To ask my question is virtually to answer it at the same time. But ask it I must. Do public celebrities, popular for whatever reason, have a role to play in treating disease and illness? Some clearly think so or books and various programs would not have such a huge audience.
Take Suzanne Somers as a case in point. Her new book, Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who are Curing Cancer and How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place has created rousing interest among many. I have no doubt that it will become a bestseller. Somers is known for her crusade for non-traditional treatments. She is a cancer survivor herself, having undergone a lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer a decade ago. She declined chemotherapy and believes it is not effective for the most common forms of cancer: lung and breast.
Somers got her largest response when she appeared on Oprah. Oprah denies that she promotes such "cures" but she said Somers "just might be a pioneer." She added, "Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo" but clearly gave her the biggest stage she could to promote her thinking.
The question here is rather simple: Can, or should, people with great fame use their fame to promote medical opinions and promote their own medical advice? Well, it is a free country and freedom of the press allows it for sure. But is it helpful? When Bill Maher makes no secret of his disdain for flu shots when he says "Why should I allow someone to stick a disease into my arm?" (The ignorance of that comment is mind boggling for a liberal talk show host who prides himself on intelligence.) And Don Imus says he's eating habanero peppers and taking Japanese soy supplements to treat prostate cancer. What next? But really, what harm does this stuff really do since these are only celebrities?
The answer is that we really do not know. One thing we do know is that this kind of talk clearly feeds a public perception that traditional medical science should not be trusted. Barron Lerner, a physician who has studied this issue of celebrities influencing the treatment of illness, recalls that many desperately followed Steve McQueen when he turned to unorthodox treatment for his cancer in 1980. McQueen was treated with everything from coffee enemas to laetrile, a now debunked remedy involving apricot pits. While it is difficult to know what to make of McQueen's influence Lerner says, in his book When Illness Goes Public, that traffic to Mexico related to end-of-life cancers did increase.
What was going on with McQueen, says Lerner, is that he embodied a sense of rebellion and individualism that gave voice to a feeling in this country that mainstream medicine is not enough.
As readers know I have struggled for 13 years with an illness that has no cure and, until recently, didn't even gain the respect of the mainstream medical establishment. It took me a few years just to find a physician who had studied the illness enough to trust him as my doctor. And recently we have increasing evidence that my illness is a retro-virus that attacks the immune system, much like the one labeled HIV. A reason the mainstream did not do much research on this illness is because they were not sure they believed the patients who reported to them their symptoms.
So I am in a precarious stance somewhere between Suzanne Somers and Bill Maher and some who act as the gate keepers of mainstream medicine. I believe medical science is not perfect and anyone who thinks that it is has put entirely too much trust in mankind's achievements. Further, it is as natural as day follows night to look for alternative approaches to chronic, long-term illness when mainstream medicine says we have no answers. In a society where information is ubiquitous (especially via the Internet) we should expect people to think and study such issues for themselves. I welcome this and do it myself. But I think there is a real danger here that everyone begins to act as if they understand the type of testing that goes into serious scientific research.
But with most cancers this is not the complete story. We have made huge strides in treating many forms of cancer and with some of them we have an extremely high rate of success by using mainstream treatments. Could non-traditional forms of supplementation help? Maybe, but we are not sure. The problem here is how the scientific method operates and how we thus determine, over much time and testing, what works and what doesn't work. I have learned to respect this process very profoundly.
At the same time I have learned that mainstream medical research follows both protocols and biases like any other procedure. True science will keep exploring and searching, even in places where researchers might at first be not so open to new ideas. The very nature of real science is to follow proven traditions but to also keep searching.
So, do celebrities help or hurt? My guess is it is a little of the first, since they can help create awareness, and a boat load of the second, since they have tended to promote the conspiratorial aspect of lay suspicions unduly. Several of Suzanne's Somer's stories features doctors who have done some amazing work. Much of it, however, is the result of people like Somers becoming "a celebrity health guru." As one who struggles with real illness I can tell you celebrity health gurus have no appeal to me at all. Somers says, "I don't have an agenda." I actually believe her since she seems to be a person who believers in what she is saying. But, she adds, "I'm just a passionate lay person. And I'm using my celebrity to do something good for people." It is this statement that I doubt quite profoundly.