Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Byrne-out: a tale of two cancer victims.

Today, boys and girls, we have one of my occasional guest columns, this time by a regular who pops in now and then under the name "Frances."

A few prerequisites. First
as is always the case when I present these columnsthey are not to be interpreted as anything beyond "one person's opinion."* I am showcasing the following thoughts not under the guise of presenting universal truth (though I do think they cut pretty close to the heart of the matter, or perhaps in this case the breast of it); I'm showcasing them because I find them interesting and on-message. Second, by their nature, all posts of this type deal in anecdotal evidence. Frances is comparing the plight of one high-profile cancer victim who turned to conventional medicine to the plight of another high-profile cancer victim who turned to The Secret. Bear in mind, however, that in the latter instance, anecdotal evidence of failure carries more weight than in the former instance, because devotees of The Secret, beginning with its creator, claim that its core methods always work. Therefore, in theory, all one need do to refute The Secret is find a single case where its methods didn't work.

That said, I now give the floor to Frances.

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Kim Tinkham is the woman who famously said on Oprah that she was stopping all science-based cancer treatment, and was only going to rely on The Secret. Well... the cancer magically got attracted to her again after she thought it was no longer there, and she died last Tuesday:

The last link compares Tinkham's cancer with Elizabeth Edwards' (coincidentally, they died on the same day). Edwards, of course, chose standard science-based medicine. I thought this quote was very telling:
Now, a cancer quack would argue that Edwards "only" lived six years.
And this paragraph about Tinkham was very interesting as well:
The reason [she chose The Secret over standard medicine], I suspect, is that she was the type of person who needed answers. Remember, she wasn't satisfied that conventional doctors couldn't tell her why she got this cancer. Even though conventional doctors could treat it with a fairly high likelihood of success, they could not tell her with 100% certainty the answer to the question: Why me?
Promising certainty, and an all-or-nothing attitude about survival ... I have always said that money isn't the root of all evil nearly to the extent that seeking comfort through black-or-white thinking is. But it's something humans just want, whether it's good for them or not. Emotional junk food.

Meanwhile, the very definition of humanity is complexity along a continuum. We need to teach comfortability with complexity/ambiguity as an essential life skill.

Tinkham was stage III and would have had a 40-70% chance of surviving 10 years with standard treatment. Without standard treatment, however, her chances of surviving 10 years dropped to 3.6%. She ended up surviving four.

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I (Salerno) would also add that this site is a treasure-trove of info on cancer incidence, prevention and mortality.

* For that matter, my own thoughts are not to be interpreted as anything beyond one person's opinion, either, except that I can vouch for the time, thought and spadework that informed that opinion, especially on SHAM-related topics.That doesn't mean I expect anyone to buy what I say hook, line and sinker. It just means that I'm usually not speaking off-the-cuff, at least when it comes to the self-help realm.

5 comments:

Dimension Skipper said...

Promising certainty, and an all-or-nothing attitude about survival ... I have always said that money isn't the root of all evil nearly to the extent that seeking comfort through black-or-white thinking is. But it's something humans just want, whether it's good for them or not. Emotional junk food.

Bingo! As I age I find I'm noticing this more and more. At least it seems spot-on to me.

One problem I have with Secret-like Law-of-Attraction the-world-is-my-oyster type people is that in devoting themselves to acting the way they WANT the world to be (and even if that only means their own personal worlds), the effect it has on me (and I kind of hope on others as well) is that there is a distinctly glaring insincerity behind it all, an obvious superficiality that it's just, well, acting with no real thought or meaning behind it...

-- You're not doing that for me because you want to do it for me or are concerned for my happiness or needs in any way, but because you want me to do something for you.

-- You're not going to lunch with me because you want to share lunch and conversation to relate what's going on of consequence in each of our lives, you're "networking."

(Note: I HATE that word in that context! Whatever happened to just having actual friends and acquaintances for the sake of just socializing? Even if I sincerely intend to have a meaningful relationship on any level, how do I know the other person has that same honest intent? Just knowing that there are vast armies of "networkers" out there introduces a layer of mistrust in otherwise normal socializing. [Though I still think you can usually tell.])

-- You're not apologizing because you're truly sorry and recognize that now, but because you got caught and so the only way to wriggle out of responsibility is to say some insincere mea culpas and then "move on" or "go forward", another modern buzz phrase I detest as it's just semantic and posturing verbal filler. [And I believe people often accept such apologies because A) they want to move on as quickly as possible, and B) they figure it's probably the best they're gonna get, so may as well accept it because, well, it's something.]

I could be wrong or just greatly exaggerating an occasional sense of things. Also, I could just be megacynical, even paranoid. But the perception is there more and more.

I still have a pet theory that most of this stems from just too damned many people in the world (or in my corner of it, maybe). Used to be (as far as I can recall) that neighbors really knew each other and even usually looked out for one another. Now there are just so many actual neighbors plus virtual neighbors that I think our relationship focuses are just spread too thin (and getting thinner all the time). In general... more people, more needs, more competition, more conflict, more overreactions, and of course more reporting on it all in more venues (not to mention venues obviously catering to certain perspectives/agendas) just to hyper-sensitize everyone and stir things up more.

Dimension Skipper said...

Sorry. I guess that turned into something of a rant and I'm not too sure how on topic it even is. It may be more reflective of my own state of mind at times lately. Perhaps it's just symptomatic of my own negative version of LoA.

Let me at least try to bring it back to the medical theme... Articles like this one come along much more often than I'd like. I see similar stuff in my normal science feeds every couple months or so. If it's not overuse of stent procedures by some doctors, then it's the possibility that maybe some medications are actually fairly ineffective (or even potentially harmful), but get pushed by doctors pushed by big pharma pushed by the lure of massive profits.

Read enough stuff like that and I can actually begin to understand how someone might be a little more willing to accept simplified LoA-type answers. Can't agree with it, but I can understand it. It's extremely unfortunate that things like cancer don't allow second chance do-overs.

Anonymous said...

I think Frances' guest-post ignores the proverbial elephant in the room, even as it brings up the absurdity of someone turning to The Secret because they wanted a concrete answer to why they'd been struck with cancer. A few hundred years ago, it would have been blamed on their sinful nature, even if they appeared blameless, and this is just the updated version: You attracted your own misfortune because you just didn't measure up. Before Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod, people believed that a house was struck by lightning because of its owners' sinfulness; firefighters would rush to save surrounding buildings, but would let the stricken house burn to the ground. Franklin's invention showed that lightning was just a natural phenomenon, and its strikes could be diverted.

You'd think someone who wanted answers would have researched possible genetic and environmental causes: What's my family's cancer history? Where do I live and work, and what's going on here that might produce cancer? How do I live, and ditto? Where have I lived/worked in the past? What might I have been exposed to? etc.etc.) But there are always those who turn to a Higher Power for simplistic but definitive answers, be it God or the Law of Attraction.

But let's get back to that elephant: quality of life. Elizabeth Edwards may have lived six years after her diagnosis, but what kind of life did she have (John Edwards' behavior excluded)? As I understand it, her suffering from her treatments was extreme. Kim whatever lived four years after her diagnosis. What kind and quality of life did she have? (I didn't click the links, and had never heard of her, so I have no clue.) Was it really worse than Elizabeth Edwards'? Would a few more years have justified the horrific treatments we currently prescribe for cancer? I'm convinced that future generations will look back in horror at the barbarity and ineffectual nature of today's cancer treatments.

I'm squarely in the Kevorkian camp on this. We wouldn't let a dog suffer unbearable pain; why do we insist on letting ourselves suffer it in the name of religion, when death is, as Shakespeare accurately noted, no more than life's end, "rounded with a sleep"? God knows, I'm not opposed to medical treatments, but I'm opposed to the sheeplike way in which people are turned into passive victims of their doctors' orders, whatever those orders might be. (No wonder they're called "patients"!)

Get the diagnosis, get the prognosis, research all the options, then make your choices, say I. Live every day to the fullest while life is worth living; once pain or debility has destroyed that worth, say your goodbyes and take another path. Having held animals while they were euthanized, I can affirm that it is a humane and painless process; I suffered their loss, but their own sufferings ended instantly. Their features, taut with held-in suffering, relaxed; at last, again, they were themselves. They were free. I wish someone would show as much kindness and compassion to me when the time comes.

Anonymous said...

Two very thoughtful comments here, and I agree with both DimSkip's growing cynicism while aging and having watched the devastation caused by radical cancer treatments, the mercy plea of the other commenter for a swift and painless end.
The only caveat being that no-one else should make that decision on another's behalf.

Steve Salerno said...

DimSkip: I'm late getting back to this--there's much, much going on--but the phenomenon you reference is so terribly complex, far-reaching and, in the end, disturbing; it cuts to the very core of the modern social fabric. Some years back (early 90s?) a gentleman named Robert Putnam wrote a book, Bowling Alone, that got a certain amount of play but didn't generate nearly the buzz it should have. Putnam talked about the fundamental isolation of modern society, which has only grown over the past decade as the so-called "electronic cottage" comes fully to fruition. All of that contextual stuff--both fed and catalyzed by the narcissism inherent in the self-help movement, self-esteem-based learning, etc., etc., cannot help but produce a world where, to some degree, every man (and woman) is an island, and worries chiefly (if not entirely) about his particular stretch of beach. I think I mentioned this the other day as well, but the whole thing really hit home for me some years back when I saw one of my editorial interns send her mother an ecard along with some virtual flowers. Very sad.