Saturday, November 15, 2014

Uh, oh, AARP

AARP Magazine recently published an arguably ill-informed article featuring Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge talking about their breast cancer experiences. There has been quite a bit of discussion on social media about this article. In particular, people are upset with the "Lessons for all of us" sidebar to the article, which you can see for yourself here. Here is just a sample of articles written about this snafu:
Here's my take.

I've been thinking recently about people's need to stay in control when they are faced with a cancer diagnosis. People do this in different ways. Some people insist on making extreme treatment decisions for themselves (such as the huge increase in women choosing double mastectomy for breast cancer), even if these aren't necessarily sanctioned by their doctor or based in evidence. Others start extreme exercise or food regimens in order to control their bodies. Some take enormous quantities of vitamins or other supplements. Some choose meditation, acupuncture, or other alternative treatments.

The point I'm trying to make is that with cancer, people feel the need to get back in control because they feel so out of control.

So what I think is going on in this article is that Crow and Etheridge are demonstrating quite well this "taking control" phenomenon. Etheridge demonstrates it particularly well, with statements such as: "This was my own doing and I take responsibility. When I got my body back into balance, the cancer disappeared."

Clearly there is no scientific basis for these claims. But psychologically, I do believe that these statements show us how believing that you have control over your own cancer gives some folks comfort.

Something else I've been thinking about recently is the need for some religious folks to attribute their cancer to some kind of lack in their connection to G-d. Someone I know has cancer and wrote how she was angry at herself for not praying hard enough, and for not thinking positively enough, because clearly, she thought, if she had been praying hard enough and thinking positively enough, G-d would heal her. So she needed to pray harder, and think more positive thoughts.

For me, this is just another example of taking control. We don't really know for sure if prayer and positive thoughts lead to healing (although I know that some might argue with me about this). There is no scientific basis to this. But for some, taking control in this way is helpful.

I don't know too much about the author of the AARP article, Alanna Nash, but I'm pretty sure from her bio she is no scientist and no expert on breast cancer. Actually it seems like her area of expertise is musicians. So likely that's why she wrote this article, which is about two musicians, and it just morphed into something she didn't know a lot about. Yes, AARP should have vetted the article more closely. And I do think they should publish a retraction. But Nash is probably not savvy to the world of breast cancer and took what these musicians said as truth.

Don't get me wrong: I can't stand this sort of thing that minimizes the horrors of cancer, and makes it into a positive, life-changing event. It's not positive. It is life-changing, but often not in a good way. However, I can see that these sorts of statements are really about gaining control over cancer, in a time of having no control at all.