The Dark Side of Alternative Medicine and Holistic Healing

Holistic healing sounds like a good thing. I certainly believe that each of us is far more than a cluster of discrete organs, bones and cells. I also believe that the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone; the mind and the body are a cohesive unit; that every illness experience is embedded in a wider social context; that environment matters; and that the manner in which a healer relates to a patient can result in widely different outcomes. And while we Americans may be suspicious that some brands of healing are nothing but quackery, unless the healer interferes with standard bio-medical treatment (for example, by telling patients they must stop receiving cancer chemotherapy) we tend to see holistic healing as benign” Even if it doesn’t “work” it helps people struggling with pain and disease feel better.

That assumption, I’ve come to see, needs to be looked at a bit more closely.

A number of years ago I conducted interviews with 46 Boston-area complementary and alternative medicine practitioners who told me during an initial phone call that they treat breast cancer patients. 

Their healing modalities ranged from acupuncture to Zen shiatsu therapy and from homeopathy to past life regression.

All of the healers explained that bio-medical treatment alone is insufficient because it only targets the symptom (cancer) and not the underlying causes of the disease. (Only a very few of the healers actively discourage their patients from continuing bio-medical treatment.) The deeper, root causes identified by the healers cluster into a few categories:

*Elements of the modern environment or lifestyle that cause or contribute to the rise in rates of breast cancer;  for example, air pollution, computers sending out electromagnetic rays which typically are parallel to the level of a woman’s breast, deodorants and antibiotics.

*Food and drink related causes such as alcohol abuse, dairy products, artificial sweeteners and gluten.

*Personal experiences and character traits including trauma, social isolation, lack of self-acceptance and feelings of resentment.

As I listened to healers (almost all of whom I very much liked on a personal level) I began to understand that through invoking these root causes the healers were actually reframing or expanding breast cancer from a discrete physical disease of a body part to a much larger problem potentially involving all areas of a woman’s life (and possibly her past lives as well). 

This reframing is what I’ve come to call holistic sickening – a process in which the illness trajectory is expanded beyond a particular organ, body system or body part into diffuse environmental, lifestyle, personality and volitional issues. Holistic sickening is a necessary prerequisite to holistic healing: Perceiving the whole person as sick is the logical foundation for healing the whole person.

Happily, holistic healers, for the most part, absolve cancer patients of the kind of blame often heard in both popular and bio-medical discourses: if you have cancer that you must have done something wrong, either a crime of commission such as smoking or omission such as not going for timely mammograms (regardless of the obvious fact that mammograms do not prevent breast cancer). At the same time, however, holistic healing saddles patients with another set of responsibilities along the lines of: “If you have the power to heal yourself, then you must shoulder the blame for the extent to which you fail to do so.”  This observation challenges the common notion that “if holistic healing doesn’t help at least it can’t hurt.” Because (for better or for worse) holistic sickening reveals an expanding constellation of unhealthy environment, food choices, life history and character traits, holistic healing becomes a lifetime journey or vocation that potentially engages every area of one’s being.

I was particularly struck by the gender-specific explanations offered by many of the healers. “Women [with breast cancer] are too good for their own good,” said a macrobiotic counselor. “They over nourish other people at their own expense. They are too ‘sweet’ and they also tend to eat too many sweet foods such as candies, chocolate and cakes.”  According to a chakra-based energy healer, “Women with breast cancer are often nurturing of other people. [But] like they say on the airplanes, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help other people.” In this double-whammy, women are blamed both for behavior that many women see as of the highest possible moral value (caring for others) and blamed lack the self-discipline to avoid eating sweets.

For some of the practitioners, holistic explanations were framed in feminist terms. According to a past life regression therapist, “women want to be recognized and cherished, like everybody else. They want to be heard. Instead, they are shut down and not able to speak for themselves.” But more often, healers voiced nostalgia for patriarchal power and for conservative social arrangements, interpreting breast cancer as a symptom of changing gender roles and relations.  A psychotherapist / energy healer explained that  there is more breast cancer now because “women have to shut down the heart chakra in order to be super-women, having full time careers in addition to raising children and taking care of the home… There was a time that being a mother and nurturing and raising children was the best possible way to be; now economically it’s not good enough.”

Similarly, a holistic movement therapist, who herself is a cancer survivor, pointed out that, “As the women’s movement brought so much opportunity for women, it also brought women into an arena dominated by men – and we are simply wired differently. If women are not able to voice their truth or express their hearts, there is a build up AMA (yoga term for good) in the body that needs to find a way out…. According to Kundalini Yoga, women are 11 times more powerful, 11 times more wise and 11 times more sensitive than men. … Because of that yogic belief, if women are not given the opportunity to ‘show their true stuff’ there is a real stifling of energy. … Fifty years ago, women’s roles were different, but I wonder if perhaps they had more connection, more community, more support amongst each other. I am feeling like we are still needing that community of support but our lives are about 100 times busier.”

What, then, is a woman to do? As much as I dislike – and distrust -- the cancer industry’s slash / poison / burn (surgery, chemo, radiation) approach and as much as I am nauseated by October’s pink ribbon extravaganzas, I’m not sure that holistic sickening is all that much better. Indeed, in speaking with healers, I often felt that if a breast cancer patient had to resolve her issues with self-esteem, anger, nurturing, balancing work and family, and her relationship with her mother, not to mention transforming her “negative” or “toxic” thoughts into “positive energy” and (somehow magically) cleaning up air and water pollution she would easily die of old age before getting cured!  

A longer version of this article can be found here: Susan Sered and Amy Agigian. 2008. “Holistic Sickening: Breast Cancer and the Discursive Worlds of Complementary and Alternative Practitioners,” Sociology of Health and Illness 30(4): 616-631.

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