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.


2 thoughts on “Medical Treatment vs. Magical Thinking: Which Would You Choose?

  1. Hades probably doesn’t want Mr. Young. I do think that people with various illnesses can become so desperate, they buy into this quackery. And this makes me angry because it’s bad enough to have a serious illness, but it adds insult to injury for a quack to take advantage of this desperation.

    Excellent post.

  2. I think we must be careful to not judge others and their choices too harshly. While someone’s beliefs and choices may be “absolutely unfathomable” to us, they are obviously quite important and strong to the person making them. We can offer our own beliefs/choices/opinions, but we have no way of knowing what is the best course of action for that individual. There is already enough pain, confusion, loneliness and judgment associated with Cancer Hell. Isn’t one of the Ten Commandments of Breast Cancer “Thou shalt not judge they neighbor’s treatment or reconstruction choices or attitudes” ???

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