An Epidemic of Wellness

Five Questions for Barbara Ehrenreich, Author of ‘Natural Causes’ – – Apr 2018 – By Hope Reese

From the work that made her famous — hard-hitting books of social criticism like “Nickel and Dimed” and “Bait and Switch” — you might not guess that Barbara Ehrenreich has a Ph.D. in cellular immunology. But the science of medicine plays a central role in her newest book.

In “Natural Causes,” Ehrenreich takes aim at the American obsession with wellness at all costs. Now 76, she forgoes cancer screening, disdains “rituals” like annual physicals, and takes the culture to task for conferring special virtue on the healthy.

The book’s subtitle does not mince words: “An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.”  

UNDARK — Can you describe what you see as a problematic relationship between doctors and patients?

BARBARA EHRENREICH — What was fascinating to me was how thoroughly the patient is depersonalized, especially if it’s a woman, and treated as if she was just dead matter — not a live, conscious person.

Here, I have to relate my own encounter with such thinking:

Decades ago, a doctor was trying to do an EMG down the back of my right leg by stabbing me repeatedly with a needle looking for what seemed to be the most painful spot.

I was flinching uncontrollably from the sharp pain while he grew frustrated with me and finally said:

“I don’t understand why you’re moving around so much – this is no different than sticking a needle through a steak.

This doctor, under whose care I had (stupidly) placed myself, saw little difference between a slab of steak and my living, breathing, very much “alive and kicking” body.

I didn’t realize, for example, before I started working on this, that the first patient a young doctor sees in medical school is a cadaver. And it sort of sets the tone for the rest of it.

So they start from this idea that they are just dealing with some kind of lump, and it goes downhill from there.

UDWhat is the relationship between medicine and science?

BE — Well, it’s often very tenuous. And that’s just something that has been brought to light increasingly since the 1970s, with the first proposals that medicine should be evidence-based. Now that phrase in itself is kind of funny because what was it based on before, right? Superstition? Male intuition? I don’t know.

But one procedure after another has been subjected to careful statistical analysis and found not to be as advantageous as advertised — or not at all.

One of the things that’s changed in my lifetime is the annual exam. There’s no evidentiary basis. No reason to think that people who have them live longer than people who don’t. It’s a ritual; not a scientifically based intervention

And then that difference of treating people as if they were just lumps of dead matter also interferes with any truly scientific approach to care.

If you were really being scientific you’d listen to the patient, you’d regard the patient as an agent, an actor, someone with information.

UDYou write about the problem of overdiagnosis, especially in the realm of breast cancer, pointing out that increasing mammographies doesn’t increase survival rates. Why not?

BE — The United States does far more mammograms than most countries. They do not do anything to prevent breast cancer. The idea is that maybe they can find lumps when they’re very, very small — which sounds very sensible. One problem is that a lot of those lumps aren’t going anywhere. They’re false positives.

The whole pink-ribbon culture expands up this obedience among women. “Yes, I must have my mammogram.”

UDYou write that “the mind’s struggle for mastery over the body has become a kind of Mortal Combat.” How so?

BE — I first discovered it at the gym. Where it’s not “Oh, let’s go exercise and feel better with the results,” such as stress.

Today, the language is very violent. You gotta crush your body. In my gym they have a new class called “shredding your body.” It’s “Can I master my body?” Can I dominate this kind of animal attachment that I might have? It’s very odd, and that ties into some class-based things

The idea is, if you can’t control your own body, how could you tell other people what to do? If somebody is fat — God forbid in our culture — then that’s taken as a sign that they cannot even control themselves.

The thing that most fascinates me is macrophages — the front-line immune cells we think of as fighting the bad guys. But one of the things that recently shocked me was the discovery in the early part of this millennium that macrophages actually promote cancer. That they come right from cancer cells and allow cancer cells to metastasize, to go to other parts of the body. And to me, as somebody who studied macrophages in graduate school, this was devastating. I thought they were good guys.

There is no way, that we now know of, to get macrophages to do what we want them to do. As it turns out, the cells make some decisions for themselves.

That rings absolutely true to me: my body definitely has a “mind of its own” and easily overrides any expectations I may have for its function at any given moment.

I often feel completely at the mercy of my physical body, trapped in a perpetually pain-generating machine without a way out.

You want to boost your immune system, right? Well, your immune system could turn against you.

UDPatients are sometimes told to “think positive,” as if that will make a difference in the outcome of their illness. What do you think?

BE — Oh, I hate that, that’s why I wrote a book about that. That’s what’s called bright-sided. And what I hate about it, it’s not just that it’s not evidence-based, but that it blames the victim.

I had recently posted something similar: Why I’m fed up with being positive.

If you have cancer and the outlook is not good and you somehow fail to be positive, then people around you can just get irritated at you. “Be positive and you’ll live!” Nonsense. You may need to express anger, sorrow, fear. And we just have a society that says that’s impermissible.

It’s more dishonest when you’re telling people that they have to be positive although they know they’re in advanced stage of metastasis — I mean they’re not feeling positive.

You should just respect what they feel. Don’t tell them what to feel.

Author: Hope Reese is a writer and editor in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in Undark, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications.


Other thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.