Do you believe in miracles? Cancer patients do, and do you want to hear a secret? It can be annoying. Don’t get me wrong: I indulge in magical thinking from time to time: we all do. But you can drive yourself well and truly mad: and some do.
Most of the cancer patients who gather at Hopewell Cancer Support’s Tuesday morning yoga class are not interested in converting you into a Miracle Believer. But every once in a while, someone will get ensnared in a fad and have to share.
“Have you tried [oh, let’s say mistletoe. Everyone’s talking about mistletoe these days. Last time I had cancer it was alkaline water.]? It’s a miracle cure.”
That would be so great if it were true. But it’s not. Dr. SPO assures me the companies that manufacture my cancer drugs are interested in one thing: making money. And they’re really good at what they do. If mistletoe held a potential miracle cure, the companies would be testing it and tweaking it and rolling in it and fighting over it like dogs on a steak. And they’re not. Because the actual evidence supporting mistletoe as a cancer cure is not that exciting.
Studies, scientific studies, have shown mistletoe fails in all but a few cases, anecdotes that are few and far between. The scientific process is pretty solid. Logic-driven. Data-based. Scientific journals aren’t known for hyperbole and conjecture. But what do the cancer patients hear? We hear about the one person who was supposedly cured.
It flashes in our brains like a neon sign: That Could Be You!
You have to forgive us our “special snowflake” thinking. After all, we were the ones who beat the odds and got cancer in the first place. At Hopewell, I’m in a room full of people who have some pretty uncommon conditions. I myself have the special distinction of being among the few whose breast cancer returned, and the exponentially fewer who had it return in the same place: a breast cancer with no breast. Yep. We’re special all right. Not lucky, but definitely outliers.
I think this makes us particularly vulnerable to scams, and I worry about it. We’ve spent almost all of our savings, sometimes more, on doctor-approved treatments with success rates that are marginally good enough, but definitely not great. Imagine what we’d pay for a miracle if we’d pay tens of thousands for a long shot.
I was surprised to learn my doctor didn’t oppose mistletoe therapy, at least in theory.
“Sure. Do it if you want,” he said.
“What? Really?” I’d been so used to getting the lecture on scams, I had almost tuned out his answer when I asked about mistletoe. “It works?”
“No, it doesn’t, according to the literature. But it doesn’t harm you, if it’s administered properly. And it’s inexpensive, I’ve heard.”
“Why do it then?”
“People go in there believing it works. That’s where its value lies.”
“So if I ate nothing but marshmallows for two weeks straight and repeated “I believe in fairies,” over and over, I could cure my cancer, if I believed hard enough?”
He laughed. “In my profession we tend to undervalue the placebo effect. But it’s proven. Mind over matter is proven. But, then there are also treatments that are proven and published. And you need to do those. You can’t discount them: they’re proven. I wouldn’t say: ‘do mistletoe and not chemotherapy.’ I’d say: do both, if you want. But please do chemo first, because that’s proven, and mistletoe is not. And don’t even think about the marshmallows. That’s just ridiculous.”
So my straight-laced, by-the-medical-journal oncologist believes in [fill in the blank with the latest miracle cure]. But for its value as a placebo, not as an actual cancer fighter. He believes it works because, efficacious chemicals and their statistics aside, the most effective cancer fighter is actually your mind.
So, do you believe in miracles?
All magical thinking aside, and from a purely logical standpoint, you should.
But please spare me the sales pitch on bee semen. I’ve looked into that one, and it’s bullshit.