I have been reading an increasing number of articles recently about the role of alternative medicine in the treatment of cancer. The conversation seems to have exploded in the wake of the tragic death of “Wellness Warrior” Jess Ainscough and the outing of supposed cancer survivor Belle Gibson.
On both sides, the arguments are passionate: the naturalists believe that society has led us astray from our bodies innate ability to heal itself due to the power of the corporate beast, while the scientific community laments the so-called snake oil salesmen that offer their tinctures and coffee enemas with little evidence to back up their claims.
I’ve been following these debates with increasing interest. The discussion often leads down the winding road of the “gullible and idiotic” people that fall for the allure of natural cures. While I’m lucky to not be a cancer sufferer, I know what it’s like to be desperate to find something that will make you better. No matter what that is.
And I think this is what it comes down to. Desperation.
Illness, no matter what it is (and I can only talk about my own personal experiences here), is terrifying. I grew up in a family that never went to see the doctor for just any cough or cold, but we grew up to respect and trust that our medical practitioners had our best interests at heart.
I’ve got plenty of misgivings about many of the doctors I have seen over the years (and trust me, there have been more than I can count). The arrogance of some, and their inability to listen to me at times has left me storming out after the appointments, shouting down the phone at my mother about how useless everyone I saw was. What this has ultimately come down to, though, is that they haven’t been able to help me. Is that their fault? Up to a point. Not listening, certainly. But also not really. There’s only so much that has been figured out about how to help people with my illnesses, so once they reach the point of trying everything known in their arsenal they’re kind of stuck.
I do strongly believe that I (and many people I know) have been prescribed unnecessary medication (I’m still living with the aftermath of a particularly horrific experience on anti-depressants) and that too often the prescription pad is the first port of call. Please note here I am talking about my conditions and not cancer. If I had been encouraged to try and find a different therapist or start practicing mindfulness before being prescribed anti-depressants, I may not have the leftover mental trauma that just three pills gave me.
A lot has been made of the fact that I don’t take pain killers for my EDS. The reason was that they don’t really take the pain away. Something, I learned when I was diagnosed, that is quite common. So I stopped taking them in my mid-teens. What was the point if they didn’t work? Coming to the development of my newer problems, while many of the medications I tried made me significantly more unwell, even with dietary changes, I needed to stay on my blood pressure medication for quite a while before coming off of it. Again, I can deal with my PoTS symptoms well enough that I don’t want to have to endure the symptoms that came with side effects. Not everyone is in this position. Roundly demonising medication and medicine is an incredibly dangerous and unwise thing to do. I am particularly sensitive and if medication has been prescribed it is done so for a reason and should never be something thrown away lightly.
Last year when I had convinced myself that diet was my silver bullet, I put absolutely everything into it. And, as I’ve written many times before, for quite a while I saw what felt like miraculous changes. My body did respond extremely well and it became an important way of managing my symptoms. I had more energy, was able to work, and do more than I ever thought I’d be able to do again. But I think it’s important to remember that for many people, diet is not a cure.
During this period of time I started reading more and more about natural medicine. The changes I was feeling from building my body up through diet was enough to convince me that I’d cottoned onto something amazing and started feeling shocked and angry that this was roundly ignored by my doctors. Despite my rational and questioning mind, the orthorexic, desperate to find something, anything, that would work Natasha started winning out. In a dream I even got annoyed that my company health insurance wouldn’t cover juicing therapy. Because, duh, green juice cures all.
I am not denying in any way that diet and lifestyle plays probably the most important role in managing my conditions. But in my desperation I believed that the information I was reading on any old blog by any old person who had ‘healed’ themselves was my missing link, even when none of these people had the exact same problems that I did.
And even now, part of me is still willing to try anything in my desperation to feel better (huh, as I wrote that a slight tear fell down my face…I really, really want to feel better). I went to see a homeopath who prescribed me things that, upon research, were described as “dangerous” by medical websites and was pretty dismissive of any questions I had. My instinct told me to not even go there. I was confused as to why I even went to see him. I could answer my question in one word. Desperation.
I know that if I’m not super aware of what I eat, how much I exercise and how I manage my stress levels, my health declines significantly. But I’m finally coming to realise that sometimes it just does and there’s no rhyme or reason for it. And while it sucks, that’s just the way it is.
Ultimately, you are the one that knows your body best. Diet and lifestyle are a huge thing to take into consideration when you’re trying to figure out how to live with chronic illness, but it’s so important to become scientifically literate, and try to learn not to let your desperation overcome your critical thinking abilities.
Is it being negative to accept that there are some things we cannot change? Some people have told me that it is. Apparently my inherent belief that I can’t be cured is the very reason that my illnesses haven’t spontaneously disappeared into the cosmos. However, I would argue that there is a significant difference between being negative and being realistic. And sometimes when things are extremely difficult being realistic is a really hard thing to be. Hope and faith are powerful motivating forces, but what worries me is when those forces can start being counter productive. Do I hope that I can feel better than I do? Of course. Do I have faith that I will be? Yes, to a certain extent.
I hope that I will not feel that the way I do right now for the rest of my life. I work hard every day to keep finding ways to support and manage my body. I believe that I can continue to keep learning and experimenting to achieve this goal. But believing that “cure” or total domination is entirely in my hands actually made things worse when I would have a flare up. There are things that are beyond our control, and even now when I have a bad day my brain still tells me “you’re not eating the right thing! You’re doing something wrong!” I have never blamed myself for my illnesses, but part of me now (despite knowing better) still blames myself for not curing myself for something that ultimately (as of yet…come on science!) cannot be cured.
Please, please, please be wary and sensible about what you read on the internet. Never attempt anything (especially when it comes to taking potent supplements you find online or just stopping medication) without speaking to your doctor. I know, I KNOW what it’s like to want to find an answer. But please make sure anything you try you do it in a safe way. We are all different, and while a little bit of hope is so important, we always need to be realistic and cautious about what we read and how we approach our health.
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