Although nearly $2.5 billion in research over the past 10 years has found no proof of cures from alternative medicine, these mostly unproven treatments are now used by as many as one-third of all Americans. And a new ally brings some quasi-celebrity status to the topic.
Less than a year after former sitcom actress Suzanne Somers began touting bioidentical hormones on The Oprah Winfrey Show, she’s back with a new book. This one’s on an even more emotional topic: cancer treatment. Specifically, she argues against what she sees as the vast and often pointless use of chemotherapy.
“Cancer’s an epidemic,” said the 63-year-old actress a day before today’s release of Knockout, her 19th book. “And yet we keep going back to the same old pot, because it’s all we’ve got. Well, this is a book about options. I’m ‘us’. I’m not them. I’ve been on the other side of the bed. And it’s powerful to have information.”
The American Cancer Society is concerned.
“I am very afraid that people are going to listen to her message and follow what she says and be harmed by it,” says Dr. Otis Brawley, the organization’s chief medical officer. “We use current treatments because they’ve been proven to prolong life. They’ve gone through a logical, scientific method of evaluation. I don’t know if Suzanne Somers even knows there IS a logical, scientific method.”
More broadly, Brawley is concerned that in the United States, celebrities or sports stars feel they can use their fame to dispense medical advice. “There’s a tendency to oversimplify medical messages,” he says. “Well, oversimplification can kill.” Though she may be one of the most visible, Somers is hardly the only celebrity who’s advocated alternative treatments recently.
While it’s hard to imagine a comedian like Maher influencing public health decisions, there have been cases where celebrities have been able to influence the public, says Barron Lerner, a doctor who’s looked at celebrity illnesses through history.
He recalls how some desperately ill cancer patients took their cues from Steve McQueen, the rugged actor who turned to unorthodox cancer treatment in 1980. When conventional medicine failed to halt his mesothelioma, McQueen traveled to Mexico, where he was treated with everything from coffee enemas to laetrile, the now debunked remedy involving apricot pits.
Somers, who played the ditzy blonde in TV’s Three’s Company, has written a series of books. In Ageless, she argued that doctors don’t understand women’s bodies, especially those going through menopause. With so-called “bioidentical” hormones — compounds that are custom-mixed by special pharmacies — Somers argued that women can restore youthfulness and vitality, energy and vigor, not to mention their sex drive. The problem, for many doctors is that these custom-compounded products are not approved by the FDA.
Somers, whose hormone regimen involves creams, injections and some 60 supplements daily, got a huge boost earlier this year from Oprah Winfrey. “Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo,” Winfrey said when Somers appeared on her show. “But she just might be a pioneer.”
Yet Winfrey’s tacit support of Somers gave her some of the worst press of her career. “Crazy Talk,” Newsweek headlined an article on the talk show host earlier this year. Another headline, on Salon.com: “Oprah’s Bad Medicine.”
Somers does view chemotherapy as effective for some cancers, but not for the most common, including lung and breast cancer. Diagnosed with breast cancer a decade ago, she had a lumpectomy and radiation, but declined chemotherapy, as she did more recently when briefly misdiagnosed with pervasive cancer.
One criticism sure to come up with Somers’ cancer book is its reliance on several doctors who have controversial histories, including Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski in Houston, who has devised his own alternative cancer treatments and has had protracted legal battles with the FDA.
But Somers defends him passionately, as she does the other doctors interviewed in her book. As for herself, she says, she is at ease with her role as celebrity health guru. “Celebrities are easy to pick on,” she says. “But I don’t have an agenda. I’m just a passionate lay person. And I’m using my celebrity to do something good for people.”