I received an email yesterday inviting me to participate in a discussion on HuffPost Live with Suzanne Somers regarding her new book, Bombshell. I was eager to accept, but unfortunately, didn't receive the email in time and missed my chance.
In case you don't know about her, Somers' books live on the controversial fringe of medicine. She touts a mixture of medical truths and dangerous myths, suggesting that if we just eat right, take the right supplements, and use the right cleaning products in our homes, cancer, and indeed aging itself, can be overcome or better yet, completely avoided.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, friends confessed to me that they were scared not only because they cared for and worried about me, but also because they regarded me as a model of healthy living. Nobody wants to think that you could do everything "right" and still get cancer. It is by far more preferable, indeed downright seductive, to believe that we have some control when it comes to avoiding the spectre of disease.
Rationally, it does make sense to treat our bodies well. It puts us in the best possible position to bounce back if disaster strikes. But the flip side of the reassurance of the illusion of control is the cruelty of blame. The truth is, disaster can strike anyone, at any time. Even if you're very very good. And sometimes bouncing back is not possible. Even if you fight very hard.
I'm suspicious of pills. I cure my headaches with a good cry, or a big glass of water and a nap. And if that fails, I suffer and complain and annoy everyone around me unti the pain subsides. As I'm sure you can imagine, chemotherapy terrified me. I regarded cancer drugs as crude poisons, a carpet bombing approach with my body as a battlefield. I wanted to nurture my body's natural immunities. I wanted a friendlier, more nuanced approach, and I plowed into research. I was excited by what I read about the power of every day foods and spices. Green tea. Curcumin. Black pepper. Mustard greens. I found Somers' message to be very hopeful and attractive. But the deeper I dug the more disappointed I became.
There may be something in green tea and black pepper and curcumin that can cure cancer, but the research simply isn't there. Nor is it there for many of the "designer supplements" Suzanne Somers espouses, let alone the miracle cures you'll happen upon on Googling alternative therapies. I read one about melting tumors in a single day by alternating seven-minute hot and cold showers directed on the tumor site) and crazy diets (one that sticks in my memory involved a lot of cottage cheese). It isn't to say that all that is "alternative" is bad, or that the science is always absent. It's just that rigorous study is expensive, and drug companies don't put money into something that can't one day turn a profit. You can't patent "eat more vegetables." And besides all that, you can't ethically withhold a drug that has proven results in favor of experimentally trying something that does not.
Here's where it gets dangerous. Somers had breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and radiation but refused chemotherapy, and she claims that chemotherapy "rarely works." Perhaps that is true for her particular cancer. For many women with cancer confined to the breast, chemotherapy isn't even recommended in the first place, the benefit is marginal at best. I don't know the details of her diagnosis but I do know that mine was more advanced. It was in my lymph nodes. It was all over my right breast. It was the most aggressive of its type. Chemotherapy was emphatically recommended. But even so, if a hundred women with my same profile and exact diagnosis refused chemo, a few would have survived without recurrence. Why? I'm sure every one of them would have an answer. Prayer. Meditation. Broccoli. Luck. And every one of them would be convinced of their cure. But it would be dangerous to evangelize to others about their approach. Without peer-reviewed, double-blind, rigorous study, it's downright irresponsible.
Pushing for research, and a health care system not driven by profit, however, is another story entirely.