What the New Age Movement Stole

I came across an SMH article the other day about a young lass called Jessica Ainscough who says she is healing herself from cancer, courtesy of the ‘alternative’ Gerson Therapy Dedicating her life to following and disseminating its principles, this talented writer has settled on the Sunshine Coast making a living as a freelance writer, speaker and blogger.  Criticised as quackery by ‘conventional’ medical practitioners (such as Orac on ScienceBlogs), the whole story about Gerson Therapy has got me deeply concerned about the claims people make about treating deadly diseases such as cancer with ‘alternative treatments’.

What made me really sad was the death of Jessica’s mother Sharyn Ainscough of breast cancer while practising the Gerson Therapy and believing it was working right to the end.  Orac points out in his post that describing worsening symptoms as Jessica does: ‘flare-ups’ is typical of the language of denial that quacks use.  But as horrible as it was to read how Sharyn was actually developing satellite lesions in addition to her main breast tumour all couched in the language of false hope, rationalisation and denial, it was even worse to read some of the comments.  Several of them are hauntingly mirroring Sharyn’s terrible ordeal, like this one:

Well Jess as you know I’ve had a rough week – and it’s still going! I guess that is the bit that scares me the most, the time that this flareup is lasting. I have had a constant stream of flareups but this is by far the worst – I am week 23. I can visually see my breast tumour, which was roughly 8 cm, breaking down in front of my eyes. This last week the dent is getting bigger and bigger, so I’m guessing my body is having a hard time keeping up with the whole process. I’m currently going from the lounge to the juicer and struggling to eat (rare for me I’m always hungry) Every joint aches in my body intensely, my shoulders I couldn’t move much for a few days, I feel like I’ve been poisoned, I am having welcoming fevers on and off, night sweats (so much washing), very depressed at times, and now today my rib cage on the opposite side of my tumour is so tender. If I didn’t have that big dent I would be very worried though. I am so glad I have fellow Gerson friends like you and Sharyn to vent with. So for any of you Gerson patients out there going through a similiar thing I hope that my openness helps you a little too. Keep the faith!! Jess thanks for always sharing. And I must say Charlotte, thanks for always caring! xx

And this one:

Dear Jess,

U and your mum are such an inspiration! I have a 3 year old son with leukemia(ALL) .He was diagnosed in late 2009 and currently in the maintenance phase of treatment. I did purchase and read on The Gerson Theraphy book. I have not been able to follow 100% of the requirements, as my son is still a little boy.
My prayers are with u and your mum

And this:

I have been going through the same stuff as your mom for about two weeks. I feel as well that there is a strand of pearls going through my boob that has the breast cancer. Not only that I have an awful rash that I use to have when I was pregnant with my third child and it covers from my waist down. I’ve been on the Gerson diet for a little over a year. I really enjoy it but I do get a bit scared and discouraged sometimes due to these healing reactions that I wasn’t sure that they were healing reactions. I’m happy that I found your blog. I found it very comforting Thank you

It’s worse to think of the influence that Jessica Ainscough’s espousal of this fraudulent Gerson Therapy is having on others and the heavy responsibility she must bear in leading people to quietly hideous deaths, often as Orac points out, without the comfort of modern palliative care.

Ainscough’s  blog is all sweetness and light, full of the kind of beautiful, idyllic seaside scenes I knew on the North NSW coast as a child.  Fabulous pictures of organic food feasts abound and it is followed and liked by hordes of beautiful people, smiling and wearing garlands of flowers and all sending each other rays of love sunshine.

It’s Orac’s opinion that sadly, Jessica Ainscough will probably die of the cancer.  That statistically for her kind of cancer and without surgery she very likely has at most a few more years.  She could have chosen Western medicine at the outset, had her arm amputated and gone on to do something worthwhile.  Now she lives a pretense of a life urging others to make believe as well, a practice which has deadly consequences.

While it’s clearly unethical to be promoting quack treatment to people suffering from cancer, she seems to really believe that the Gerson therapy can effectively treat cancer.  On the other hand, how much in the face of all the facts should she have accepted rather than preferred to believe otherwise?

As a teenager, I embraced the cause of the hippie movement that originated in the 1960s.  I loved their casual, carefree approach to life and their love of all things natural.  Many of them became farmers and these days the organic/biodynamic food industry is big business.  The north-east coast of Australia, where I grew up, has since become a mecca for this post-hippie or alternative lifestyle movement.  The weather there is mild all the year around, the landscape is beautiful and green and lush and a pristine beach is always nearby.

But there is a dark side to the alternative lifestyle movement, an embrace of a tribal/quasi-religious mentality, an abandonment of a rational way of thinking and a deep distrust of science and particularly Western ‘conventional’ medicine.  It’s no coincidence that the highest numbers of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children live in these richly salubrious surrounds where the living is so easy it is hard to imagine that there can be any terror, pain or death in it like whooping cough or my grandmother’s especial fear, diptheria.

But I believe that our human relationship with the earth is much more complex.  Western science and medicine has given us a standard of health and living that people have come to expect as a given.  It’s a given that most infants don’t die in childbirth and that most are likely to survive to old age.  It’s a given that people in this country won’t sicken and die of smallpox or leprosy.

It’s so ironic that a generation steeped in the unprecedented knowledge, medical and technological advances of our time can still produce so many people who willfully refuse to accept that they were given any advantages.  And it’s so easy to believe that eating organic fruit and vegetables actually heals illnesses like cancer when courtesy of modern medicine, you were born whole.

An old school friend of mine has immersed herself deep into New Age woo.  She originally wanted to be an archeologist, but at our reunion 30 years later she told me that her and her boyfriend were working at some kind of naturopathic institution that included fertility therapy.  These days, she makes enough of a living as a reiki astrologer to be regularly trotting off to places like the south of France, while I struggle to find the positives in a relentless slog of a job in a government department.

But I couldn’t bring myself to live life so lightly like my friend.  There is something about the stern, dark, serious side of life I do not want to let go of.  I am concerned for instance about the environment, because the majority of scientists concur that global warming was caused by man and has dire and impending consequences and want to do something that really does help others.

The New Age movement has taken over the green, undulating lands of my early childhood, where our family climbed Mount Warning and spent so many days exploring the lush forests of coachwood, figs, palms, liana vines and black bean trees, where the whip-bird calls in the cool green shadows and the explorer’s feet treads soft over moist dark mulch.  Now I want to take that beauty and mystery back, with science and good old rational thinking.

In my urban exile, I don’t want to only think only of the good things in life, because I seek a balance between the serious and the light.  Thus the city becomes my quarry just like we used to search the old quarry with its deep, green pool and tumble of dark rocks for ancient forms of life to think and reflect on.

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