Tag Archives: cancer

Reflections on the Death of an 11 Year Old Aboriginal Girl Who Was Allowed to Forgo Chemo

stone of madnessBy Dr David Laing Dawson

I can think of a few metaphors that aptly express why one shouldn’t blog about this subject: mine field, thin ice, bramble bush, angels fear to tread. But…

We decided many years ago that we, (and by “we” I mean our organized educated societies, our western countries ruled by civil law), should protect our children, even protect them from their own parents if necessary. Well, truthfully, it wasn’t that many years ago, just over a hundred, and it seems we decided we needed to protect our pets and our farm animals a full generation before deciding we also needed to protect our children. But we did decide we really shouldn’t allow child labour, or pretend that sex is consensual before age 14 then 16, or marry off unwilling teenage females, or cage and beat or starve our toddlers. We know we should not allow a 13 year old to fly an airplane because she wants to, or drive a car before age 16, and even then only with training and supervision.

We expect parents to take their children for adequate medical care, and if they are not doing this we intervene. If we find that a hyper religious Christian couple have caged their 10 year old in a rat-infested basement for two weeks as correction for lying, or taking the Lord’s name in vain, we intervene. We take the child away. It is not a process without complexity but we do act. We do not allow parents to refuse treatment for TB if their child suffers from this disease.

So why on earth do we allow a ten year old, or a 12 year old, to decide with her parents, to forgo life-saving cancer treatment? Why this incredibly deferential attitude toward primitive thought and quackery when it is coming from a person or persons of First Nation Heritage? We wouldn’t buy it from a Roma, a Seventh Day Adventist, a practitioner of Santeria, an Irish healer, a Celtic priest, a new-age diva. So what makes us so cautious, so generous with the fictions of the ancient healing practices of First Nations?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against ritual and faith and any kind of spiritual or psychic healing practices if they give comfort and hope and do not replace actual proven treatment when such treatment exists. Go ahead and burn the incense, do the cupping, chew the wheat grass, wear the garlic, swallow the echinacea, and acupressure to your heart’s content, but if a bacterial pneumonia is the problem, for God’s sake take the antibiotics as well.

I will try to answer my own question because if that were my child, or grandchild, Family and Child Services and the court would have, I’m sure, taken my child into temporary custody and ensured that she be treated.

I think it is the problem of lingering racism and guilt, the guilt being a response to our own history and perhaps lingering hints of racism. My and your ancestors certainly did not treat the First Nations people well. Even when our intentions were basically good, the solutions proved destructive: residential schools, Reserves. So we feel guilty, and angry. Guilty that we still have people living in our rich country in third world conditions. Suicide is endemic, alcoholism epidemic. Many of the young men are in prison, many of the young women disappear or die prematurely. The fire truck does not work; the water treatment system fails. Nepotism flourishes.

I had dinner with the chief of a Northern Ontario band many years ago. He was in a wheel chair having lost his legs on a rail road track in what is often called “an alcohol related accident”.  He was clever and wise and had something of a sardonic sense of humor.  For some reason I was curious about the apparent lack of curse words in his language, and asked about this. He smiled at me and said, “You must remember that the Indian had nothing to be angry about before the white man came.”

Well, I know that is not really true, and I know that they are no more likely to be in touch with, in harmony with, the mysteries of the universe, energies of the wind and rain, the forest animals, the living earth itself than I am (or at least David Suzuki). Though I am sure their ancestors were more in touch with night and day and rain and wind and birth and death, with drought and storm, as were mine living  in their sod huts, cooking over peat fires and herding their sheep through the rocky pastures of the Orkney Islands, unaware, I’m sure, of Galileo’s discoveries, or of Dr. John Snow  staunching the spread of Cholera in London.

No. They don’t have any special lock on the magic of the universe, the spirits of the animal kingdom, the nature of healing, the mysteries of the our cells and organs, of our mortality. They are merely human, like you and I. And Canadian. Living in the twenty first century, in centrally heated houses, with TV and the internet, driving cars, burning fossil fuels. And their children deserve the same protection as mine do from the superstitious beliefs of our ancestors.

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Who’s to Blame for Parents Chosing Quackery Over Science?

David Laing DawsonMarvin RossBy Dr David Laing Dawson and Marvin Ross

The family of an 11-year-old aboriginal girl with cancer has a constitutional right to opt for traditional medicine over chemotherapy, an Ontario judge ruled Friday in what some observers called a landmark decision.”

We can understand the difficulty, the sensitivities weighing on the judge’s mind when he  made that decision. Memories of recent land disputes in Caledonia, the Oka stand off, mercury poisoning in Northern Ontario, a history of insensitive forced resettlement, and residential schools. We need to be sensitive and cautious and respectful.

And had this been the case of a family choosing a long established culturally relevant healing practice over an only partially effective Western Surgery, the decision would have made some sense. Even if it had been refusal of a transfusion that would have only improved chances by, say, 10 percent, the judge’s decision would be understandable.

But it wasn’t. It was the family choosing to pursue not a traditional native treatment as they claimed but a very modern European/North American flim flam to treat an illness that is fatal, rather than a scientifically proven treatment that is known to be 90 to 95% effective. And not just partially effective, but curative.

But rather than rant about the decision, and the “alternative treatments”, we should point out “our” failure. By “our” we mean the institutions of scientific, evidence-based modern western medicine. The competing systems here are, in one corner:

McMaster University Health Sciences Center. McMaster University Department of Pediatrics. McMaster University department of pediatric oncology. And all in association with researchers, clinicians, libraries, scholars, journals filled with scientific evidence around the world.

vs.

In the other corner, The Hippocrates Health Institute of West Palm Beach, a licensed massage institute and its director, a man who calls himself doctor who is not an MD, one Brian Clement. According to scienceblog.com, its programs are a cornucopia of nearly every quackery on the planet.

We looked at their website. The website is very slick, replete with testimonials and promises, and physically the place could pass for a resort in Tahiti. A smiling personnel awaits you. A store will sell you its products. The founder is one Ann Wigmore, a self-educated nutritionist with a fondness for raw foods. I have no doubt a week or two spent there would be, for those of us with a penchant for alcohol, barbecue, stress, and worry, a healthy experience.

But surely, with a little more tact, a little more patience, a better way of explaining, a more thoughtful and empathic approach, some honesty coated with hope, understanding of human fear and trepidation, an understanding of a parent’s pain while watching a child in pain…. Well, maybe they tried their best. But really, surely the McMaster University Health Sciences Center should be able to win the hearts and minds of its patients over the Hippocrates Health Massage parlour of West Palm Beach.

Addendum on Nutrition By Dr David Laing Dawson

My mother (and I’m sure your mother) used to regularly tell us kids to “Eat your carrots.” This included raw carrots of course, though mostly boiled. She might vaguely mention they were good for eyesight, for night vision. And fish every Friday was good for the brain. Some greens on the plate were important, a little fruit every day. Brown bread was better than white. Not too much fat. Not too much meat. Plenty of “ruffage” for the bowels.  And chew carefully, eating slowly, while sitting at a table. Don’t skip breakfast.

If you need a snack between meals, eat an apple. Drink lots of water. And the only two supplements we received every morning were Vitamin D, and cod liver oil.

She was just my mother. I had no idea at the time that she was really a pioneer nutritionist. A pioneer in the field of alternative medicine circa 1950. Of course she didn’t know this either.

It is quite fascinating to learn that after another 64 years of scientific study, after countless reports and vastly increased knowledge of human physiology, there is little more to good nutrition than what my mother already knew. There have been many fads since. They come and go. But my mother’s ideas of good nutrition are the only ones that have withstood scientific study. So science supports my mother. And my mother knew, as does science, that though her nutritional advice was a good foundation for a healthy body and brain, it is not a cure for cancer.

Perhaps the even more fascinating thing is, that though science has so far proved my mother both correct and thorough in her advice, millions of people today follow wildly crazy nutritional patterns, usually propounded by other people set to make a profit on such behaviour, and more than a few are seduced into believing that my mother’s nutritional advice, coupled with my father’s advice to always look on the bright side and get a little exercise, cures cancer and numerous other diseases.

Magic, Shamanism and Modern Science

stone of madnessBy Dr David Laing Dawson

This was in the news today:

“The judge deciding whether an aboriginal girl can forgo conventional cancer treatment for traditional healing questioned whether forcing chemotherapy would be “imposing our world view on First Nations.” ”

This child has an acute form of Leukemia that is known to be 100% fatal untreated, but, unlike most cancers, has a 90 to 95% chance of remission and cure if treated. That is the science of it. The western medical science.

The judge’s use of the term “world view” struck a cord with me, but rather than wading into this mine-field of misperception, mistrust, and down right denial of science, I will relate a story much closer to the reality of human behavior and human motivation.

Some years ago I was consulting in Northern Ontario when I found I had an appointment with an Ojibway medicine man in the town of Kenora. He was something of an itinerant medicine man, healer, shaman, traveling to reserves in Manitoba and Ontario as needed. He was a tall man, quite imposing, with dark eyes and a charismatic intensity. He introduced himself and told his story. He was scheduled (now “scheduled” is not quite the right word here, because it certainly was our Industrial Revolution that imposed scheduling) to perform, in the near future, a second try at exorcising a powerful and evil spirit that had invaded a woman’s body. He had performed one ceremony and failed, he explained. The beast was still within this woman and destroying her and making her behave in a psychotic manner. This invading spirit, this evil, was particularly pernicious (my word), and, once out of the suffering patient, was apt to invade an onlooker.

He invited me to attend the ceremony.

“But”, he said, “You should bring some holy water to protect yourself.” He said this with such conviction that I was quite prepared to visit the Catholic Church to ask the priest if I might borrow a little from the chalice.

We talked some more, and I explored and asked what I could about the nature of the ceremony and the woman’s symptoms, and I agreed to come when summoned. But as he got up to leave I was still puzzled by something. So I asked, hesitatingly, “But really, why would you want to have me at this ceremony?”

He looked at me and said, “You might bring some of those pills of yours.”

And then he left.

And I thought, a smart man, covering all his bases. Native spiritualism, Catholic magic, and Western Medicine. And also, I thought, a true reflection of where we really are: hankering for the magic world of the spirit, the certainty and comfort of religion, but relying on the wisdom of enlightenment and science. I would take some fast-acting anti-psychotic medication with me when called.

Naming

By Dr. David Laing Dawson

exorcism Part 1 of a few.

Disease, illness, affliction, problem, atypical neurological development, eccentricity, issue, alternate reality, way of life, gift? There is no shortage of words and phrases to name and describe the nature of our struggles to cope, to live and survive in our social world. But each word conveys implications of value, worth, status, promise, expectation, and responsibility. Often these implications themselves determine which word is chosen. About once a month I am told I am about to see (in consultation) a child who has been labeled “gifted”. Whereupon I must try to find a delicate way of asking if “gifted” means Carnegie Hall by the age of 13, or brilliant at quantum mechanics but can’t relate to people, or simply learning disordered, or, careful with these words now, mentally handicapped.

Unfortunately many of the words we use, benign and descriptive at first, over time accrue negative value like small crusty accretions. There wasn’t anything wrong with “retarded” (slowed, behind) until it became an epithet in the schoolyard.

To prevent misunderstanding, but inevitably to obscure, we often fall back on what an editor friend of mine calls “weasel words”, benign enough to not offend, but careless and unhelpful. “Issue” is one of those words, as in “addiction issues”, and “mental health issues.” I don’t know why anyone would say, “He has addiction issues.” rather than, “He is addicted to heroin.” But they do. The use of “mental health issue” is easier to understand, though equally unhelpful. The speaker or journalist is trying to avoid the word “illness”, as in “He suffers from a mental illness.”

A Monty Python skit comes to mind, in which the doctor hesitates while telling his patient that he has, or suffers from, Syphilis. He gets to the word and, instead of speaking it, bends and whispers it into the open drawer of his desk. The patient doesn’t hear the word and asks the doctor to say again. In Monty Python fashion this repeats over and over until….

Actually I don’t remember the ending and I cannot find it on Youtube. But I imagine Michael Palin finally screaming the word, and a few others, at John Cleese.

We avoid the word because of the stigma attached to it, thus increasing the stigma. It was not until we openly used the word “cancer”, that we didn’t run from it, euphemize it, hide it, that it began to lose its stigma. Once free of its stigma the doors opened, research money poured in; clinics, wards, whole hospitals were devoted to helping those who suffer from cancer. The illness cancer, the disease cancer. Not the “cancer issue”.

Terry Fox did not run across Canada with a leg amputated to raise money and awareness for Bone Health Issues.