Melissa Etheridge’s Dangerous New Age Babble

Angelina Jolie has been in the news recently for choosing to have a double mastectomy, even though she does not have breast cancer. She does, however, have the BRCA gene mutation which could lead to breast cancer, and although a voluntary double mastectomy is a radical choice, it’s also a reasonable one.

This is not an abstract issue for Jolie: her mother died of the disease at age 56, and the odds of her getting it are very high. The decision is not an easy one, and I think it’s fair to say that any woman would require a large amount of fortitude to make it. When that woman is also known for her physical appearance, the choice becomes even more challenging. The word “brave” gets thrown around a little too easily these days, but I’d say her choice to voluntarily surgically remove her breasts qualifies.

Singer Melissa Etheridge isn’t having any of that “brave” talk, however.

Etheridge, also a breast cancer survivor, said the decision was “fearful,” not brave, as if those things are somehow exclusive of each other. The brave person is often bravest in the face of fear. Fear brings bravery to the surface. It’s actually a fairly integral part of the idea of bravery. Fear is the prompt: bravery is the response.

If all Etheridge was doing was offering a bit of semantic hair-splitting, I wouldn’t really bother with a post. However, she followed up her comments with this bit of looniness:

“My belief is that cancer comes from inside you and so much of it has to do with the environment of your body. It’s the stress that will turn that gene on or not. Plenty of people have the gene mutation and everything but it never comes to cancer so I would say to anybody faced with that, that choice is way down the line on the spectrum of what you can do and to really consider the advancements we’ve made in things like nutrition and stress levels.”

“I’ve been cancer free for nine years now and looking back, I completely understand why I got cancer,” Etheridge told the Washington Blade. “There was so much acidity in everything. I really encourage people to go a lot longer and further before coming to that conclusion.”

I don’t even know what that means. Well, yes, cancer does indeed come from “inside you,” which of course means it has something to do with “the environment of your body.”

But the cause of cancer is really stress, nutrition, and acidity?

And a person with a very high genetic pre-disposition to cancer can turn the gene off if they just chill out and eat right?

That’s her alternative?

I happen to have one of those genetic diseases that mysteriously turns itself on. Other members of my family have the disease as well, so it’s quite obviously, somehow, hereditary.

There’s mounting evidence that, at least in the case of autoimmune diseases such as mine, the disease is activated by a virus. The culprit in some inherited diseases may in fact be a retrovirus entwined in the DNA, and activated by an infection which weakens the proteins wrapped around those particular strands.

I’m not saying this explains why some people with BRCA get breast cancer and others don’t. We are, however, making incredible progress in understanding the mechanisms of disease and their roots in genetics. Until such time as we have firm answers, it’s dangerous and irresponsible to advise people with a high likelihood of certain cancers to pursue unproven alternative therapies. Etheridge is offering nothing more than New Age Christian Science.

Yes, healthy living and a stress-free life are good for us. This is not news. That these things can also effectively stave off an almost certain death-sentence from an aggressive form of cancer is just quackery.

Etheridge’s outburst is just the tip of the iceberg: all over the internet natural health militants are condemning Jolie’s decision and characterizing her as little more than a shill for something called “The Cancer Industry.” This kind of garbage is being widely promoted on the internet by howling loons who also think watching out for “sunlight exposure” can prevent breast cancer, and they’re only too glad to sell you a set of CDs explaining their junk science.

The worst part is that women, already facing a horrible decision, may take Etheridge’s words to heart and opt for alternative treatments that are only proven worthless after it’s too late.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Call me cold-hearted, but I would tend to believe that there’s probably no helping anyone who is getting their medical advice from Melissa Etheridge.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    This crap is all over the internet, too. Imagine facing this decision, searching Google, and finding all these people saying, “No, that’s wrong! A piscatarian diet and sunscreen is the real answer!”

  • victor

    No doubt. It’s pathological altruism — “behavior in which
    attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results
    instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was
    reasonably foreseeable” — defined.

  • bjhanse2

    As someone with an equally hereditary predisposition for cancer – Lynch’s Syndrome – I will take the moderating stance of landing somewhere in the middle. Being that Lynch’s creates a higher risk for colorectoral cancer, I know that reducing the amount of carcinogenic (ie. burned steaks) foods that I eat will continue to reduce my risk factors. As will regular exercise, a high fiber diet – granted, all things that are good for you anyway. That being said, I am not going to just eat a vegan diet, get a weekly enema, and stop going to my annual colonoscopy thinking that I have got it all covered. Nor am I going ignore the obvious steps that I can take in changing my diet and habits that reduces risk factors.

    The absolutists are the dangerous ones – which, I agree, Miss Etheridge seems to be a part of given the comments posted here. And I believe that Ms. Jolie has done a great job of stating that a prophylactic double-mastectomy is not for everyone – but that she feels it was the right choice for her. Ms. Jolie went about her explanation in the correct and responsible way. And while Miss Etheridge went way over the top, let’s not discount non-surgical, evidence-based ways of controlling risk factors.

    Great book that just came out on this topic, and article in USA Today on the author (Dr. Offit), called “Do you believe in magic?”, basically pulling the curtain back on the alternative medicine industry.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I agree completely. Jolie had a 87% chance of getting breast cancer. After the procedure, that dropped to 5%:

    Not every case is so clear, so common sense healthy living is always a good idea, particularly when the risks of certain diseases are known. The danger comes, as you say, at the extremes.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The dangerous part is claiming this is *all* you need to do. And of course the conspiracy theory about the “Cancer Industry”.

    Reminds me a lot of Jenny McCarthy and her Indigo Moms and Star Children religion about vaccines and autism.

    The science part, unlike Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine campaign, isn’t exactly new age. We’ve known for decades that certain foods contain anti-oxidants; enzymes that our bodies use to prevent cancerous genes from turning on in the first place. Likewise stress *can* affect cancer, and for some people, practicing yoga or some other form of meditation and reducing stress certainly is a part of the treatment.

    But the rest of this sounds like typical “Here’s what worked for me and of course it will work for you” wishful thinking.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Well sure: I don’t discount the role of diet and stress in the treatment of disease. But the idea that focusing on diet and stress alone is an appropriate response for a women with an 87% chance of getting a particular cancer is just irresponsible.

  • alwr

    My father is perhaps the most disciplined health conscious person I will ever know. He ate right with a self-discipline that I certainly did not inherit. He exercised and was ten times fitter than my teenage nephew at age 70. And at 71 was diagnosed with cancer in spite of it all. This disease can happen to anyone and the reasons are much more complex than lack of nutrition or not enough yoga (and I’ve heard the yoga answer from my nutcase sister-in-law over and over in the last year, of course she recently recently explained to a friend who has been a hairdresser for 35 years that her problems with her wrist and hands–diagnosed as repetitive stress injuries by a doctor–are because of “bad nutrition”…). Worst of all, it shows a total lack of compassion to patients and their families when we just glibly find a way to say “meh, it’s your own fault”.

  • hotboogers

    “I don’t even know what that means. ”
    What it means is the notion that your diseases are your own fault. We all are prone to that attitude, though usually more subtly.
    When you hear that someone was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, is your first reaction “but I didn’t think he smoked”? There, you see, assuming lung cancer is the victim’s fault. Did you know that half of lung cancer patients never smoked?
    So, yeah, she’s just more open about it.

  • Dave G.

    I don’t think I’ll have much of an opinion, except to hope that we don’t come to a point in the future where the genetic tests are found to not be as accurate as we imagine they are today.

  • poetcomic1

    There is a peculiarly evil quality to this kind of ‘magical thinking’. The frightened core of the self desperately needs to be a kind of ‘god’ that can prevent bad things from happening. It is also necessary to find something that stricken people did ‘wrong’ by our lights that made them ‘deserve’ their fate. It is intrinsically Satanic.

  • enness

    My first reaction is “That’s terrible.” Please don’t project.

  • seba

    Not only her mother but aunt too died from breast cancer before. Funny how polish right wing catholic shrugs are saying that double mastectomy without cancer is heretical, God wouldn’t want her to do this etc lulz.