In our age of the Internet and gluten-free diets, we are flooded with all sorts of different opinions, and it almost seems like everyone knows more than everyone else. Oftentimes, these waves of new ideas and “revolutionary” concepts don’t necessarily have an effect on real life, and remain under the radar for the majority of people. However, we enter a dangerous path when we start exploring alternative medicine and new suggestions on what to do with our healthy and sick bodies. Dangerous because it oftentimes comes with exploitation of the weak, the insecure, and the average person. Dangerous because it can literally kill.
Just last week, a story proved this very point in the case of self-claimed wellness guru Belle Gibson, who claimed to have suffered from terminal brain cancer and to have self-healed only with healthy nutrition, holistic medicine, and rejection of any kind of cancer treatment. The 26-year-old Australian documented her journey on her Instagram account and later even wrote several books and developed the app “The Whole Pantry” to give other people advice on how to treat their terminal illnesses and become healthy.
However, in an interview in last week’s issue of Australian Women’s Weekly, she admitted that she has never suffered from any kind of cancer or any other terminal illness—six years after first posting about it. The media reported vigorously, condemning her behavior. Yet it was also the magazines and TV shows who reported on the miraculous healing in the beginning, praising her effort, without even looking for evidence or questioning her claim. It was the sponsors and publishers that supported her claims, such as Apple, who featured the app on their new watch. This raises the question of how much influence non-scientific sources, like the media, have on something that should be exclusive to science.
It is true that terminally ill people are more likely to try shady treatments and non-certified methods because they are desperate to get better. Therefore, it is critical for influential people and sources to evaluate and think twice before reporting on something untrue and giving false advice. It is true that those stories do not attract a lot of attention and are not good publicity, but they also don’t play with people’s lives.
That is why vulnerable and sometimes easily influenced patients need support that actually values them and does not sensationalize their stories. Another concern is that alternative sources often are presented as an easy way out, which sounds more attractive than lengthy and exhausting treatments such as chemotherapy, as Jill Macoska, Ph.D. in Biochemistry and director of the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, explains it. However, these easy and short treatments, such as a one-week diet, prove to have no effect. In fact, they can often actually worsen the health of the patient. Macoska explains that patients are even setting themselves back in a situation where there is “no time to make mistakes.”
Macoska also emphasizes what scientists and renowned researchers advise patients to do. If the average person wants to obtain information about a treatment for cancer (or really any serious illness), one should either consult a reputable doctor (which excludes the notorious WebMD) or government-supported websites and institutes, such as clinicaltrials.gov, which rely on scientific facts, know what is FDA approved, and are certain whether a treatment is effective or not. And, as history has proven, it should be no one else’s business to cure illnesses than actual science.