April 20, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)

Actress Goes Against Medical Advice

You couldn't get 100 percent of the people in this country to come in for free ice cream. Get real. Hell, we have citizens who don't believe in doctors, citizens who go to witch doctors, practitioners of holistic medicine and Christian Scientists in this country. We've got citizens on macrobiotic diets, aloe-vera juice drinkers, people who believe Pat Robertson can cure hemorrhoids and, in general, more health nuts, faddists and cranks per capita than any other nation on the face of the Earth. (I don't actually know that for a fact, but I think the only thing that we lack is people who believe that rhinoceros horn cures impotence and the French national fetish about the liver.)

Harry Golden, 1966

March 29, 2001

The evening news programs all featured actress Susanne Somers, age 55, touting her decision to use some quack cancer treatment instead of chemotherapy. Her decision would ordinarily have an effect only on her life, but since it was broadcast nationwide, it is likely to effect a number of woman, mostly to their detriment. Much depends on whether she dies of her cancer or not. If many women follow her lead, we can expect more women to die sooner than necessary. If she dies soon, it might serve as an excellent example of what not to do.

What is that alternative remedy that she is taking? I have already forgotten its name, and if I remembered it, I wouldn't print it. It doesn't matter. In the last century, not a single one of those alternative cancer remedies has proved effective. All have parted people from a lot of money and done them no good whatever. People who shun conventional treatment in favor of quackery are courting death. Ms. Somers has already potentially fattened the wallets of the quacks who peddle the so-called remedy.

If she had chosen to use only the quack remedy, it would have meant almost certain death for her. She didn't. She chose to undergo the operation called lumpectomy followed by a long course of x-ray treatments. The odds of her having been cured by that treatment would depend on whether the cancer had spread , which would be indicated by the presence of cancer in her lymph nodes, some of which were probably removed during surgery. No one told us the details, so it is hard to make a judgment. The risk also depends on the size of the cancer when it was removed. No one told us that either.

Suppose her lymph nodes contained no cancer cells. In that case, the decision to forgo chemotherapy would be a rational one. It is a decision that I would, and did, make for myself.

If there was cancer in her lymph nodes, there is still a good chance that she was cured by the surgery and radiation. The odds would be improved with the chemotherapy, but considering the fact that the chemotherapy is very rough, it might still be a rational choice. The chemotherapy would probably extend her life even if the cancer was incurable.

The decision to use an alternative treatment was just plain stupid. The reporters didn't point out that she often plays some feather brained woman. It's called type casting.

A lot of women get breast cancer. What is there about this one that makes her story worthy of the national news? The fact that she is an actress. That and the fact that she made an unusual decision.

I can't think of a good word to say about the people who produced and broadcast the story. I can think of a lot of bad words, but most are not printable in a family newspaper.

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