alkaline. One Ob/Gyn doctor I saw reduced me to sobs in his office by stating emphatically that my cancer was due to my lifelong consumption of animal fats. Had I tried Kangan Water? An all raw vegetable diet? Did I know all fruit was cancer causing? I’ve had people tell me how they would have self treated my types of cancer despite the fact that surgery saved my life. The worst was the referrals to the Truth About Cancer series. Several times a year I received invitations to watch the series by friends who believed I would somehow benefit from completely disregarding my doctor’s treatment plan and learning the truth from a biased man who has no education, career or research credentials in medicine at all.
There was a dawning realization of how much victim blaming is at the core of this advice. You wouldn’t have gotten cancer is you had not eaten sugar/meat/processed foods/starchy foods/etc. You wouldn’t have gotten cancer at all if you had been drinking this special water or only organic vegetables. And if cancer comes back, it’s because chemo will kill you and you chose to get it. Everything about your cancer is your fault and while that may be true of some cancers due to exposure to asbestos or smoking, 2/3rds of cancer is genetic luck of the draw. And even if true, no one needs to hear that while struggling with a possible life-and-death crisis.
Being a fact checking person, I did research many of these suggestions but what I kept discovering just how lacking in peer reviewed science these supposed cures were. There was an emerging pattern of “experts” who had no experience what so ever in the field of cancer research, some were outright quacks and con artists. I followed research citations to their original sources only to discover fraudulent manipulation or outright lying about the data. There was a lot of fear mongering and victim blaming associated with these alternative medical treatments. No one warns you what happens when you reject people’s beliefs about the causes and cures of cancer. I’ve been asked, “How much are you being paid?,” implying I was a paid shill for Big Pharma. I rejected the conspiracy theories that the pharmaceutical industry knows the cure to cancer but is hiding it in order to make more money on chemo, radiation, etc. and that made me a stooge of the evil Big Pharma. To believe that tens of thousands of people employed in the pharmaceutical industry will die their own deaths from cancer or watch beloved family members die of cancer simply to protect the ability to make an unholy profit from toxic cancer drugs says far more about the people who believe this garbage than the alleged conspirators. But say that and someone will advise you to “get out of the Matrix”.
I am not alone in my observations. Steven Thrasher, in a recent article for The Guardian titled “Don’t tell cancer patients what they could be doing to cure themselves”, wrote that he had, “.. been hearing from friends with cancer and other serious illnesses that they are overwhelmed when concerned people lob suggestions at them for homeopathic remedies they ‘should’ be doing.” Like Steven, I no longer believe people have good intentions of trying to be helpful when they suggest these remedies. Steven considers it “an act of violence every time someone suggests a simplistic, unproven and fantastic cure for another’s cancer.” Harsh phraseology but probably accurate when one considers that encouraging people to reject their doctors’ medical expertise and treatment plan can lead to death. My oncologist once told me that if HIPAA hadn’t prevented him, he could introduce me to patients of his who eschewed conventional, proven treatment for their cancer, sought alternative medical interventions, bankrupted their families and returned to him with the cancer so advanced that it was beyond treatment. All he could offer was palliative care. My cousin Larry dismissed his doctor’s plan for his very treatable prostate cancer and instead believed his chiropractor’s use of supplements, organic vegetarian diet and spine manipulations would cure him. Larry passed away December 8, 2005.