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 Celebrity Medicine: A Rational Approach to Media Hype 
 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Mind Over Matter by . View all columns in series
Have you ever stopped to think about what really shapes our nation's healthcare?

Most people would probably list their doctors, hospitals, the AMA, our National Institutes of Health, and of course, medical researchers.

Yet there's another source which most people wouldn't initially mention that perhaps has more influence than all the sources above. It's called the media, and its impact may be far more powerful than you've ever considered.

To illustrate this issue, let's take a few moments to focus on contemporary public knowledge about breast cancer. If you stop people on the street and ask them about the latest news or breakthroughs, few people would mention genetics, pharmaceuticals, preventive measures, or groundbreaking research linking diminished breast cancer risk with lean body weight and increased exercise.

Instead what stands out prominently is a recent story about an actress. The current "buzz" is centered around Suzanne Somers who received radiation therapy for breast cancer, and decided against chemotherapy. Instead she chose Iscador, a homeopathic preparation which includes extracts of mistletoe. This preparation is widely used in Europe by an estimated 60-70% of cancer patients.

It's obvious that Somers' story was covered world-wide not because of its scientific or humanistic merit. The press decided to exploit the issue based upon its immense potential for public attraction.

Yet even the media recognize the liability associated with influencing people in this manner. Careful to present the medical perspective, the press made certain that every article or feature included a caveat related to adopting this approach. Her oncologists obviously would not comment.

Somers seems to understand these issues as well. On CNN's Larry King Live, the actress and television spokesperson for ThighMaster stated, "I just want to say that this is what I’m doing for me. I'm not telling anybody else to do this."

As a nation, we need a time out! Who are we kidding? How can we fail to recognize the potential implications of her decision and its exploitation? When will we acknowledge that very few people ever remember the flip side?

How many women who idolize this actress will follow her example and allow a similar decision to determine their survival?

While you might believe that everyone is entitled to their opinion in a free society, you might consider that "freedom of the press" does not imply equal media coverage for all. When it comes to rational healthcare choices for people facing cancer or any serious life-threatening illness, why should celebrity status come into play?

One might argue that celebrities are likely to be heard, as in the case of Michael Fox, who recently brought a focus on Parkinsons to the forefront. Consider the societal implications of his heroic plea to a congressional subcommittee for additional research funding. Why should congress or the press preferentially acknowledge an actor?

Agreeing with my stance on this issue is not as important as understanding the facts. What you should know is that Dr. Alexander Eggermont, an oncologist in the Netherlands, recently presented key research findings concerning Iscador at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Europe. His team studied patients with malignant melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. They discovered metastasis or spread to the brain in 19% of patients who used Iscador compared with only 7% of people who did not. Yes... Iscador may be responsible for nearly tripling the risk of brain metastasis!

While it can be argued that European safety data concerning Iscador are reliable, experts in the US disagree. One should not forget the recently disclosed serious side effect profile and lack of efficacy associated with St. John’s Wort in the US. Contrast these findings with the widespread acceptance of this supplement in Europe where it has been used for years without reservation for the treatment of depression.

In an era of rapidly evolving medical knowledge, what is a logical course of medical decision making?

My suggestion is to seek the facts and discuss the options with your doctor or oncologist prior to taking any herb or supplement. Remember "natural" does not imply "safe." Strychnine and tobacco are both natural substances. Randomized controlled well-designed studies are warranted before anyone follows this or any other celebrity's lead.

And finally, how did this story attract such widespread media attention? Apparently Somers was photographed by tabloid photographers as she left a well-known clinic. While I agree that details about her treatment should remain confidential, one cannot immediately conclude she was forced to disclose this story. Her treatment at the liposuction clinic is not our business, unless, of course, it directly impacts the veracity of the product she publicly promotes.

While I advise you to never model a medical decision on celebrity status, I hope this issue prompts you to think twice about your healthcare options. In closing, my prayers are with the entertainer, her family and the media - Mind Over Matter!

©2001 Barry Bittman, MD all rights reserved

      
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 About The Author
Barry Bittman, MD is a neurologist, author, international speaker, award-winning producer/director and inventor. As CEO and Medical Director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center, a......moreBarry Bittman MD
 
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