It hasn't been a great week or so for complementary or natural therapy. Belle Gibson has at best been an ordinary businesswoman or account-keeper. It's unfortunately everywhere now, that she may never have had the terminal brain cancer that she claimed she had cured with her eating plan. Another 'wellness-warrior' Jess Ainclough died from her sarcoma, for which she shunned conventional therapy. And outspoken chef and Paleo-fiend Pete Evans has a cookbook that had a seriously dangerous 'milk' recipe for toddlers. Ouch. Not to mention the NHMRC told us homeopathy really, truly does not work.
The cancer I deal with the most is lung cancer. Most of the patients who have lung cancer are a little older and probably haven't had the benefit of seeing Belle Gibson's beautiful Instagram pictures and being enticed into trying kale rather than surgery or chemotherapy for such a deadly cancer. But I do see a number of patients who have heart disease taking 'alternative medicines'. These medicines often interact with the medicines we use that are proven to save your life. In those undergoing heart surgery, a number of herbal remedies cause you to bleed a lot more than normal and cause you to need blood transfusions and even further surgery to stop bleeding.
As a doctor, I find all this wellness warrior business frustrating. At university, we are trained to be inquiring and critical of everything we do. Every journal article we read, we scrutinise for reasons why the findings may not be applicable to our own patients. We read looking to see if the study was ethical, if the way in which it was run was likely to lead to good results or slightly dodgy results. And if we find something we think is a good idea, in order to implement for our patients, it may need to go through regulation at hospital, state and national levels. So yeah, I think it's pretty safe to say we back what we do and we have the evidence to say that it works.
A large proportion of people with cancer will concurrently be using complementary or alternative therapies. And some are very useful - mindfulness, mediation, prayer, behavioural therapy are all great for reducing pain and anxiety. I think that if you have a life-threatening illness, taking a strong approach to healthy eating is great, especially if it makes you feel better and keeps your overall health strong for taking treatments. I don't think any of us can say that if we are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness we would want to try anything. I get it.
Complementary and alternative medicine does not cure cancer. It just doesn't. It may make you feel better about being holistic and 'healthy' and that you're making a positive change. Herbs and spices belong on KFC and not as your primary treatment for cancer.
In WA several years ago, a woman was diagnosed with bowel cancer. At the time she was diagnosed, she was recommended to have cancer to remove the diseased area of bowel. Had she done this, her chances of surviving were pretty reasonable. However, her husband and another woman convinced her to forego surgery and chemotherapy and instead 'prescribed' a regimen of enemas, baths, wraps. When she bled from the bowel, they told her it was the treatment working. When the pain took her, same explanation. This poor lady turned up to her hospital emergency department with such a bad blockage in her bowel, she vomited faeces. She was so sick and the doctors who looked after her, had never seen anything like it. The state coroner released a scathing report on her naturopathic husband and others involved in her demise. They were not involved in her care. Care implies you direct and aid someone towards the best for their health and wellbeing.
My colleagues and I could spend all day refuting the claims of the kale smoothie, coffee enemas and bone broth. Maybe all week. And it's not because we want to make more money for ourselves, or big pharma or torture people with vomiting and hair loss for giggles. It's because we've all seen people with advanced cancer, cardiac disease or babies who are malnourished. Let me be clear: cancer is a bitch. Treatments can suck. But dying in the manner in which people did hundreds and hundreds of years ago is awful. A waste of a life and a painful, horrific death. I'm not going to speculate on her exact treatment, but Jess the Wellness Warrior dying is sad. So sad. She was only 30 years old. I think that is far too young to leave this earth.
The paleo-kid cookbook has been pulled by the publisher. The liver and bone broth has more vitamin A than is safe for an infant. Vitamin A in high levels ruins your skin, mouth, liver, bones, appetite etc. You know, stuff children need. And he's going to publish it anyway online, himself. He is absolutely flat out denying any wrong doing. Pete Evans can definitely cook a risotto better than I will ever be able to. But it's pretty safe to say that liver broth for kidlets is simply not okay. In fact it's downright dangerous, arrogant and bordering on criminal. If I tell someone that I can 100% cure their illness and that nothing will go wrong, I get sued or maybe even de-registered. These guys just publish somewhere else. Infuriating!
Here's what I think.
Doctors are at a distinct disadvantage here. We're time poor and not good-looking enough to post sexy selfies on Instagram with our aspirin or chemotherapy and wax lyrical about the health benefits thereof. Plus, I'm not sure there is a way to make a vial of medicine look as pretty as a kale smoothie. Heart surgery is definitely not as beautiful as a smoothie by a pool doing yoga. But people can be reached by these avenues. There is so much information so readily available to people today about their healthcare which can be great. My patients would be worried if I got my instructions on performing heart surgery from Twitter or a blog as I am with them getting their advice from something similar. Ask questions and be pro-active but please be safe. If you want independent information, as a patient, there is so much available nowadays that is from a reputable source.
I am fond of the healthy living movement - it may help us (myself included) make better food and activity choices, mean it's easier to get healthy food when you're out and about and generally should motivate us to improve our health and well being. I really wish I could pin point what it is that turns people into 'living healthy' to 'doctors are full of it and I'm going to cure myself with quinoa'. Has medicine failed you that much?
I think that in order to protect people, alternative medicine should be more highly regulated. You should not be able to make claims without the goods to back them up. You should not be able to sell homeopathic goods and make a therapeutic claim about them. You should not be allowed to publish, particularly for profit, a book with a recipe for children that will kill and maim some children.
Please, be safe.
*Disclaimer: nothing in this post was organic.
And apologies to quinoa, I really like quinoa. But I don't like kale. Nothing personal, I just don't like the taste