Sunday, February 05, 2006

The hope and "self-destiny" of death.

First of all, there is a shocking photo about two-thirds of the way down the page today. It's there because I want you to see it. When I first posted this item I had the photo at the top, hoping to get your attention right off the bat--but I've already heard back from one or two repulsed SHAMblog regulars, so I thought it best to put it farther down the page, and warn you ahead of time. The woman in the photo is Ruth Conrad, and you can read her story by clicking here. She represents the horrifyingly perfect introduction to today's topic.

Media people sometimes ask me whether I'm overstating the wider social impact of self-help. Their attitude is along the lines of, "OK, granted, we know that true self-help addicts may be wasting some money--and of course, it's their money to waste, if they want to. But come on, Steve. Beyond that, who's really getting hurt here...?"

Now, if they'd actually read SHAM (they always claim to, but I'm dubious), they wouldn't be asking their questions from such a cynical perspective; they'd already know the wider ills. That particular discussion occupies the entire second half of the book, and is foreshadowed in much of the first part. But I don't think I could make a better case for the damage this stuff does in one particular area--health and medicine--than what the Los Angeles Times tells us in a long article, today. For a growing percentage of Americans nowadays, not only is SHAM not life-changing, as it falsely promises to be--it can be life-ending.

On its surface, the Times piece is about the growing acceptance of so-called alternative medicine, and how such acceptance has made large numbers of us vulnerable to medical quackery. (I say "so-called" because, as one of my sources told me, "There is no such thing as 'alternative medicine.' It's a false dichotomy. There is only sound medicine, based on established medical principles, and there is unproven treatment, which is not, and should never be confused with, actual medicine.") But if you look a little deeper, what underlies the piece--and alt-med--is the twin notion that (a) people are somehow equipped and even entitled to diagnose their own health-care needs, and (b) each of us has somewhere within us this special reserve of healing energies that enables us to conquer any sickness, up to and including serious cancers, without formal treatment. The alt-med quack sells the (bitterly ironic) notion that traditional medicine is really just an expensive, duplicitous scam, that the real solutions lie within you and your own healing just need to give those energies a little kickstart by adopting the quack's methods (in return for which the quack usually gets around to handing you a very large bill of his own: a total of $138,000 in the case that opens today's Times article).

By the way, this is not to be construed as a whole-hog endorsement of everything that goes on in conventional medicine. We all know that medicine makes mistakes, and yes, that traditional MDs may not always have the patient's best interests at heart. But folks--let's get real here. At least conventional medicine is rooted in a body of knowledge that has been tested and validated under controlled conditions over a period of years, if not centuries. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, is rooted in...nothing. Nothing except a variant of that same old cliche we've encountered time and again in our journey through SHAMland: Believe it, achieve it. Or as Times writer Shari Roan puts it, "...while traditional doctors may be blunt when issuing a prognosis, alternative practitioners frequently emphasize hope and a sense of self-destiny." Sound familiar?

One of the questions I constantly ask about all of self-help applies with a special sobriety here: "Do we just want to feel better? Or do we want to be better?" In my book I write about Debbie Benson, who went the alt-med route in an effort to cure her breast cancer, and who, of course, died. Yes, breast cancer patients die every day. But "Debbie died much sooner than she needed to, if she needed to die at all," speculates one of her closest friends. "She actively avoided orthodox medicine. She hadn't had a mammogram in ten years. And she went to great lengths to try everything but the standard course of treatment, thinking she could do this on her own." In fact, when she started to fail, her naturopath convinced her that it was partly because Debbie had "lost faith" in her own healing power. You see? Faith was going to cure her. Not treatment.

Something to think about. Anyway, read the Times piece and decide for yourself.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree this picture is gross. But truth sometimes isn't pretty, yet we have to deal wit it.

If herbal goop does that to a person's face, what does that save about the metal effects of SHAM?

Anonymous said...

1. we are all going to die
2. the western medical obsession with extending life has fuelled a global trillion dollar pharmaceutical / medical industry that results in more deaths through incorrect prescription, elective surgery [including cosmetic surgery] and suicide [ever hear of someone overdosing on echinacea or mineral supplements?] than CAM has, or in all eventuality will, in thousands of years of application
3. antibiotics alone have resulted in new streams of highly resistant bacterias and pathogens known collectively as 'super-bugs' capable of killing much faster - so the drugs get stronger and the bugs get stronger and the bugs get stronger and ...
4. the ultimate test for all medication should be a test of your own intelligence - the CAM practitioner may well have been negligent - however, the 'patient' was also clearly an idiot
5. regardless of misapplication of 'herbal goop' what has happened to our memory of thalydomide? you cannot blame CAM for that