If my mother were alive today, I’m sure that she and I would be arguing about my Ecomodernist position. She would be anti-GMO, anti-nuclear energy, would probably have a homeopathic doctor and a pantry full of expensive supplements. She was a smart, successful early feminist who also loved her pseudoscience. (She consulted Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs for parenting and dating advice.) Unfortunately, she’s not alive because colon cancer killed her when she was in her 40s and her anti-science world view sped the process along for her.
In 1996, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer with full liver involvement. Her prognosis was terminal but because she was only 47, her oncologist thought that chemotherapy was worth trying in order to buy us some time. She did 3 months of a conventional chemotherapy drug called 5-FU and then made the decision to move to alternative therapies when the tumors weren’t responding instead of going with her oncologist’s recommendation of a new drug called irinotecan.
I’m sure the outcome would have been the same whether she had gone the conventional or the alternative route. She was going to die no matter what we did. What I do know is that the next 3 months of our lives were pure hell and they didn’t have to be.
For the first few weeks after she gave up on conventional medicine, she went the quack route with a doctor in Houston named Stanislaw Burzynski. That story deserves its own blog post but in a nut shell, this clinic took her money, put her on an unproven drug (not even indicated for colon cancer) that was pumped continuously through a port in her chest, then told me I was killing her when I talked her into leaving after 3 weeks. She was dark yellow (in liver failure) and retaining so much water from the drug that another doctor had to cut into her skin and drain the fluid. She was clearly dying and I needed to get her back home while she could still ride in a car. I was young at the time so having a doctor tell me I was killing my mother was devastating.
The next few weeks were a new kind of hell but this time filled with visits to a holistic nutritionist, Whole Foods (of course), and GNC (supplement, vitamin store). She was taking piles of supplements while she could still swallow. She became convinced that shark cartilage would save her because of a ridiculous book by a biochemist named William Lane. I don’t think the shark cartilage hurt her but it’s criminal to me that sharks are being slaughtered so that someone can make money selling nonsense to desperate, dying people.
The holistic nutritionist was a very nice guy named Doug Kauffman who has evidently built up quite a business on the idea that fungus causes everything. He prescribed vitamin injections and a diet of fruits, vegetables, and tofu in a blender since swallowing was becoming difficult. The only ill will I really harbor toward this guy is that he shook his head sadly and pulled that whole, “If only you’d come to me sooner…” routine which basically lets him off the hook but allows him to keep selling stuff that doesn’t work. (I also happen to believe that a person who is dying should be encouraged to eat what appeals to them. I’d rather die eating a chocolate eclair than a spinach shake.)
The last 3 months of her life and every penny she had were wasted on the false hope of unproven, holistic, and natural treatments. She didn’t want to take real medication because she was afraid it was toxic to her failing liver, so she suffered a great deal and became irrational and angry toward the end. One of the books or doctors gave her the idea that she should only drink distilled water and if she suspected I’d made her smoothie with regular ice cubes, she’d scream at me. She also would scream at me if I slept or if she smelled food cooking. The pain she was in was intolerable so I’m sure she had no idea what she was doing.
All of that was because she wasn’t being cared for by a real doctor with years of medical school and experience. She was thrashing around in desperation, clinging to any shred of hope, and in the process found plenty of people to give her false hope for the right price. What I found is that the alternative medicine industry has used fake science to brand itself as a kinder, gentler, natural way of treating the human body while painting traditional medicine as heartless and money-grubbing. The reality is though, it’s the other way around.
Two weeks before she died I called her original oncologist who put me in touch with a local hospice. Her hospice team swept in and within hours had her pain, sleep, anger, and anxiety under control with the right medication. She spent the last 2 weeks of her life lucid and relatively peaceful. We were able to talk and enjoy her 48th birthday right before she died because she was being treated by experienced people with effective medicine.
So, which is the heartless one? Traditional or Alternative?
Thank you for reading a personal story. My mom is still my hero. I forgive her getting suckered but I have not forgiven her for my outfit or the bangs. And no, I can’t sing just because I’m a Taurus.