The other day, I want for lunch at my local entirely lovely veggie cafe. As I was munching away on my very tasty green curry, I happened to overhear what the people at the next table over were talking about. In my defense, the place was quiet and they were.. not. Also, I’m an inveterate eavesdropper 😉
These two people were having a conversation about illness. One of them had recently been diagnosed- with what, she didn’t mention, but given the rest of the conversation it might have been some form of cancer. The other had survived some form of cancer. They were talking about his experiences with his illness, and her plans for living with hers. It was.. a pretty intense conversation that they were having. And it was obvious that she was someone struggling to deal with a difficult diagnosis, and looking for support. Which he was providing, in spades.
Where this became worrying was when they started to talk about her options, and whether she would go for ‘the medical route’ or ‘alternatives’. He talked about how medical doctors don’t care about patients as people. How to them a patient is just a cog in the machine. How alternative practitioners, on the other hand, spend time with you and offer real solutions that are tailored to your own needs. And how meditation, positive thinking and art therapy could do more for her than any doctor.
I’m sure this man was incredibly well-meaning. And yes, I’m sure that he’s not wrong when he says that his doctors weren’t interested in him as a person. But, you know something? While art therapy and meditation are lovely things, and while thinking positively can do wonderful things for your outlook and ability to cope, they’re not going to cure this woman’s cancer. And, no matter what he thinks, they didn’t cure his. His unpleasant experiences going through the medical system for cancer treatment were, no doubt, real. But they’re still most likely the reason he’s alive today.
Right then, I wished it wasn’t considered the absolute height of rudeness to interrupt an intimate (if, in fairness, reasonably loud) conversation by telling a distressed woman that her caring friend was wrong, and that taking his advice could very well cost her her life. That she should do all the art therapy and meditating she liked, after taking the advice of her doctors and getting her ass into a hospital for some treatment. That maybe her doctors are a bit busy with making people better, are probably overstressed and overworked, and that if she has a problem with their not being able to take time to get to know her then it might be time to send a strongly worded letter to the Minister for Health. That yes, our health system is incredibly broken- but it’s still the only way she’ll get better. And that dying of untreated cancer is one hell of an awful way to go.
I wanted to say that, but I couldn’t.
But here’s the thing. There’s nothing harmful about meditating, or art therapy (which, I gather, has many very useful applications), or positive thinking. But there’s something very harmful about thinking that these things are reasonable alternatives to evidence-based medicine. That’s the kind of thing that leaves people dying of treatable illnesses because they didn’t get medical help. Or because they tried the ‘alternatives’ first and by the time they went for medical help it was too late. The kind of misinformation that leaves people thinking that ‘alternative’ medicine provides effective cures for deadly diseases is incredibly dangerous.
And with that, I can’t think of a better way to leave you than with Tim Minchin’s Storm. So here you go: