Friday, August 8, 2014

Walk the Walk

A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog about lymphedema (see below). It was inspired by the three days I spent at MD Anderson Cancer Center’s 10th Annual Integrative Oncology Training Conference and I’ll tell you the truth: the first draft – the one only a few people ever read – could be accurately described as a barely-controlled rant. I am forever grateful to the clear eyes, calm heads, and kind feedback of the friends and colleagues (you know who you are) who encouraged me to tone it down (a skill that has never been my strong suit).

Time certainly cools tempers (at least it does mine), but it does not cool passions. Today, inspired by Lauren Muser Cates’s strong, eloquent writing in “Be Part of the Solution” and yet another Internet kerfuffle about a “healer” spewing nonsensical lies about essential oils and Ebola, I’d like to revisit the passion that was flamed in my heart and brain at MD Anderson. I’ll try to spare you the ranting, but no promises…

A great deal of the 3-day conference at MD Anderson consisted of lectures given by oncology and integrative medicine specialists who work at the hospital. Sitting in the large conference hall, listening to these lectures, surrounded by nearly 300 massage therapists, yoga teachers, and acupuncturists, I was struck by three things:

First, how cool was this?! Physicians and massage therapists and yogis, oh my! All of us – lots of us – all in the same room talking about oncology research and treatment.

Second, nearly all the physicians and researchers who spoke gave the same sort of talk they would to any other group of colleagues. There was no “dumbing down” of their information or statistics. They addressed us as equals.

Third, (sigh) nearly all the questions posed to the presenters were not so much questions as angry accusations. There were a lot like this:

“Isn’t it true that if you were prescribing ________ [insert essential oil, herbal supplement or vitamin of your choice here] your patients would experience no unpleasant side-effects from chemotherapy?”

“My husband works with a woman who was diagnosed with cancer and she injected herself with hydrogen peroxide and was completely cured. Why aren’t you offering your patients that instead of these toxic chemo drugs?”

At first, the presenters seemed to take this all in stride. They listened intently to questions and answered them respectfully and thoughtfully. But as time went on the attendees appeared less and less receptive. Their questions and comments were more and more vitriolic, peppered with pseudo-science and outrageous claims. The presenters’ politeness got more and more strained and their answers stopped sounding collegial and started sounding a lot like parents indulging a cranky toddler.

“Well, there are a lot of things written on the Internet,” one researcher condescendingly replied when asked about a type of diet, found online, that would lengthen telomeres and allow us all to live cancer-free into our hundreds, “we need to approach everything we read online with a bit of skepticism...”

It was astonishing and deeply disappointing. I was sitting in a room full of educated people who have devoted themselves to healing, to the service of people who are ill and in pain, to what I believe is the ultimate form of loving-kindness, and yet the hostility between them hung in the air so thick and heavy that I could feel it sitting on my skin, stinging my eyes, and leaving a really bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, a physician who specializes in advanced prostate cancer showed a crack in the façade. “Listen,” she said slapping the podium, “I’m not trying to protect my job or something. If there were a cure for cancer, I’d gladly do something else! I would love to open a restaurant and cook for people all day!” The person sitting next to me rolled his eyes and snorted audibly. I wanted to cry.

Here’s the thing: this was an integrative medicine conference. Its very name tells us it was an opportunity for medical and bodywork professionals to come together. It was held at, and given by, one of the biggest cancer hospitals in the world. A giant of "western medicine” reached out a hand to us and we slapped it away.

I was reminding of something Tom Myers once said, “If we as bodyworkers want a seat at the medical table we’re going to have to learn to walk the walk and talk the talk.” I think he was half right. 

I’m not a doctor. I’m a massage therapist.

I don’t want a seat at the medical table, but I’d like to be able to visit – maybe ask to borrow the salt or see if it’s worth ordering the ravioli. And I want those folks at the medical table to feel free to visit mine – “Hey, I’m a vegetarian, but my friend here would like to know if the steak is any good. What do you think?”

Does traditional western medicine have all the answers? No way.
Do I think that massage can do things a pill can’t? Absolutely.
Do I think oncologists want people to suffer and die from cancer? No, I do not! 
Do you?

We don’t have to place ourselves beneath western medicine or agree with everything it presents. We don’t have to completely adopt the language of doctors and nurses and abandon our own, but do we have to learn to understand it. And we have to learn to respect the people who speak it. It is our only hope for teaching them to understand and respect us.

My colleagues, I beg you: 
  • Examine your beliefs and their sources. There is a lot of “research” out there and a good deal of it is incomplete or poorly done or just plain wrong.
  • Focus on your scope of practice. Do what you are trained and qualified to do and do it well. My dentist doesn’t offer foot rubs and I’m not going to clean your teeth. I will, however, help you with that neck and jaw tension that results from an hour in a dental chair getting your teeth scraped! You need us both.
  • Remember that we all want to help people. And that the best help can come (and should come) in many different forms, from many different angles.
Let’s abandon “alternative” once and for all and embrace “complimentary.” In a world of widening divides – racial, economic, political, etc. – let’s reach across the aisle and start to close the gap. Let’s stop waiting for the medical community to come to us and reach out to them. Let’s find a lingua franca. Let’s all talk the communal talk of people who are trying to help other people while we walk our own unique walks.