Taking a bite out of cancer

A few months ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. In my case, it was an early detection and a relatively easy set course of action. I am well on the way to recovery, thank you. I have received plenty of support and help from those who know me and those who don’t. I have met some brilliant, hard-working doctors and been checked by some of the best. Soon, all my treatments will be over. If my luck holds, I will need no more than regular check-ups to keep me in good health.

It is tempting to imagine that a healthy diet, juices and natural substances are the answer. Definitely, none of those can harm you. But they are harmful if you believe they are the only answer and stop all other forms of treatment. Representation pic/Thinkstock
It is tempting to imagine that a healthy diet, juices and natural substances are the answer. Definitely, none of those can harm you. But they are harmful if you believe they are the only answer and stop all other forms of treatment. Representation pic/Thinkstock

Once you are a cancer patient, you tend to meet many others. Their experiences are different even if the underlying thread is the same. The main pain comes from the treatments - as happens all too often - which can take more out of you than the disease itself. Reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, you applaud the first pioneers who practically killed themselves to make radiotherapy a successful cancer treatment. But there is nothing remotely pleasant about going through radiation yourself even now, so many years later, with advanced and efficient machinery.

Chemotherapy has also made much progress and yet it is a difficult, painful form of treatment for many. But you do whatever you can to combat the disease. The general consensus seems to be that a positive outlook helps to keep you in better health than wallowing in misery would. Perhaps the truths there are self-evident.

What you cannot combat is the endless stream of well-meaning advice that ranges from the nonsensical to the downright dangerous and deadly. The internet for all that it has made our lives easier and communication faster is also the carrier of absolute rubbish masquerading as incontrovertible fact.

It all sounds quite frightening. There are many carcinogenic substances that float around in our world. But the evidence that connects all of them to every single cancer patient is slim. It is also tempting to imagine that a healthy diet, juices and natural substances are the answer. Definitely, none of those can harm you. But they are harmful if you believe they are the only answer and stop all other forms of treatment. And it does, tragically, happen.

Two recent stories have emerged where two women actively promoted lifestyle changes to healthy diet to cure cancer on the internet and thus gained enormous numbers of followers. The first claimed to have cured herself of brain cancer by diet alone. Her blog made her a celebrity. It turns out that she never had brain cancer or any cancer at all. She made it up and made a packet. The lives she ruined? Ah well.

The second did have a form of skin cancer but refused treatment to opt for a diet. She claimed she was getting better, she also made money from the manufacturers of the diet food. But she did not get any better. And she died when the doctors had predicted she would if she continued to refuse treatment. There is perhaps a time to refuse treatment, when nothing more can be done. But this woman had not reached there. And she encouraged many others to give up medical treatment and follow her example. Now that to me is criminal.

It remains fashionable to dismiss medical treatment and look for alternatives. And there is enough evidence to suggest that medical science is not omniscient and doctors are not omnipotent. But to substitute medicine completely for seaweed, turmeric and coconut oil? No thanks, you can count me out on that one. And before you recommend all those to other people, with no experience of cancer yourself, I suggest you research all the research there is. Scientific research that is, not blogs on the internet.

At the end, long before I was diagnosed, I did yoga, drank vegetable juices, cut down on fried foods and all the rest of it. I still do some of that. Because I want to. Not because I think I will get miraculously cured. Now, unless you want to kill me, spare me forwards and posts and links and the good intentions.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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