Why naturopaths and wellness bloggers are not the problem

I have found myself recently in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable position of defending natural therapies. This is not a role I ever foresaw for myself. I understand the rigorous scientific process of developing and testing theories, assessing evidence and requiring proof. I studied science into year 12 at high school, was enrolled to study it at university, until journalism won out. I think I am reasonably pragmatic and sceptical by nature. In an age of whacky, self-appointed health gurus and narcissistic wellness bloggers, I can well understand the backlash against the activated charcoal and green smoothie brigade.

And yet, I remain firmly of the view that there are glaring flaws, widespread wilful ignorance, dangerously conflicted interests and misplaced arrogance in the mainstream medical system that is at least tempered by the existence of a sensible and evidence-based complementary medicine paradigm.

Allow me to explain. This all started when I heard a throw-away line from JJJ’s resident science nerd Dr Karl casually dismissing thousands of years of history, tradition, scholarly research and practice in the field of Chinese medicine when he made the bold declaration that acupuncture was a “con”. I could scarcely believe my ears. His co-host, a chirpy millennial with no science qualifications, chimed in that she’d always been of the same belief. I was flabbergasted. I honestly thought we were well beyond the point of any sensible person questioning the efficacy of acupuncture. It has been widely adopted by western medical doctors, it is covered by most health insurance, it is still a chief component of the health system for a country of 1.4 billion people who enjoy fewer incidence of many modern western diseases than most western countries, despite a dramatically lower material standard of living.

A declaration of interest: My wife is an acupuncturist. She studied for three years to gain her qualification, including a stint interning at a Chinese hospital. She completed a post-grad health science degree. She has been practising for 25 years. To remain registered to practice she must complete the requisite amount of professional development each year. Literally hundreds of millions of people have relied on acupuncture’s efficacy for thousands of years. Weighty, scholarly texts and lifetimes of study and research have been devoted to its therapeutic framework.

I have experienced first-hand its benefits, have seen it used effectively for everything from frozen shoulder to inducing labour. And yet a glib radio personality can dismiss it all as a “con”. I challenged him in a tweet and received no reply, but got another response from a fellow sceptic with a link to a medical study that branded acupuncture nothing more than a “theatrical placebo”.

This is apparently not an uncommon view in medical circles. Now, you are entitled to your scepticism, and your studies may indeed support you, but to label an entire field of medicine a “con”, is to call all its practitioners “con artists” and this is outright libel. Whether you understand or accept its efficacy or not, there is no question that thousands of dedicated and well-meaning acupuncturists have studied their field deeply and assiduously, and ply their trade everyday to a generally appreciative clientele who find relief and benefit in it for a vast range of conditions. Among the most common is the relief of chronic pain and an escape from the scourge of escalating and debilitating opiate use.

Did you know 2016 was the year deaths from prescription opiates overtook deaths from illegal street drugs for the first time? There is an epidemic in the irresponsible prescription of opiates and wide-spread “doctor shopping” as addicts go from GP to GP freely collecting scripts without question. The author of one study into the crisis attributed it to the ever more aggressive marketing of these drugs to doctors – not compelling evidence of their long term benefits, and despite evidence of their long term harm. A successful marketing campaign by the pharmaceutical industry to the medical fraternity has led to the crisis. This fact alone should be enough to break the bond of trust between mainstream medicine and the community. Anyone who has sat in their GP’s office and pondered at all the trinkets on display branded and donated by pharmaceutical companies, or who has heard of the lavish hospitality on offer at pharmaceutical conferences, might wonder at the all too cosy relationship between Big Pharma and modern medicine. I’ve first hand of a presentation at just such a conference that succeeded in convincing the assembled medicos that lap band surgery was a much better option to help the morbidly obese than dietary and lifestyle changes.

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for many aspects of modern medicine. If I was in a car crash or required open heart surgery I would want the full weight of modern western medicine on my side in the treatment of the immediate trauma – not essential oils or acupuncture (though I might well utilise those in my longer-term recovery).

In my own experience of living with stage four cancer, I am forever grateful for the conventional therapies that have helped me to arrest and reduce the spread of the disease. But I am also convinced that everything I am doing for myself – a plant-based diet, meditation, exercise, a healthy mental attitude ­­­ – have been essential to my recovery to this point. A close friend of mine, a physiotherapist who gifted me weekly massage for the first year after my diagnosis, told me “incurable” just means that the cure must come from within, that it is indeed “in-curable”.

I was shocked again recently when I dared to take issue with a social media post linking to an article by a medical doctor taking aim at the world of natural therapies, essentially dismissing naturopaths as charlatans and branding wellness bloggers as our greatest threat to public health. Maybe I just got incredibly lucky, but my naturopath is a gem – a former oncology nurse who got sick and tired of seeing how much better her patients did when they used complementary medicine and yet how dismissive the average oncologist was of its benefits. I am as fit and well and optimistic as I am today largely thanks to her guidance.

Literally everything modern medicine has to offer me in the treatment of my cancer is bad for me – from the initial biopsy which risks spreading the disease and other complications, to the scans that require the ingestion of radioactive dye, to the perils of chemotherapy and hormone therapy and radiation, with their lengthy information sheets warning of unwanted and perilous side effects. None of it supports my general health and well-being. All of it is aimed at killing or arresting the spread of cancer cells, at the expense of my overall health, a spiralling law of diminishing returns with only one  inevitable outcome. Here is a system that decides the best way to treat a diseased prostate is to stick it full of sharp needles, tell its owner they are going to die and there is nothing they can do it about, collapse there testosterone levels so they are impotent, fatigued and fuzzy-headed  for whatever time they have left, and then pump them full of toxic chemotherapy drugs so that their hair falls out, their skin turns a pallid grey colour and they suffer an array of unwanted side effects from nausea to neuralgia.

To adopt other, less debilitating therapies to counter the negative side effects of these treatments and support my overall health seems not just sensible but essential. That no mainstream oncologist advocates such strategies is mystifying. I have been told outright that there is literally nothing I can do to help my own prognosis, that I am merely a hapless victim of wretched luck who must forfeit my power and control to medical experts and trust solely in their wisdom and expertise unquestioningly, however damaging or traumatising the treatment. I have been told it makes no difference what I eat – “whether it’s cardboard, Hungry Jacks or organic vegetables, your body turns it all into glucose anyway” – a direct quote from an oncologist. I sought out a second opinion from one of the country’s leading authorities on prostate cancer and she repeated the mantra that diet made no difference but at least added the qualifier – “but then I drink Diet Coke so what would I know,” in a rare admission of ignorance.

And yet when I have challenged the critics of natural therapies, I have been surprised again how many share the dismissive scepticism of its benefits, who bestow all trust in modern medicine despite its many and well-documented fuck ups – from botched surgeries to over-prescription of dangerous drugs to repeated misdiagnosis. I have spent some time with noted cancer survivor Ian Gawler, completing two five-day retreats at the Gawler Cancer Centre in Victoria, learning about the plant-based diet, meditation, spiritual and emotional healing practices he used to rid himself of terminal cancer. He told me when he healed himself, having once been given three weeks to live, what most surprised him was the lack of curiosity from the medical profession, and what he hadn’t anticipated was that it would become a “turf war”, in which he was seen as a threat to the business model, not an inspiring case study to be carefully examined and learnt from.

There is some substance to the concerns that unqualified wellness bloggers might promote dangerous or unproven remedies and steer patients away from effective conventional treatments. But, honestly, if the real issue here is optimum public health, I believe the medical profession would be better off examining its own practices, getting its own house in order, developing an open mind and embracing those complementary therapies with proven track records, rather than dismissing it all as a “con”. It’s this misplaced arrogance and reluctance to inform and empower patients to play some active role in their own healing that sends so many running into the arms of natural therapies.

There’s an argument to be made that our health system has been “disrupted” like so many other traditional industries, by keen amateurs who have looked at the requisite qualifications of everything from journalists to hoteliers, taxi drivers to nutritionists and thought, dammit, I could do that. Clearly, keen amateurs administering our health system is not ideal, but I’d argue the net effect of their influence to date has been more positive than negative. The medical system has laboured for decades to produce treatments that require nothing of their patients than to submit to their prescriptions. Individuals taking greater responsibility for their own health, being more conscious of what they eat, how much they exercise, the impacts of household chemicals on their well-being, their lifestyle choices, is a wholly desirable outcome. And just like hoteliers, taxi drivers and journalists, the medical profession would be well advised to learn to better cater to the needs and desires of their customers than to shit can the alternatives.

I make no claims to have healed myself of cancer, I would never claim to have “beaten” or “won the war” with cancer. But as of my latest scans, after a six-month break from the debilitating effects of hormone therapy, two years after I finished chemotherapy, having diligently followed a plant-based diet, daily meditation, a cornucopia of herbs and supplements, the cancer has completely gone from my right femur, my prostate and lymph nodes. One small spot remains on a rib bone.

Rather than celebrating this welcome news, my oncologist is at pains to stress that I am not “cured”, fearful that I may ditch the conventional therapies altogether, mindful of the fact that cancer cells remain in my system and could metastasise as tumours elsewhere in the body at any time. I am now turning my meditative practice to that spot on my rib, visualising it dissolving and disappearing. If that doesn’t work I may well try targeted radiation therapy. I’m open to whatever works. I am not about to take foolhardy risks with my health, but I do regard this as a partnership, between the western medical experts, my naturopath and an array of health professionals I call upon for their expertise in diet, exercise, massage, yoga, herbalism, and my own intuition and carefully informed judgement.

One of the greatest authorities on cancer I have come across is an oncology masseuse, who specialises in the massage of cancer patients. In the two and half years I have been seeing my oncologist, he has literally never touched me to assess my condition, apart from shaking hands. My oncology masseuse kneads her clients’ bodies, hears of their pain, listens to their fears, discovers what other therapies may have been helping, all with a compassionate and open mind. She sees first hand who is getting better, who is deteriorating, how their muscle tone is holding up, where their joints ache from treatment, how their energy levels are. She is almost saintly in her patience and empathy and desire to ease suffering.

When we can combine science and compassion, evidence and intuition, pharmaceuticals and nutrition, emotional healing and at least a dash of spiritualism, a regard for ancient wisdom alongside modern breakthroughs, we’ll have arrived at a medical system that offers the best prospects of optimum human health.

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