Looking back at health stories for 2011, I found “27 Shocking Moments in Celebrity Health”. The ‘shocking’ moments range from the commonplace (celebrities with various diseases) to bizarre (Angelina Jolie eats bugs). In most cases, they’re only interesting because celebrities are afflicted. But two stories stood out as representative of extremes in the current state of medical care.
On the one end of the spectrum we have Steve Jobs’ death, after a years-long struggle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer. Why is this significant? Because according to many accounts, he initially spurned conventional treatment and instead turned to alternative medicine for several months. When he finally saw the writing on the wall, it may have been too late. Speculation is that the initial delay made this normally curable cancer worse and more deadly.
So why did such a smart person make such an ill-informed decision. Plenty of people have weighed in with their opinion, and at this point it’s just so much Monday-morning quarterbacking. But there are important lessons for the rest of us: alternative medicine sounds attractive — it’s natural, it doesn’t involve toxic drugs, surgeries or Big Pharma — but it’s mostly wishful thinking. It would be nice if our bodies could be counted on to drive off nasty tumors, if only we’d eat the right food or take the right supplements or herbs. Unfortunately, once a cancer takes hold, a different type of natural but undesirable process takes hold — uncontrolled cell growth. So far, no alternative treatments can reverse that process. Don’t you think that if such a treatment were discovered, everyone would know about it? At which point, even the most traditional doctor would be forced to act on the glaring evidence.
On the other end of the spectrum we have high tech advancements in treatment, exemplified by the continuing remarkable recovery of Gabrielle Giffords from a gun shot wound to her head. Emergency medicine, treatment of brain injuries and rehab have progressed far in the past few years. Giffords’ survival depended on an army of medical personnel, from the first responders to surgeons and neurologists, to nurses to a variety of rehab specialists who are helping her with mobility, speech and everything in between. All of these professionals’ expertise is built on years of learning from other brain injury cases. When a friend of mine sustained a head injury in a bicycle accident last fall, the same expertise was applied to her treatment and continuing recovery. Fifteen or so years ago, these injuries may not have had such happy and optimistic outcomes.
These two cases contrast the advances in high tech medical care with our continuing love affair with the idea of warm-and-fuzzy non-technical “natural” alternative medicine. The lesson is: when you have a serious medical problem, medical care is your best bet. What we usually call alternative “medicine” really works better as preventive care. Wouldn’t you rather prevent cancer or heart disease with a healthy lifestyle, than wait until you get sick to try it as a quick fix?