Lies can be deadly. Last month a story broke in the world of alternative medicine about Belle Gibson, an Australian woman who had made a living from her account of having cured herself of supposed terminal brain cancer with healthy eating. She said the cancer had spread to her liver and kidneys, and then to her blood, spleen, brain and uterus. She claimed to have undergone heart surgery, despite having no scars to show for it. She also claimed to have suffered a stroke. After declaring she had “cured” herself, she made a fortune with a whole-foods cooking app and companion cookbook, the profits from which she promised to donate to charity. Except she didn’t. She never had cancer and she spent all the money on an expensive apartment, a car, cosmetic surgery, holidays and designer clothes.
There are several layers as to why Belle’s story is so terrible. The worst thing she has done is potentially stop people who have real illnesses from seeking proper medical treatment. But Belle also claimed that “Western medicine” is intrinsically bad for you and entirely driven by profit. The pharmaceutical industry is, like most industries, corrupt in many ways, but most of the individuals working in it want to help people. Also, there is no such thing as “Western medicine”. What we should call it is “modern medicine”, as hard-working people from all over the world contribute to make our knowledge of health, medicine and treatment better. To say it is “Western” is to dismiss the work of people from non-Western countries. Another thing that should irk in stories like this is the claim that mainstream doctors don’t know or care about nutrition. Nutrition is a very recent and major scientific discovery. It is not something doctors ignore.
Nobody gives a shit if you are a healthy adult and you want to eat a special diet to prevent cancer or live longer. If you claim to be able to cure headaches or low energy using unproven methods, that’s pretty harmless too. But if you are not a trained medical person and you claim to be able to cure serious disease without evidence for your methods, you are putting people’s lives in danger. I hope Belle Gibson’s story will have an upside by encouraging people to be more sceptical of extraordinary claims. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.