Navigating the Medicine Show


“Step right up! Step right up! Hear about the amazing healing powers of Dr. SmartyPants’ patented formula!” If pharmaceutical drugs were distributed out of the back of a charlatan wagon at a medicine show  would they have fewer takers?  Wait a moment, what about commercials for prescription drugs? You know the ones, with the huge list of possible side effects being played while beautiful actors galavant around? Or the four page ads in print media filled with small print? How different are these from the medicine shows of the old west?

While proponents of alternative medicines are demonized as immoral profiteering snake oil salesmen, drug companies are working to manipulate the market right and left with sophisticated marketing campaigns. Not that there are not schemes in the alternative medicine world as well, there are, what I am saying is that the drug company pot calling the alternative kettle black is more common than you might think. While pharmaceuticals seem to be innocent until proven guilty, alternative medicines seem to be guilty until proven innocent. At least in the mainstream media. Science based medicines do not always live up to their promoted dreams, certainly the fiasco of giving women DES or hormone replacement therapy did not pan out as expected. On the other side, staunch believers might endorse such things as cottage cheese as a cure for cancer.

Where is the middle ground? Where can the truth be found?

The idea that you have to choose sides between following “science” based medicine and placing your faith in traditional methods has seemed a false dichotomy to me. It has been frustrating to sift through all the spit and shine that coats the options, in attempting to find the real story. We are pickled in choosing sides, rather than collaborating and actually seeing what is there. When I have tried to step out of the fracas I have had some mixed results. Not everything is as it first appears.

medicine show shenanigans
medicine show shenanigans
For myself I have tried to listen to my intuition to gage whether something will be beneficial to me- knowing that I have my own biases and expectations that will direct me in certain directions.  This can be a complicated reckoning to determine what is truth and what is lie.  Which reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful character, Tiffany Aching, who grows to understand the different ways of seeing and understanding the world,  as described on wikipedia;

“As a witch, Tiffany possesses First Sight, the ability to see ‘what is really there’ (as opposed to second sight, which shows people what they think ought to be there). She also possesses Second Thoughts, which are defined as ‘the thoughts you think about the way you think’. Whilst other witches are said to have this trait as well, Tiffany also recognizes some of her thoughts as Third Thoughts (the thoughts you think about the way you think about the way you think), and Fourth Thoughts (the thoughts you think about the way you think about the way you think about the way you think). All these thoughts sometimes cause Tiffany to walk into door frames.”

Sifting through all of the options require that we step into some version of Tiffany’s First Sight, so that we might see what is actually there. There are so many things that will strengthen and hearten people that are unavailable to them because we look at the world only with our Second Sight, that is with a bias towards what we think ought to be there, rather than what is actually there.

In my own efforts towards health and wellbeing I have found benefit in everything from sophisticated targeted therapies, like Herceptin and Perjeta, to wearing colorful clothing. I don’t expect to read any studies anytime soon that colorful clothing cures cancer – but there is no question that it improves my mood.

I spend way to much time reading research papers, a side benefit of which is that I am heartened to see that there is a slow blurring of the lines drawn in the sand between Western Medicine and traditional medicines. Scientific studies are beginning to validate traditional medicines more and more, which results in hospitals offering alternatives like acupuncture along side their usual treatments.  This process of society coming to terms with the many means of true healing will likely take a long time. Until then cultivating Second Thoughts and First Sight are very useful skills as we navigate through the parade of Medicine shows that move before us.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Red Phoenix says:

    Thank you for this. It is quite concerning, the battle between the two. Modern medicine did not eliminate my cancet, though it is helping me to survive. I can’t help but turn to alternatives, in the hopes of them prolonging my life. I also find it interesting that there are not more clinical studies on alternative medicine?

    1. Iridacea says:

      When I was reading about Herceptin clinical trials, one doctor said that while it helped most people some, while others had a truly remarkable response. It seems to me that many things might have the same sort of range of effectiveness based on what particular complex cancering contributing factors cocktail a person is dealing with.
      Plus there are the many things that improve life quality, while doing little to shift the cancer landscape. Choosing what is worth doing may be influenced by many criteria.
      I agree that we need more studies for things like energy medicine or supplements, even though many people are using them already. We would all benefit from integrating the things that have studies showing clear benefit, like meditation, into standard of care recommendations. A process that is hindered by the divide.

  2. YAPCaB says:

    I use herbal supplements everyday to help control the hot flashes brought on by taking Lupron. They were recommended by my oncologist and work quite well. I’m a big believer that there are lots of great treatments out there that have been around for a long time, but no one’s studied them. I’m also a big believer in the placebo effect. If a drug is safe and ineffective, but I feel better after taking it, bring it on. Kinda like your clothing makes you feel better.

  3. Iridacea says:

    Here! Here! on the Placebo.
    In the Radical Remission book she lists 9 common things that the folks tended to do, supplements is on that list. I am interested in what supplements were suggested for hot flashes- which are the bane of so many BC gals on hormone disruptors like Tamoxifen etc.
    xo iris

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