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You mean it was growing in my garden the whole time?

March 13, 2012 friend of mine has a bad case of uterine fibroids and is about to have surgery to fix it. She’s understandably scared, of the surgery itself, of any complications with her possible future fertility, and because the doctors have thrown around the word malignancy, she’s freaking out just a wee little bit. In order to give her a morale boost, our mutual friend Moxie of Ask Moxie fame asked her readers to tell their stories about fibroids and fertility. So far so good: Moxie’s readers never fail to deliver — except for one woman who posted about raw food, herbs, and yadda bullshit yadda. And then, while researching plants for my garden I stumbled upon a link to a web site promising herbal cures for cancer. Oh my! If only I had known! Wormwood! I could have harvested some plants of uncertain potency but poisonous certainty, brewed them in unmeasured quantity, and drunk them — during the dark of the moon, perhaps — and cured my cancer that way. It feels like a sock in the gut.

Healthy food is healthy. Herbs are good — I have a huge herb garden, and that’s why I was googling plant names. Furthermore, research never hurt any one — so what’s the problem?  I am reminded of the six stages of learning according to Ibn al-Qayyim:

Firstly: Asking questions in a good manner.
Secondly: Remaining quiet and listening attentively.
Thirdly: Understanding well.
Fourthly: Memorising.
Fifthly: Teaching.
Sixthly – and it is its fruit: Acting upon the knowledge and keeping to its limits.

Call it bad science. Call it an epistemological fallacy. The persistent myth that modern medicine is wrong, that we should address our ills with commonly found garden plants fails on all six counts, and most importantly, the sixth: acting upon the knowledge and most especially keeping to its limits.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with an herbal tincture. What’s wrong is letting superstition stand in the way of science, and preying on gullible people who fear what they do not understand. Spreading the lie garden plants or, worse, proprietary and expensive herbal blends, will cure cancer jeopardizes people who don’t even know the right questions to ask but who will blindly trust someone who tells them what they want them to hear. It insults the tens of thousands of women and men who have devoted their lives to the study of disease and the quest for a cure. It insults the millions of women and men, including me, who have undergone treatment pushing us to the very brink of death so that we might have a chance at life. And most of all, it’s an abhomination of an an insult to the men and women, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who have lost their lives to cancer, implying that had they only but opened their minds they might have lived.

I know that people truly believe in the magic power of herbs — and I also acknowledge that plants play a key role in many forms of legitimate religious practice. I know that my lone voice will never change anyone’s mind. And I also know, because my doctors told me so, that a certain number of cancer cases, about 10% according to my doctor, do resolve themselves without any medical intervention.

But conflating the power of herbs with a magic cure for cancer takes us back to the dark ages when a cancer diagnosis was a death warrant.

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  1. Abigail permalink

    As a friend of mine likes to say, “Modern Medicine is not a conspiracy theory.”
    As I like to say, if these freaking things worked we wouldn’t have had to invent modern medicine because your hoodo-bark-tissane would have done the trick way back when.

  2. Willow bark works for headaches, I am told, but that’s because it’s where we get aspirin from. They get some chemotherapies and antibiotics from vinca — one reason we uprooted all of it from our creekbed, I might add. And they get taxol from yew, but I think, especially when you are talking about poisons, that proper dosage is tremendously important. As you all know, I’m a fan of modern medicine. Otherwise, I’d be dead.

  3. That’s a sensible anwesr to a challenging question

  4. Most insightful posting!

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