Medical Treatment vs. Magical Thinking: Which Would You Choose?

Editor’s note: In honor of this week’s #BCSM tweetchat on alternative therapies and quackery, I’m “rerunning” this post I wrote a couple of years ago. -Jackie

I just don’t understand how someone can live in this day and age and deny the effectiveness of scientifically sound medical treatment when dealing with breast cancer. I was completely flummoxed when I came across the in-depth and thoughtful post “A horrifying breast cancer ‘testimonial’ for ‘holistic’ treatment” on the Respectful Insolence science blog, written by a surgeon and scientist who uses the pen name Orac. (Editor’s note: Read his latest post on cancer quackery.)

Like others who came before and surely will come after her, Kim Tinkham rejected conventional medical treatment  in favor of quack pseudoscience, in this case provided by Robert O. Young, who believes cancer is caused by “excess acid” and flacks something called the PH Miracle. Which also aids with weight loss, diabetes and anti-aging according to their website. And why not? Heck, if it can cure stage 3 breast cancer, weight loss must be a piece of cake.

As I read this excellent if alarming blog, I couldn’t stop wondering what could cause someone to reject real medical treatment for 21st century snake oil. And as Orac explained, Tinkham was also a proponent of “The Secret,” which was a big fad a few years ago. The Secret is like a self-fulfilling prophecy on steroids–whatever you believe, you can make happen, never mind cause and effect. The psychology world calls this naive and unfounded belief “magical thinking.”

I’m not trying to pick on Tinkham, just understand her. One of the things she kept talking about was personal choice. I’m pretty big on choice myself. I know from experience how difficult the choices can be when it comes to breast cancer, and I also know that no one else can make that choice for us. And I understand and support people who choose to not to undergo treatment so they can maintain quality of life as they approach its end.

But to reject the treatment that’s our best hope of forestalling that stark end-of-life choice is absolutely unfathomable to me. While I was wrestling with the decision of what treatment plan I should accept for my early-stage breast cancer, not once did it occur to me to reject those options for the equivalent of not stepping on a crack.

What has to be in your head and heart, to make you believe that belief itself (and whatever magic elixir happens to be in vogue) is a better option than professional medical treatment? How can we break through that kind of belief system? I’m not sure we can. I kept wondering what I would do if someone I loved told me she was going that route. I wouldn’t be above trying emotional blackmail and begging her to do it for her family if not herself.

The saddest thing about this is all those other desperate women who are going to see Tinkham’s testimonial on YouTube and believe in quack cures like she did. If only we could get them to believe in science and medicine.

As for Robert O. Young, there’s a special place in Hades for him and people like him.

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What Do Chasing An MFA & Breast Cancer Have in Common?

If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you know I’ve compared breast cancer to everything from golf to riding a motorcycle. Pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts might seem like a bigger stretch than any of them, but as I enter the third week of my first semester, I’ve found more similarities than I expected.

1. Both can make you feel overwhelmed. When I was first diagnosed, my mind was spinning like a hamster on a wheel and I couldn’t sleep. While trying to figure out a treatment plan, I’d wake up in a panic wondering what to do. While trying to figure out a study plan during residency, I’d wake up in a panic wondering what I had done.

2. Both require stillness to achieve your goals. You have got to find that place of stillness to make the right treatment decision. I could tell I had made the right decision when the churning in my head stopped. You have also got to find that stillness in order to create a poem, a short story, a novel. You may need to take a break from all your frenetic activity, online as well as offline.

3. Both keep your brain humming along. The hamster wheel sensation is not pleasant; it’s a mind spinning with absolutely nowhere to go. As the date of my mastectomy approached, the churn in my head was replaced by a constant low-level humming, like a low-level caffeine buzz. Now my head is humming with poetry. It’s a mix of things I’ve read kicking in and ideas for poems and essays and yes, deadlines. But it’s my brain trying to find the patterns in what I’m learning, a far cry from anticipating very personal and very scary surgery.

4. Both are lonely endeavors. The loneliest I’ve ever been in my life was when I was coming to my treatment decision. Your doctors can’t make that decision for you. Neither can your family or friends. Staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper can also be a lonely feeling. Writing is a solitary activity.

5. Both have awesome communities. As I was putting in 12-hour days attending workshops and lectures and having conversations you’d have to be a poetry geek to get excited about, it occurred to me that I had found my tribe–again. I had many moments when my writing tribe reminded me of the sherpa tribe I’ve found in the breast cancer community.

The big difference is that MFA candidates are self-selected. We all want to be there. No one  volunteers to join the breast cancer community. But once you’re in it, you realize how wonderful it is and how much we help each other through.