Incredibly, what goes into WDDTY appears actually to be a watered down version of the confused mess that lives inside Lynne McTaggart’s head.
This blog post on lynnemctaggart.com shines a light on the tortuous and bizarre reasoning she uses in daily life. Read on, and be very afraid: people like this are actually believed and trusted by a not insignificant proportion of the population.
Susan Sontag memorably coined the term ‘Illness is metaphor,’ which always had a ring of truth to me. We get the diseases that are a metaphoric representation of some struggle in our lives. But it’s also true that there is such a thing as ‘treatment is metaphor,’ and nowhere more so than with the treatment of cancer.
None of that makes any sense at all. Cancer is not a metaphoric representation of anything, it’s a bastard killer disease. It’s not karmic destiny, it’s a combination of bad luck and bad behaviour, the proportion being highly dependent on the individual. Smokers very often get lung cancer and non-smokers don’t, but something like a brain tumour is largely down to the great cosmic crapshoot.
And treatment is not a metaphor in any meaningful sense. Well, real treatment isn’t, anyway, it’s hard to speak for the fake treatments McTaggart advocates, because so many of them are simply insane.
The reason we’re losing the War on Cancer (and we are indeed losing it, despite the bluster of governments, the media and the American Cancer Society) has to do with the metaphors we use to describe both the disease and the cure.
There is no “war on cancer” any more than there is a “war on terror”. You can’t send in the Marines and expect to eliminate the inevitable consequence of random mutation, the evolutionary mechanism that gives rise to life in the first place.
The “war on cancer” is a political term coined in the white heat of the technological revolution by that most trusted of historical figures, Richard Millhouse Nixon. It was an admittedly striking phrase used to justify the earmarking of Federal funds towards cancer research.
In the real world (admittedly terra incognita to WDDTY) cancer is not a single disease. Some cancers are in rapid retreat – childhood Hodgkin’s lymphoma is now curable in the great majority of cases – others (indolent prostate cancer being the best known example) are contained to the point where most patients will die of something else. And some are still almost as deadly today as they were a thousand years ago.
Recently a batch of researchers at the University of Michigan discovered that different metaphors change the way in which people view the disease and choose to treat it.
This we know. Quacks persuade people to view cancer as something other than what it is. Robert O. Young, for example, portrayed cancer as a response to an acidified body, and persuaded Oprah that he could cure it. The index patient, Kim Tinkham, died, of course.
There has been extensive research on the effect of mindfulness and positive thinking on cancer outcomes. The short summary is that it makes no difference.
Since 1971, when Richard Nixon famously declared ‘War on Cancer’ in 1971 our current metaphor for cancer – a war to be fought, an impossible enemy to vanquish – has skewed the way we see the disease and how we choose to treat it.
That may be true in the bubble world of “alternative” believers, but it is absolutely not a reflection of current medical thinking. Surgical oncologist Dr. David Gorski discusses this quite often.
The ‘war’ and battle imagery sets in the public and medical mind the notion that this is an impossibly wily enemy. Full-on attacks by alien invaders require desperate measures – the most lethal chemical combo that medicine has to offer – which is largely why doctors have a difficult time believing that something gentle and simple like changing your diet or taking a a herb or two could overcome an enemy this ferocious.
Really? The tabloids routinely portray cancer as a “battle”, but that’s not how oncologists view it. You might want to read the views of doctor (and terminal cancer patient) Kate Granger on the subject.
Quacks certainly tend to a simplistic view of cancer, hence their fixation on chemotherapy, but that is not how it’s viewed by real doctors and medical scientists.
This week, I edited two stories we’ll be running in the next issue of What Doctors Don’t Tell You, which address the fallacy of this metaphor and why it has fuelled a (in the US) $100 billion failure known as Cancer Inc.
When you say “known as”, you actually mean “described by profiteering quacks as”. Nobody actually calls it “cancer, inc.” unless they are flogging worthless alternatives. That is straight-up conspiracist claptrap.
Now, the American medical system is pretty badly broken. It’s fine if you’re in work, rich and not terminally or chronically ill, but if you fall outside that box you can be in deep trouble. Medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the US. But that’s the fault of politics, not medicine: American medical research is some of the best in the world, and American medical treatment is also superb – if you can afford it.
Here in the UK, we have care that’s nearly as good and it costs about a third as much, as a share of national income. And it’s free at the point of delivery.
As to being a “failure”, you might want to take that up with the people who are on the winning side of the equation. 5 year survival for cancer has doubled since the 1970s, and now stands at greater than 50%. You might choose to call that a failure, but many people don’t.
Several years ago, the great and the good among oncologists and cancer researcher met behind closed doors in Switzerland to answer the hard problem of how we were doing in this particular battle.
Their concensus (sic) was published in a 5000 words report in the Lancet last year (Lancet, 2014; 383: 558–63). Are we winning, they asked. Answer, unqualified no.
Sure. Cancer is a bastard. Nobody denies it (except quacks selling simplistic magic bullet fake cures).
‘Despite the introduction of hundreds of new anti-cancer drugs, including advanced therapies (so-called magic bullets) aimed at particular weapons in the enemy’s armamentarium, the consensus was that, for most forms of cancer, enduring disease-free responses are rare, and cures even rarer,’ they wrote.
Indeed. Now ask people if they would rather survive 5 years, 10 years or whatever, or simply die of the disease there and then.
Cancer is a bastard. Keeping the tiger in the cage for a few years is a worthwhile outcome.
You’d never know any of this if you talked to the average oncologist. Most would talk of the great strides made in chemotherapy, the new drugs, the new combinations of treatments. But the measure of how much this constitutes the treatment of desperation is in the language used – “rescue” therapies, “salvage” operations – and also the types of treatments being resorted to, such as last-ditch attempts to restore blood formation in patients who have undergone murderously high chemotherapy.
I don’t think Lynne McTaggart has ever talked to an oncologist. The fixation on chemotherapy aside, most of the great strides in chemo have been in reducing the side effects and in qualifying where it might not be needed at all.
Do you really think that language like “murderous” is helpful?
Here’s what happens to cancer patients who don’t undergo medical treatment: they die. Some die sooner and some die later, but they die. Cancer is a bastard.
We also know, because it’s been studied, that people who believe in the sort of alternative claptrap promoted by WDDTY die sooner. They believe they will live longer, they believe they are better off, but they present later, with more advanced disease, because quacks don’t diagnose properly and even if they do they try quackery first – and even after that is taken into account, they still die sooner.
The evidence is clear: a reality-based oncologist is a better bet than a quack.
Cancer specialists who continue to believe that they are only just a protocol away from finding the cure often forget the patient in their zeal to blast out every last cancer cell. Not long ago one doctor returned from an autopsy with the proud announcement that his patient, who’d had widespread, disseminated cancer, had died “cancer free.” What he neglected to admit was that the patient didn’t die of cancer. It was the lung disease induced by chemotherapy that killed him.
That’s a straw man. I know of nobody who believes that we are “one protocol away” from a cure. There may well be people who behave as McTaggart asserts, but it’s certainly not representative.
Cancer patients are usually desperate to live. That’s why they need especial protection from quacks. Oncologists will very often tell them that there is only a small chance that heroic treatment will save them, but they will try it anyway. A few will indeed die from the side effects of chemotherapy, and cranks and charlatans will portray this as their having been killed by the doctors, forgetting that the alternative was certain death.
That’s why we have laws mandating informed consent, and why the toxic mix of quackery and disinformation from the likes of WDDTY is so very dangerous, because it leads to people making wrong choices.
And that’s the problem. New evidence has emerged (and we’ll be reporting on all the chapter and verse) that the weapons we’re using, like chemo and radiotherapy, are weapons of mass destruction, breeding cancer stem cells, and causing it to spread.
Remember: 5-year survival has doubled since the 1970s. McTaggart promotes the Nirvana fallacy, the idea that anything less than 100% cure is the same as 100% failure, but the evidence unambiguously shows that medicine is doing something right.
In some cancers. For some patients. The difficult bit is always knowing which, especially in advance.
It’s not necessary to view cancer as a battle to be won. Consider the case of Morty Lefkoe. Morty is 77 years old, and last year was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. He was going to have it surgically removed, but a last scan the morning of his surgery revealed that the cancer had spread to his liver. It was too late to operate. The only recourse to him, said his doctor, was 18 courses of strong chemo, but his survival chances were just 6 per cent.
Whoop! Whoop! Anecdote Alert! Whoop! Whoop!
Morty rejected the entire war metaphor. For him, it was not a life and death battle. And by rejecting the metaphor, he got on with the business of changing his diet and lifestyle. He became cancer-free in 99 days.
If it really was that simple, do you think people would have been dying of cancer for millennia? Seriously?
I think Lynne may be guilty of believing the hype.
There are rare cases of spontaneous remission. There are much less rare cases of people who claim to be cancer-free, but are simply deluding themselves (or, much worse, being deluded by quacks).
The medical spin doctors have been particularly slick, instilling in the collective public mind a sense that we are winning the war.
Except that it is not a war and they are brutally honest about survival rates, the success rates of different treatments and the balance of risk and benefit – something that cannot be said of the quacks who prey on the narrative spun by the likes of WDDTY.
It’s time to admit their deception: in the main, the battle mentality, no matter how many drugs or how high the dosage, doesn’t really work. And once we all admit that, we can go forward.
What McTaggart actually means here is that we should abandon the treatments towards which she bears an almost visceral ideological hatred and march steadfastly back into the 19th Century when a cancer diagnosis meant certain painful death.
The battle mentality is primarily the rhetoric of non-doctors. If you have questions about cancer, ask a reputable physician, not a quack or a charlatan. If you want people to stop portraying cancer as a battle, start by writing to the Daily Mail.