Finding the “Cure”

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Yesterday I read a really interesting article in The New York Times on the conflation of the “wellness” industry with medicine. The piece talked about all the current wellness fads–everything charcoal, detoxing, supplements–and how most of them have very little impact on a person’s overall health or longevity of life.

Even more concerning–because you would think it would be obvious–these things do nothing to cure or prevent disease. Yet many people believe “wellness” products and regimens can keep them cancer-free, make their arthritis go away or miraculously reverse the effects of a host of ailments.

Scrolling my Facebook feed, I’m not surprised so many people believe this malarkey. I regularly see posts about the “lies” told by “Big Pharma,” along with posts touting the ability of everything from marijuana to essential oils to treat and cure everything from anxiety to cancer.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not totally poo-pooing alternative medicine or wellness products/practices. I’ve tried some of these things, and I think there’s merit in things outside the traditional realm of Western medicine, even if it’s just a placebo that makes me feel better mentally. And I do believe in medicinal uses for marijuana, particularly in relieving symptoms like nausea.

BUT. And this is a big but–I would never do or tout one of those wellness practices/products in place of actual medical care/medicine. Because for one thing, I am not a doctor. I have not studied or practiced medicine. Beyond personal experience and internet research, I have no knowledge of how and why certain treatments work for certain diseases.

Just thinking about breast cancer, I had no idea before being diagnosed how incredibly complex this disease is. There’s no such thing as just breast cancer–each case is different, based on a host of variables–rate of growth, hormone and protein receptors, genetic mutations. Two women with breast cancer may have completely different treatments because their cancers are different types.

Because of that, there’s no one magic bullet that cures all cancer. And to suggest that marijuana or essential oils or some yet-to-be-determined plant from a rainforest is the magical cure that everyone dreams of is at best naive, and at worst very dangerous.

Because here’s the thing–there are people who believe this stuff. They don’t do their research, and they don’t ask questions. They read something on Facebook and believe it.  And that person can be in great harm if they read that your essential oil is the only thing they need to treat their cancer.

Listen, I get it–chemo is scary, and it sucks. And sometimes it doesn’t work. But a lot of the time, it does. It did for me. And so I get a little bent out of shape when I see someone with no medical training spouting half-truths or outright lies on the internet to help sell their multi-level marketing company’s products.

It’s a slap in the face to anyone who’s undergone chemotherapy–essentially pointing out you must be an idiot to allow that “poison” into your body. And it’s discounting the years of research and work done to create these drugs and bring them to patients.

The old adage says if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I feel like that’s more applicable than ever, and I really hope people will keep that in mind, think critically, and ask questions and demand science-based answers. And stop sharing dumb shit on the internet!

**steps off soapbox

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What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient

I’ve had a lot of time to sit around and think since my surgery. And one of the things that I ponder is all the stupid things I used to say and think about cancer.

Like most people lucky enough not to have personally dealt with the disease, I didn’t really understand how it worked. I’m still no expert, but I know a great deal more now than I once did. That knowledge makes me cringe at some of the things I used to think and say.

Outside my own transgressions, I’ve had a lot of well-meaning people say some pretty ridiculous things to me. I know it comes from a good place, and I also know that most people struggle with finding the right thing to say to someone with cancer. They want to help. But some of the things they say are pretty unhelpful. And some are downright rude and/or hurtful.

Here are some of the worst/most common things people have said to me that I would advise people to avoid when interacting with people battling cancer:

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“You know eating/drinking meat/sugar/alcohol/etc., causes cancer.”
During my first appointment following my diagnosis, I met with a nutritionist who gave me a list of food-related cancer myths. What she told me was this: Yes, eating a plant-based diet with lean protein is best for cancer patients. But, it’s best for everyone, and it has nothing to do with cancer. There is just not enough research definitively linking any food/drink to cancer. Yes, there have been studies that have mentioned certain foods could cause an increased risk, but these findings are not widespread enough to officially draw a direct causal link to cancer.

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“You know your deodorant/lotion/makeup/soap causes cancer.”
No. Just no. This is even worse than the food one. There is no solid medical evidence linking any personal grooming products such as deodorant to cancer. Most of the time, you’ll hear these claims made by people/companies peddling “natural” body products, which, to me, is disgusting. To use the fear of cancer as a marketing ploy is really beyond the pale. My deodorant did not cause my cancer. My genetics did.

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“There’s a cure for cancer, but the government/pharmaceutical companies won’t ever allow it to be discovered/used because they would lose too much money.”
I must admit, I’m guilty of saying this one in the past. And of all the wrong things people say, this one sticks in my craw the most now. The truth is, there is no one cure for cancer. There aren’t five cures for cancer. Because cancer is an incredibly complex disease. Even within one type–breast cancer, for instance–there are so many different variations that change the way it’s treated, the way it grows and whether or not the patient survives. For example, breast cancer patients can have one of two different types of gene mutation that can cause their disease (BRCA1 and BRCA2), or they might not have the mutation at all. Their cancer could be estrogen receptive, progesterone receptive or HER2 positive. Or it could be a triple negative or any combination of the three. There are so many variables that finding a “cure” that address all of them all is damn-near impossible.
On top of all that, this kind of statement spits in the face of all the intelligent, dedicated people out there in the medical industry fighting cancer every day. People like my wonderful oncologist, who not only has a professional stake in this battle with his years of medical training and experience, but also a personal stake since his own wife is a breast cancer survivor. If there was a cure, he would be the first one doling it out.

There are so many things you can say to a cancer patient. “I’m here for you.” “I hope you’re feeling good.” “I love you.” If you want to be helpful, offer to make food or do chores. But unless your friend or loved one asks, don’t offer your medical advice. Because trust me, they probably don’t want to hear it.

And if you’d like to learn more about the disease from a factual, research-based source, I highly recommend visiting the American Cancer Society website.