Cancer is material

April 29th, 2010
by kpickett

You’ll notice I’ve added that image to the blog, a link to The OUT Campaign, a site dedicated to encouraging atheists to come out about their views.  This is something that I’ve had a hard time doing for many years, despite overcoming many other fears years ago (for example, having been out as a gay man since I was sixteen).

The main reason it’s been hard for me to tell others about my atheism is that I have many friends and loved ones who are believers, and I cherish their company, respect their choices, and would hate to offend them.  I have not posted this image to offend anyone.

But for this blog, it makes sense.  Pervasive in our culture is the view that mystical forces—unseen and all-powerful, ancient and misunderstood—are the true solution to cancer.  As Sontag observed in her incredible work, Illness as Metaphor, this view is common to all diseases when the ultimate cause of the disease is unknown, or poorly understood.  For people with cancer, we often become desperate and despondent when therapies fail—I know these feelings all too well.   And so many turn their hope to magical, “eastern” therapies.  As far as I can tell, the only difference between the evil “western” medicine and the enlightened “eastern” “medicine” is that the former has, by definition, been subjected to empirical test, and the latter has not.

But people who hold these unscientific views are unrepentant: About a year ago, I was visiting some friends after yet another therapy had failed, and my cancer had doubled in volume; I was, I think understandably, disappointed, sad, and probably a bit grumpy.  And a person I had only met a day before told me that people who are happy are more likely to survive cancer than sad people.  When I asked for the name of the peer-reviewed journal from which this insight derives, she said she thought she read it in Omni Magazine (a discredited, discontinued, pseudo-scientific publication that promoted supernatural phenomena cloaked in the language of science). Her message here was clear:  It’s your fault that you’re loosing this battle; cheer up, or face the consequences.  (That fall, the fabulous Barbara Ehrenreich eviscerated this nonsensical view; you can find an excerpt here.) So I asked her if she thought it would help if I shoved a crystal up my ass.  She was not amused, and I think, remained unaware of the horrific statement she’d made.  Her husband (another atheist), standing next to me, hung his head in shame.

The view that crystals, and prayer, and laying on of hands can cure people of cancer is growing in our culture.  When last in the hospital, with my horrific C. difficile infection, a staff member came into my room one day and explained that she could perform Reiki on me, which would help my nausea.  My nausea was caused, as she put it, “of course, by unbalanced energy.”  Um, no: My nausea was caused by an infection, thank you very much.

And this is quite strange, given the growing success of modern medicine’s treatment of cancer. Just look at the death rates for breast cancer below.

From the American Cancer Society's "Statistics for 2009."

Death rates were essentially stable or rising prior to the early 90′s, when genetic techniques (and thus, intimate understanding) first became available.  Crystals and the like were being used just as much in the 70′s (probably more), but it was the science that made the impact, not the white light visualizations.  The biological research that informs physicians is imperfect, and many still die, but this does not mean we are failing.  Science is recursive, unlike any other system of knowledge; it challenges itself, by its nature, to prove existing ideas wrong.  Still, not all cancers show this pattern, but the science that biologists use to discover details of the natural world inform physicians, who employ this knowledge to save lives.  And many lives have been saved.

But this hasn’t stopped many people from thinking otherwise.  Stanley Tucci recently lost his wife to a form of cancer, and in a Fresh Air interview proclaimed that she did not die of cancer, but of the “conventional” treatments for cancer (the discussion of cancer begins at 18:35,  and Tucci’s comments on alternative therapies begin at 19:30).  Tucci went on to say that he only found out about “alternative” (that is, not subjected to empirical test) therapies months before his wife’s death, and concluded that had he known of these alternatives earlier, his wife would still be alive.  I love Tucci; in fact he is one of my favorite actors, and I’m sure he is horribly bereaved; but this is just irresponsible.

Similarly, Bill Maher—famous anti-vaccine and anti-medicine advocate—in April of 2008 blamed Senator Arlen Specter for having cancer, and for his cancer’s relapse. (I would link to the YouTube video where I watched this, but it has apparently been deleted by HBO, even though many other Real Time episode clips from the same month remain.  Hmm.)

I have watched Maher off and on for years. I agree with much of what he says, and I think he’s brave and smart.  But for some reason, when it comes to medicine, he has lost all rationality. Maybe it’s because he’s lived in California for so long.  Who knows?   Only in a world where infectious disease has—with a few notable exceptions—been completely obliterated by medical action that derives from basic biological science, would someone claim that the real problem is the vaccine, the solution.  And I could put many links to The Huffington Post (which I generally enjoy) with similarly inane assertions.  Maybe I’ll do so in a later entry (but you can see for yourself in their Living section on any given day).  And just look back 70 years, and consider the hundreds of thousands of children who died then of infections we now rarely see—infections we have conquered, and in some cases eradicated, with vaccines—and it is clear that Maher’s hyper-modern, myopic view is flatly false.

Microorganisms are living things, and they are merely trying to stay alive, just like us. It just so happens that they make their living by harming ours.  We are no different; we must kill life to live as well. Only the plants are spiritually clean on this one.  So, good nutrition will not save the world from this biological conflict; variation in resistance exists everywhere, and bacteria and viruses evolve, becoming more adept at overcoming our defenses.  Good nutrition alone will not prevent infection, and many will succumb without the enormous benefit of medicine.  It’s quite perplexing (and, increasingly infuriating) to watch Maher rant against religion as stupid in one breath, and in the next proclaim that good nutrition is the solution to illness, and therefore cancer therapies are bogus, and pregnant women should not get vaccines.

So I am not writing this with Maher’s intent.  I’m not here to defame religion.  I’m simply putting this link in my blog because it is honest, and it is a reminder of an important fact that both people with cancer and their loved ones need to remember:  Cancer is a material condition; it requires a material solution.

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Posted in advocacy, biology, materialism | Comments (7)

7 Responses to “Cancer is material”

  1. Francisca says:

    I echo many of your words. Seriously, some of these irresponsible things people say really upset me (like the vaccine thing). The problem is that some of these people are loved ones. A year ago my brother in law sent us a video that had a bunch of people saying that pessimistic thoughts bring bad luck. My interpretation: if something bad happens to you it is your fault for thinking at some point that something bad could happen to you. It was a very serious and well produced video. Extremely convincing for anyone who has no idea of what scientific method is. We are totally failing on science education, my friend. Sad.

  2. kpickett says:

    Thanks for that, Chica. I completely agree. The situation is sad, and it harms many people, both physically and emotionally.

  3. Johanna says:

    My favorite category of irresponsible but well-meant comment is the “If only you had tried peach pits, your son wouldn’t have died” variety. (This- and many others – was offered to my sister, Marty.) One I failed to pass along to you, Kurt, came from a friend whose daughter is in treatment for leukemia. She just knows that if you, Kurt, had taken enough vitamins, you could have probably avoided the stem-cell transplant!

  4. kpickett says:

    Well, pass on to her that, having been a vegan for 20 years, I have been exposed to the the notion of megadosing before. In fact, for years before being diagnosed (and I mean like, 15 years), I megadosed vitamin C, E, and various Bs. Not really to avoid cancer, mind you, but I have read Linus Pauling.

  5. Dimitri says:

    Hi Kurt,

    I recently knew about your blog via Roberto Keller. I don’t know if you remember me from the AMNH. I was with Toby Schuh doing my PhD, which I finished in 2008. I like your blog, your honesty on your cancer, and your atheism. I share many of your feelings. My wife was diagnosed a little more than 2 yrs with a renal cancer tumor. Fortunate for us, she just needed a major surgery to get it out. No further treatment. But we know how shitty cancer is. Probably the worst is that we do not know why she got it. And as you pointed out, cancer is material, and we should find material ways to treat it….not with crystals. And I know what you are talking about. Life goes on though, and must make most of it. I hope that you keep feeling better every day.

    • kpickett says:

      Hi Dimitri,

      Of course I remember you. I’m sorry to hear about your wife’s cancer, but I’m glad that all looks clear now. I’m also glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      Take care.

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