Few things irk me more than the dissemination of useless or misleading information, especially of the medical variety. I love nothing more than to question my omniscient i-Pad on matters from cooking to disease symptoms – don’t we all? – but, sometimes, sorting the wheat from the chaff is no easy matter.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman I barely know but is nonetheless a Facebook friend, posted on her wall a “study” that posited the entire pharmaceutical industry is keeping from us the findings of 1931 Nobel Laureate Otto Warburg, whose research was summed up as “too much acidity causes cancer”. Hence the so-called study’s helpful directions that we should stop eating acidic foods and, voila, cancer will never touch us.
As it so happens, a member of my immediate family is a breast cancer researcher who is very familiar with Dr. Warburg and the Warburg effect, which is a lot more complicated than “acidity causes cancer”. So, no, nobody is keeping his work a secret (if you are so inclined, you can check Dr. Warburg’s research here).
Very uncharacteristically of me, (I sometimes will click a laconic “like” and never update my FB page,) I wrote a lengthy reply about the irresponsibility of posting ridiculous information, not to mention offensive to people whose cancer was caused by a genetic modification.
I am the poster child for holistic medicine – I don’t even take aspirin and I have been employing homeopathy and other natural remedies for common ailments and minor diseases for over 20 years. But my very holistic doctor shipped me off to a cardiologist the moment he heard a faint murmur in my heart and mainly works towards preventing me from getting sick, and still insists on all those fun check-ups that seem to increase with age. When it comes to our health, it’s important to distinguish between science and quackery.
This morning, my first cup of coffee was downed while reading the frank and surprisingly personal op-ed Angelina Jolie wrote in the New York Times, about her choice to have a double mastectomy when she found out she carried the BRCA1 gene. After watching her mother battling breast cancer for 10 years and finally succumbing at age 59, getting the gene test was the smart thing to do. In Ms. Jolie’s case, her “faulty” gene carried an 87% percent risk she would develop breast cancer and 50% risk of ovarian cancer. For the sake of her family and her health, she opted to have a double mastectomy, which reduced her risk to just 5%.
It must have been a heart wrenching decision, and an intensely personal one, which she is now sharing, fully aware of the media frenzy that would ensue, for the sake of disseminating the right kind of information. The very private clinic that Ms. Jolie chose for her care would have been unlikely to leak such information but, with Ms. Jolie’s blessing, now shares very graphic details of her treatment.
Let’s be clear: gene modification, so-called BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, is pretty uncommon (you can read a more extensive post about it here). Of all the breast cancer diagnosis this year, probably less than 1% will be related to these genes. And, yes, absolutely, environmental factors do contribute to the majority of cancers, so we should do whatever is in our power to lead the healthiest life we can.
But the points that Ms. Jolie wanted to drive home are:
- if anyone in your immediate family died of breast or ovarian cancer at an early age (typically by age 60) or if many women in your family have been diagnosed with either disease, your doctor will most likely suggest genetic testing. It doesn’t necessarily mean you carry the modification but, once you know, you have options;
- the cost of genetic testing, around $3,000, not all of it covered by insurance, is still beyond the reach of low-income women;
- undergoing a double mastectomy does not rob you of your femininity or your identity.
Luckily, most of us will not have to deal with such drastic decisions. What lesson there is to be learnt here, from a celebrity being candid about her medical choices, is that, at a time when we are bombarded with information, we need to be more pro-active than ever when it comes to our health. We needn’t be afraid to ask questions, seek second opinions, battle our insurance companies and help all women have access, not just to better care, but to fundamental care. Only armed with knowledge, can we then decide with our doctors and our loved ones how best to honor our bodies.
Image of Ms. Jolie found in the public domain