Spotlight on wellness warriors: What you need to know

“Hope is the physician of each misery” ~ Irish proverb.

I understand the power of hope in life & death, but sometimes it comes at a cost. It is painful to see that some of my sickest cancer patients are paying large sums of money to practitioners in the wellness industry who claim they have found a miracle cure. Glamorous and healthy looking health gurus attract mass online followings by selling a dream. Many of these wellness warriors are modern-day snake oil salesmen. The suitcase filled with dubious cures has been replaced by commercial websites, Facebook pages and YouTube accounts.

Jessica Ainscough

Jessica Ainscough was a self-proclaimed wellness warrior. She self-administered daily coffee enemas and took vitamin supplements to beat cancer. She started chemotherapy, but eventually declined it, as well as other conventional treatments like surgery and radiation, which she called the ‘slash, poison and burn method’. Although many of her followers thought her alternative approach was successful, she lost her battle and sadly died at the age of thirty.

The fact that she tried complementary therapies in itself is not surprising, as many people in her situation would do the same. The problem is that Ainscough was very good at selling unproven products to cure cancer, for example by claiming the methods ‘starved cancer cells’.

Ainscough completed an online course at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York, and according to the Australian newspaper, she said it had taught her how to organically attract ‘an amazing tribe’ of people who trusted her.

Via her blog she offered a ‘lifestyle transformation guide’ for just under $1000. She also sold cosmetics and other products. It appears her business model was profitable, as she wrote on her blog: “I earned six figures within a year of completing B-School and have doubled my income every year since.” Ainscough later denied claiming that she had cured herself.

Oncologist Dr Ranjana Srivastava is concerned about these health scams. “There is a legitimate role for a variety of complementary therapies such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, a balanced diet and moderate exercise,” she says in this article. “The problem arises when the generic multivitamin tablet from the chemist morphs into weekly intravenous injections costing $1000 a shot. Or when the notion of cleansing the body of toxins is exploited with sham diets and enemas that land patients in the very hospitals they are determined to avoid.”

Belle Gibson

Yet, most people don’t seem to be bothered by the modern-day snake oil merchants. I suspect that is because their fantastic stories appeal to our yearning for inspiration and herbal cures. What’s more appealing than trying the same remedy that miraculously cured someone we know? Understandably many cancer patients are desperate, especially when conventional treatments have side effects or are not effective anymore. But it is desperation that makes people vulnerable to dishonest gurus and wellness warriors.

What upsets us most is when the wellness warriors lie about their own health problems – like Belle Gibson.

Gibson’s approach was very similar to Jessica Ainscough’s. She claimed to have cancer and promoted a range of alternative cures to treat cancer. Her wellness and nutrition app ‘The Whole Pantry’ was a best-seller. Unfortunately Gibson never had cancer, and journalists found out she failed to deliver on promised donations to charity.

“What enrages us all,” says psychiatrist Dr Helen Schulz in this blog post, “is those who don’t have any training in health, who deceive the public for overt secondary gain (financial) and delay others from getting help until it’s too late.”

Mainstream medicine

In many ways doctors and other registered health professionals are the opposites of wellness warriors. By law we are restricted in the way we promote and advertise our services. We don’t sell personal health stories, we often have to bring bad news, we don’t always give our patients what they want, we can’t promise total cure, our treatments may have side effects and often we are unable to offer a cure at all.

No wonder lifestyle coaches and health gurus attract large tribes. But, if homeopathy, vitamins and coffee enemas would cure cancer and other maladies, I’d be the first to prescribe it.

3 simple tips

I’m not saying that the wellness industry as a whole is unreliable. I’m also not saying to stay away from complementary therapies. But Ainscough and Gibson are not the first and won’t be the last as the wellness industry is not regulated in the way mainstream medicine is.

To avoid disappointment, please remember:

  • Magic cures don’t exist
  • Think twice before you pay large sums
  • Talk to your specialist or GP before you make a decision.

Stay safe.

3 examples why health professionals should be online

It was an interesting week to say the least. I was so sorry to hear about the death of 21-year Eloise Parru, who accidentally took an overdose of slimming pills she purchased online. The pills contained a dangerous substance, dinitrophenol or DNP.

The amount of online advertising of drugs and medical devices is overwhelming. Unfortunately buying medications over the internet is a risky business. They can be fake, contain too much or too little of the active ingredient, or they may contain toxic chemicals. There is no doctor or pharmacist to give reliable advice on how to take the drugs and what adverse reactions to look out for.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has an excellent website explaining the risks of buying medications on international websites. My advice: never do it.

Health blogger and founder of a best-selling health app Belle Gibson was a very influential woman – but unfortunately she made things up. In a recent interview she confessed that she never had cancer and wasn’t cured by natural remedies. The media are all over her, and so far she has not apologised for misleading her followers. I wonder what is going on here.

Online health scams are numerous. As the wellness industry is largely unregulated, I’m afraid this will not change.

forced penetration
Image: Sydney Morning Herald

The Australian vaccination skeptics network was in the news again after it compared vaccinations to ‘forced penetration’. A shocking image (see above) was posted on the Facebook page of the anti-vaccination group to convey their controversial message. It has caused a public outrage, which is probably a good thing. I don’t think it has done the group any good.

A while ago I blogged about the 6 warning signs that online health information may be unreliable and as I said before: don’t rely on one source of information and always ask a registered doctor or health professional if you’re not sure.

I believe we need more health professionals and health organisations promoting reliable, evidence-based information in the online space – including social media – to counterbalance the many untrustworthy health messages.

What do you think?