Naturopaths vs. “stayin’ alive”

For all the good things about my life there are, there is one bad thing, and that was that I was born so that I reached high school age right at the height of the disco era. At least, that’s the way I viewed it at the time because at the time, like many teenaged boys of that era, particularly in Detroit, I hated disco. Loathed it. Despised it. I used to draw cartoons in the back of my notebooks showing Robert Plant destroying disco records, and I was a card-carrying member of DREAD. Not for me were the Bee Gees, who were so huge during my sophomore and junior years in high school, although I do have to admit that, even at the time, I did rather like the Trammps’ Disco Inferno. Of course, more than thirty years later, I now realize that it was rather silly to have such hostility towards disco. Heck, these days I even kind of like a fair amount of old 1970s disco, even going so far as to listen to the Studio 54 Channel on Sirius XM when driving to work. In retrospect, I rather suspect that the whole hating disco thing was just part of my identity at the time, a convenient bit of tribalism by which teens associate with groups and declare who they are. Be that as it may, at the time I really, really, really, really hated the Bee Gees, who to me epitomized everything that I thought was wrong with music at the time. These days, I actually own the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever, something unimaginable to me 33 years ago.

However, even during my most disco-hating, Bee Gees-hating phase, I wouldn’t have wished what what’s happened to Robin Gibb on him. It appears to have begun in 2010, when he was taken for emergency surgery for a bowel obstruction. Over the next several months Gibb looked increasingly frail and gaunt, so much so that I was shocked by a couple of the photos I saw of him. In April 2011, he was taken to the hospital with what were described by “crippling” abdominal pain. Finally, in November, the cause of Gibb’s declining health was finally revealed, when it was announced that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer and that he wasn’t responding to treatment:

Fears were growing for frail Bee Gees star Robin Gibb last night as he battled liver cancer.

The stricken singer, 61, was given the devastating news the disease was getting worse after months of treatment failed to have an effect.

He is being cared for at home by devoted wife Dwina while brother and bandmate Barry, 64, has flown in from the US to be by his side.

A family friend said: “We are all devastated.

“Robin has been a pinnacle of strength and is showing enormous courage and dignity in the wake of this terrible news.”

The star — who has been painfully thin for months — has bravely told friends and family he wants to “work until I drop”.

Presumably, Gibb has hepatocellular cancer (HCC), which is what is usually meant by “liver cancer.” Not knowing any more details than what are contained in the various news reports, it’s hard for me to comment with any degree of certainty on Gibb’s condition, but we can make some inferences. First, it appears that Gibb hasn’t undergone surgery. This implies that, at the very minimum the cancer is unresectable, and it’s probably metastatic. I say it’s “probably” metastatic because there is another treatment option for unresectable HCC. In fact, I discussed it in considerable detail in the context of Steve Jobs’ liver metastases from his neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas. That treatment is liver transplantation. In fact, the results for liver transplantation as a treatment can be quite good, certainly better than the results for Jobs’ neuroendocrine tumor, but patient selection is key. Be that as it may, given that news reports indicate that Gibb has undergone several rounds of chemotherapy, we can pretty safely assume that Gibb’s tumor was neither resectable nor amenable to liver transplantation and therefore is almost certainly metastatic, which means, if I’m correct, it’s not curable.

One should note, however, that “not curable” doesn’t mean “not treatable.” Palliation is very, very important. Unfortunately for Gibb, I see another celebrity alt-med tragedy fast approaching. The first indications came in November, not long after Gibb’s diagnosis was announced:

Gibb’s wife, Dwina Murphy-Gibb, an ordained druid priestess, said in an interview with Sky Arts TV that she’s looking into alternative treatments for her husband, including “spider medicine,” a type of Native American healing approach.

According to the website, which was created by Loretta Standley, a licensed acupuncturist and tribal member of the Cherokee Indians, spider medicine is a type of “animal medicine,” which refers to the “healing aspects that a particular animal brings to our consciousness.”

“As best I can tell, spider medicine is not medicine,” said Mark Boguski, MD, co-founder of the Celebrity Diagnosis blog, which also appears on MedPage Today. “However, there may be psychosocial benefits in the context of palliative treatment.”

I pride myself in being aware of pretty much all forms of alternative medicine, but I must admit that I’ve never heard of “spider medicine” before. So I went to the source, which tells me that spider medicine represents “creativity”:

Spider Medicine represents creativity. Its 8 legs represent the 4 winds of change and the 4 directions on the medicine wheel. Its body is in the shape of an 8, which represents infinite possibilities. “Spider people” must look beyond the web of illusion of the physical world and look beyond the horizon to other dimensions.

Gibb’s wife apparently was convinced that this Native American “medicine” can result in recovery from untreatable illnesses. But what is it? The source didn’t tell me much; so I went to the almighty Google. it didn’t tell me much either, other than that spider medicine is apparently some sort of spiritual treatment.

Yesterday, there was a story in the news updating Gibb’s condition entitled Robin Gibb Is A Natural Fighter:

BEE Gees star Robin Gibb has flown in a team of alternative medics from Switzerland as he battles liver cancer.

Robin, 62, has braved seven rounds of gruelling chemotherapy to try to beat the illness and doctors are pleased with his response.

Now he is getting 24-hour care from the naturopath nutritionists at his mansion in Thame, Oxfordshire, to help boost his recovery.

A close family pal said: “Robin is fighting this with dignity and courage. He’s trying everything possible to beat this disease.”

The naturopaths are believed to be the idea of his druid wife Dwina.

The naturopathic approach tries to reduce surgery and drugs, relying instead on the body’s natural ability to heal itself through good nutrition.

Whilst undergoing conventional treatment, Dwina has also encouraged Robin to undergo daily 20-minute sessions in a detox hut to sweat out toxins.

What irritates me about this article is not so much that Gibb is undergoing naturopathic treatment. He’s dying; he’s desperate; he has a wife is is, to put it kindly, very prone to woo. What would be amazing is if he managed to stick to science-based treatment for palliation. He’s also incredibly wealthy; so the usual complaint of quacks sucking down the last money of a dying man doesn’t apply as much as it usually does. And, make no mistake, “naturopathic oncology” is quackery, just as naturopathy is. For one thing, homeopathy is part and parcel of naturopathy. More importantly, there is no quackery that naturopaths don’t embrace. “Energy healing,” “detox” woo, unscientific use of supplements, these are just a few of the sorts of pseudoscience naturopaths embrace enthusiastically. What irritates me is the typical reporter lazily buying into the spin that naturopaths put on their quackery that “good nutrition” can stimulate the body’s natural ability to heal itself, even to the point of healing an advanced malignancy.

Unfortunately, from what I can tell reading about Robin Gibb’s desperate situation, it’s fairly clear that he’s unlikely to make it through 2012, all the “stayin’ alive” puns being bandied about nothwithstanding. It’s also clear that, contrary to what proponents of “natural healing” tell us, eating the “right” diet is no guarantee that you won’t get cancer. Multiple reports state that Gibb is a vegan and a teetotaler. Failure of cancer prevention notwithstanding, having a posse of naturopaths plying Gibb with their quackery isn’t helping matters. We can only hope that it doesn’t actually hasten his end.

When that end comes, I predict that we will hear precious little about it from Mike Adams, Joe Mercola, and the rest of the “natural cancer cure” cranks infesting the Internet. Mike Adams is well known for gloating over the deaths of celebrities from cancer (for instance, Patrick Swayze and Tony Snow) as “proof” that “chemo kills.” Actually, on second thought, I bet we will hear about it from Adams. The reason is that Gibb has reportedly undergone seven rounds of chemotherapy. That will give Adams the opening he needs to claim that it was the chemotherapy that killed Gibb and that, by the time Gibb listened to his druid priestess wife and turned to “natural healing” it was “too late” because the chemotherapy had already “destroyed his immune system” and “poisoned” him beyond retrieval. Yes, that’s what I now predict that Adams will say after Gibb finally succumbs to his disease. Unfortunately, although I’d love to see Gibb be a long-term survivor of his cancer, I doubt we have that long to wait to find out if my prediction is correct.