Friday, 2 September 2005

“I shall be acceptable.”* “No, you won’t!”

Apparently, a third of European cancer patients are turning to alternative therapies.

What on earth can they be thinking of? Do they really believe that a few lotions and potions, or a few massages or whatever are going to be enough to fight cell division gone berserk?

I’ve had cancer: a very rare ocular melanoma (why can’t I be so lucky with the lottery?!) that had taken seven years before revealing itself completely (I’d had badly understood symptoms before) and would have killed me very rapidly (melanoma is the most virulent form of cancer) had I not had drastic treatment for it. Fortunately, I was in the right country at the right time. Had I still been living in France I would be sporting an eye-patch now, but I was able to benefit from a very new treatment: Cyclotron proton therapy. Only three countries in the world offered it and the UK was one of them. After an operation, during which tiny titanium clips were implanted in my eye, I underwent that amazing treatment in a prefab lab, in a small hospital outside Liverpool. The place smelled of new wood and didn’t inspire much confidence. But, here I am, 15 years later, not quite looking like Mr Squeers (touch wood!).

A few days after I came back from Liverpool, I received a phone call from a dear friend. She suggested I might want to go and have some kind of complementary therapy. I told her that I believed in the cutting-edge treatment I’d just had; that I had put all my energies into it and didn’t want to somehow “dilute” it. Wanting to spare her feelings, I didn’t actually tell her I didn’t have money to give to charlatans.

Poor John Diamond, Nigella’s former and better husband, used to rail against those people who kept telling him he wasn’t getting well because he didn’t have complementary therapy, when the doctors had had to remove his tongue and G-d knows what else and he couldn’t speak or taste any of the wonderful dishes his heartless wife (here’s someone who deserves a slap) was cooking for the public. So much of his precious energy was spent fending off those silly people.

Recently, homeopathy was shown to be no better than placebo in curing illnesses. It is thought that patients think it works because they feel they’ve been listened to properly by their homeopath. The results also show that you have to believe in it very strongly to get any effect from it.

I could have believed all I wanted in homeopathy, or Reiki or spiritual healing or whatever, when I was diagnosed with cancer; it wouldn’t have done any good. I would still be dead today. If you have a serious, life-threatening illness, get yourself to the most high-tech establishment you can find, as quickly as you can, because erratic cell division will not respond to a dilution of arsenic or sulphur. And then you can have all the massages you want if it makes you feel good. Or, even better, leave all that (expensive) hokum to the worried well.

A slap to those snake oil peddlers, who cynically take desperate people for a ride and endanger their lives!

* “placebo” in Latin.


  1. Bela

    I agree with you entirely about the role of alternative therapies in treating cancer and other life threatening illnesses. I also have doubts about homeopathy in general. Are there any alternative therapies that you do have a good opinion of and if so what for?

  2. I think being listened to properly is one of the main reasons people in despair and fear turn to alternative therapists. You hear stories of people being given a cancer diagnosis and then asked to wait outside in a public corridor in a hospital. I think also that there is a difference between some ilnesses that are, or may be, mentally or emotionally related (migraine, possibly, some kinds of backache caused by holding tension wrongly in the body, stomach and digestive problems, anything caused by the release of excess adrenaline - which is back to science again), which may respond to any kind of therapy that helps relaxation and posture, and concrete diseases like cancer, which I don't believe will. I think also that it is unfortunate that probably some of the best surgeons/scientists are the worst at dealing with human beings, because actually, although they are not the ones to make you FEEL better, they are the ones to make you *actually* better with their skill and knowledge. Give me an abrupt top surgeon over a kind lesser one any day.

    My father had a very bad hip and sciatic nerve pain that was helped by regular acupuncture. Not cured, helped. Which apparently is meant to work on animals too.

  3. oh bela,
    you sound like me, my friend. when i first had my accident there were people who wanted to do rain dances around my bed too.
    when i was in rehab, they had all of us little spinal cord injuries sitting in some class learning how to visualize away the pain.
    i rolled myself right on out...thanks but if i have pain, i'm ringing the call bell and getting some percocet.

  4. I'm with lulu in a belief that synthesis might be best. I want allopathic AND any other -opathy I can get my hands on when I'm deathly ill. I certainly ran, well kind of, to a neurosurgeon and orthopod when my five cervical vertabrae needed fusing ... but I also found that visualization helped the pain afterward. I've seen good rheumatologists ... but I know diet and emotional state affect autoimmune disease progression, too. I also join her in agreeing with you about cancer: if/when it rears its ugly head in my body, there will be no chants sung ... I want the most technologically advanced care I can obtain, as quick as I can obtain it. Oh, and about acupuncture: our labrador retriever with the deteriorated hips did get some relief from it. xoxo

  5. Massage therapy can be helpful, I think. It's not that the massage directly assists, but the relaxation does help with lowering stress levels and the stress related cortisones that can get in the way of your body's abilty to fight off illness and rebound. My grandmother talked my grandfather into it when his kidney was failing (he only has one left, the other had already been gone long ago) and he was hospitalized for several weeks.

    I cannot write off homeopathy or natural aids in entirety. Drinking cranberry juice is a wonderful way to maintain kidney health. My family, due to the strong genetic propensity for kidney disease, "knew" that fact long before any studies were ever conducted to tell them that. An old friend used to volunteer for a local agency, the Cascade AIDS Project, and she saw first hand how much relief many of CAP's clients received from smoking marijuana. I know it's a subject of controversy, but I'm inclined to think that if she and the other folks, who daily saw what HIV and AIDS can do to the body, saw benefit in it, then it is not to be dismissed. This is not for serious disease, but I do homeopathic treatment for myself when I have a fever. I don't fight the fever. I help it. I take a hot bath, drink green tea with ginger slices to help with sinuses, and then crawl into bed for a nap under thick covers. I awake sweaty, but feeling better, and my temperature comes under control much longer than if I'd take an over-the-counter medication.

    I think sometimes it is just a placebo effect with certain types of alternative therapies. But I couldn't bear to judge anyone for choosing them or NOT choosing them. I'm not the one who has to live in that body, y'know? I think for some folks it gives them a feeling of control when they're in a situation that feels out of control. And I think this is the same with family and friends of those who have problems with their health. They're scared, and don't really know how best to help, so they inflict others with "advice." It's understandable - the fear, that is.

    I'm, like the others, inclined to think it's fine to be used as a complimentary technique along with regular medical technology. I can't say I quite understand when people only choose the alternative therapies though. But, I don't have to - it's their bodies.

  6. But surely most of the things you're all listing as if they were disputable unscientific remedies - relaxation (and marijuana) for pain control, cranberry juice for kidney problems, ginger tea and sweating to eliminate fever, a wholefood natural diet to boost the immune system - seem to me not to fall under the banner of alternative therapies at all, but to have sound scientific bases for combating those kinds of physical problems. Ginger and cranberry - and lots of other healing foods - well, what after all are medications but a progression from the use of herbs (aspiring from willow bark, etc.)? And all pain control clinics teach pain sufferers to try not to fight at the pain, don't they, because then you tense up and make it worse?

    It's only dangerous when people choose to believe that these things are all they need to do to cure something like cancer. Yes yes yes, do them all as well, sure. We should all be following those principles anyway. But my mother, who is 75, has got more and more fanatical about her diet - every time I go home she hands me articles she's cut out of magazines - and I listen and agree, because sadly what she is actually trying to ward off with blueberries and fish oil is her death from old age. Yet faced with a vastly overactive thyroid that was making her dangerously ill, she really balked at the only treatment that could avoid surgery - swallowing a capsule of radioactive iodine to shrink it - because having read all the time that chemicals (in food) are bad for you, she thought it sounded really alarming.

    Control, yes - doctors are at fault again. If they made us feel we had more involvement in the choices of treatment...I hate that feeling when you're ill that your body belongs to someone else. I am supposed to have my small brown moles photographed regularly to check for 'changes', but the experience was so humiliating that I stupidly can't face it again (they left me sitting naked while three male technicians - not all of them doctors - tried to make their shiny new camera work, zooming in and out on me and looking at me then at their screen, calling in colleagues to consult on the camera, never speaking to me, for about half an hour). I felt like a witch on trial in Salem! So I shall be checking them myself from now on.

  7. PS I meant aspirin, of course. I can't type!!!

  8. Thank you for all your interesting comments.

    I would like to stress again that I was only talking about the use of alternative therapies in very serious and life-threatening illnesses.

    I’m not quite sure I believe in any alternative treatment: as I said, I have no money to give to charlatans. I’ve never had acupuncture, but the consensus is that it does work in certain cases. I definitely think homeopathy is nonsense. (Btw, K, it’s not homeopathy you’re using when you have the flu: it’s just natural remedies and common sense. LOL! Homeopathic medicines are those tiny white tablets and drops containing infinitesimal amounts of whatever it is that’s causing the illness. It’s supposed to treat “like with like”.) However, I did have a curious experience with Bach’s Rescue Remedy. I bought a small bottle of it in a health food store when it first came out in this country. I was curious to try it. Once, I can’t remember why now, I got extremely distressed about something and left a distraught message about it on my partner’s answerphone. Over the following hour, I got more and more upset, then I remembered the Rescue Remedy and took the recommended four drops in a little water. Almost instantly, I felt a wave of calm gp through my body and my mind (just like the effect of Valium, I discovered many years later). I called my partner again and left a message that sounded as if it was from a totally different person. Those two messages had to be heard to be believed. It was like a miracle. Rescue Remedy contains a tiny amount of brandy so it couldn’t be the alcohol, although, as my partner reminded me last night, I got drunk on a rum baba once. LOL! I have to say that RR hasn’t worked like that since then. Unfortunately.

    I think – I hope – people are given frightening diagnoses in a more caring way these days, although it’s quite possible they’re still asked to leave the surgery with not even a glass of water to help them recover from the shock. The doctor who announced the statistics I mentioned in my post said that the medical profession needed to examine how they dealt with patients in those circumstances and be more compassionate, because their failure was the reason why so many people turned to other practitioners.

    However, he also said that they needed to be much firmer with cancer patients in particular and impress on them that they would not find a cure outside conventional medicine. When I went up to that lab in Liverpool the first time (to have a mask made up, etc.), I was welcomed by smiling researchers who believed one hundred per cent in their revolutionary treatment. The whole atmosphere was very jolly (there is a small Polaroid photo somewhere in a file that shows me laughing my head off, strapped to what looks like an electric chair). At one point, though, I was taken to a side room and sat down by a “real” doctor, an oncologist. He looked stern. He didn’t reassure me (“You won’t lose your eye. You’ll be fine.) He didn’t quote statistics (“The survival rate is 99 per cent over five years.”) He just said, “You will die if you don’t do something about this.” I remember being angry with him for being so direct and “heartless” towards me, this poor cancer victim. The possibility of my dying had been at the back of my mind, of course, but I needed to hear it from someone else. I needed someone to stop bullsh*tting me with reassurances. And that’s what some people don’t get from their doctors these days. They’re told, “Yes, sure, why don’t you try that? That’s a very good idea!”, when they should be told in no uncertain terms, “It’s a waste of time and money. You’ve got Stage 3 breast cancer; you need a mastectomy and chemotherapy now.” They need to be told the truth about their condition and given clear instructions. I don’t think cancer patients should actually be given the choice between conventional medicine or alternative therapies. The choice is between being treated or not. If you want to commit suicide, fine. The other day on the radio, I heard someone say that her daughter, who had a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer, had chosen to treat herself with Chinese herbs. That young woman had a small child. I think she’s committing a crime – against her child – by depriving it of its mother, because there is no way she’s going to be alive in a few months.

    The idea that a positive attitude helps with recovery is also a fallacy. It’s been disproved by several studies. I’m sure the vegetarian and health-conscious Linda McCartney, for instance, had a very positive attitude when she was suffering from cancer. It didn’t stop her from dying. My partner can testify that I spoke about death all the time, when I was ill… and I’m still here (touch wood!). Sometimes we have to accept that we are not in charge, and all we can do is deal with the situation as best we can – that’s all. The rest is just to make us feel better.

  9. Lulu, in the U.S. a lot gets shoved under the banner of "alternative medicine," and pretty much if it doesn't involve surgery or some time of chemical medication, there are more people than not who label all as pure piffle. It's socially hip to be "into" these things, but it's not culturally acceptable to believe in any of it. I am, of course, generalizing. It's neat to see how it's all viewed outside of my home country.

    Bela, you're going to have a really good laugh at me, but I started doing the fever thing of treating heat with heat from a book that listed it along with other homeopathic remedies and techniques. I was curious, and I actually did peruse the book after finding it at the library. I don't think I adopted much else from it, but boy was that sure a piece of good advice.

  10. K, I’m not laughing at you, at all. That book you read was misleading as far as terminology is concerned, but it looks like it was full of good advice.

  11. Wonderful post. I don't believe in crap instead of treatment either. Give me the science. But, of course, there are therapies that can be helpful with pain, etc., if the patient believes in them. But not to cure.

    My husband had lung cancer over five years ago. (He had never smoked.) It had already left the lung when discovered, and therefore could not be operated on. But here he is. Doing pretty darn well, because of chemo and radiation. Bless Johns Hopkins Hospital.

  12. Thank you, TLP, and I'm so glad you agree.

    A year before he died, John Diamond wished us both "eternal remission". It was a lovely thought. Since it's worked for me so far, I'd like to pass it on to your husband, and to all the cancer survivors out there who benefited from cutting edge treatments. :-)

  13. Yeesh. Western medicine is by far the greatest weapon the world has ever had against really horrible advanced ailments. I never understand why some people don't trust it. I can understand if Western medicine has failed you, you might begin to grasp at anything, anything else, but not trying it in the first place is foolishness.

    Don't get me started on those homeopathic pills with nothing in them. It makes me furious.

    I'm not saying that everything that falls under the heading "alternative medicine" is bunk, of course. For instance, I think other cultures put a far greater emphasis on prevention, through diet and exercise, and our doctors are too unwilling to tell a person who's not yet sick what to do to be healthy. I also know that many of the pharmaceutical treatments we use today come from botanicals that have been used for ages to treat ailments. Chinese herbal medicines aren't all totally useless. And there are many ordinary weeds that grow rampant that have medicinal uses, for sure. If you've got a bruise or a sore throat, these things can come in handy.

    But if you have cancer? Get thee to a hospital!

  14. And P.S. I think *everyone* should have massages regularly. I don't know if it makes us any healthier, but life is short, and we may as well not go through it with a crick in the neck. :)

  15. I've never had a proper massage. I'm very ticklish.

  16. heh. bela's ticklish. I think that's funny! xoxoxo

    qbtbolj: arabic footwear

  17. Hee hee! "Guili-guili" (That's what you say in French when you're tickling someone.) xxx

    befda: someone obviously doesn't know how to pronounce my name. LOL!


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