Living With Cancer: The Lure of Alternative Remedies by Susan Gubar

The New York Times Well

November 5, 2015

Susan Gubar writes about life with ovarian cancer.

When I get tired of being told to juice carrots, I remember that the essayist Anatole Broyard took tap-dancing lessons as he underwent treatment for prostate cancer. Sick people need all sorts of strategies, alongside medical ones, to deal with disease.

The members of my support group use meditation, acupuncture, herbal supplements, Yoga and massage to supplement standard cancer care. Judging from a number of patient accounts, traditionally trained surgeons and oncologists do not know enough about biofeedback training, hypnosis, TENS machines, mindfulness techniques, guided imagery and other pain and stress management protocols that can be more effective than prescription drugs with their miserable side effects.

But alternative approaches that bypass conventional medicine are often marketed as panaceas. Like every cancer patient I know, I have been instructed on the curative powers of green tea, flax seeds, frankincense, blueberries, kale, ginger, mistletoe injections, vitamins C and B17, Reiki masters, shark cartilage, visualization, crystals, healing hands, curcumin and resveratrol, energy release exercises, vegan and macrobiotic and alkalizing diets, colonic body cleansing, coffee enemas, hemp oil and (lest I forget) carrots. Saying “thank you but no thank you” to well-meaning zealots gets old fast.

To my mind, though, directives on these remedies are far less distressing than the “heal-yourself-with-a-positive-attitude” movement, which remains alive and well even though it dates back to the 1980s, long before I got my diagnosis. While the popularity of Dr. O. Carl Simonton, Dr. Lawrence LeShan and Dr. Bernie Siegel peaked, friends with breast cancer labored under the impression that the disease was their fault. As Christina Middlebrook lamented in her memoir, “New Age tyranny suggests that if I have cancer I must have ‘needed’ it in order to resolve some previous life issue that lies rotting beneath the surface of my life.”

By these weird lights, cancer provides an opportunity to release oneself from the psychological troubles that presumably caused the physiological disease. Isn’t this a case of blaming the victim? For every exceptional patient convinced that he could cure himself, wouldn’t there be a number of unexceptional patients whose recurrences might make them feel like duds?

Although scientists do not know what causes many cancers, popular books and websites continue to portray cancer as the responsibility of the patient and therefore exacerbate the blame game that often accompanies a diagnosis. The question “How did I get it?” can degenerate into a series of recriminatory answers.

“Was it tofu?” Eve Ensler asks in her book, In the Body of the World. She emphasizes the inanity of such self-analysis by pondering her mother’s frailty, bad reviews, an adulterous husband, vegetarianism, Fruit Loops, not crying enough or crying too much, and walls. All of our lists could go on ad infinitum, without the guilt trips of spiritual gurus making wads of cash by criticizing big pharma while promising to teach us how to stimulate our chi or release chakras congested with negativity.

So when I came across a 1997 essay called “The Gift of Disease,” by the postmodernist writer Kathy Acker, my hackles rose. Cancer is not a gift I would want to give or receive. Confronting a breast cancer diagnosis, Ms. Acker feared surgery less than chemotherapy which at that time began at $20,000. Without medical benefits, she refused further treatment after a double mastectomy. From her perspective, cancer had burgeoned into a business that extorted huge sums of money from patients.

Worse yet, the operation proved to her that she “was being reduced to something I couldn’t recognize.” The passivity and objectification imposed by Western medicine horrified her: “If I remained in the hands of conventional medicine, I would soon be dead, rather than diseased, meat.” Ms. Acker believed that traditionally trained doctors demoted her to a puppet following instructions, which meant that “my death, and so my life, would be meaningless.”

In order not to be reduced to materiality, Ms. Acker turned to psychics, Reichian therapists, Chinese herbalists and Native American guides who encouraged her to face past traumas and unblock the energy that would heal her. They gave her a sense of her own “imagination” and the “will” to envision “a leap of faith” that brought “intellectual excitement and joy.” A year and half after writing the words “I no longer have cancer,” she died in Tijuana at an alternative cancer clinic.

Kathy Acker had wanted to make her death meaningful and so she did, for she has clarified the lure of unorthodox remedies. None of us wants to be robbed of our savings — health care expenses remain a struggle even for the insured — or of imagination and will, intellectual excitement and joy, as we live with cancer. The number of people passionately committed to alternative approaches represents a stinging critique of traditional medical practices, or so you might very well surmise (though I wouldn’t presume to say so).

Personally, I’m not about to give up on my oncologist’s bag of tricks. But maybe instead of watching so much TV, I will start channeling my reprobate energies into tap-dancing toward a juicing party — at which guests will be asked to make orange the new black.

 

 

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