A year ago in October I sat on my husband’s bedside in a Duke University Hospital cancer ward waiting for lab workers to identify the fast growing mediastinal tumor in his chest. The tumor had ballooned from 9 cm when it was first discovered by local Williamsburg, VA, doctors to 13 cm in 30 days. After failed biopsies and frustrating doctor’s office visits, no one in our home town could identify the “type” of aggressive cancer. A local hospital lab’s diagnosis of “gray zone” meant a crap-shoot plan for treatment, which was needed quickly before the heart failed under the pressure of the tumor.
It was a cardiologist – who kept asking Keith, “Are you okay? How do you feel?” while staring incredulously at the echocardiogram and the sack of fluid around the heart – who finally ordered him into an ambulance for a three-hour ride to the medical center in Durham, NC.
Like any spouse, I sat on the edge of the hospital bed looking out over the campus and Duke’s famous cathedral trying to decide which action steps took priority when the sound of squeaky wheels passing through a long corridor of severely ill cancer patients broke through my frantic train of thought. The squeaking stopped and a candy striper opened the hospital room door and pushed in a cart full of junk food before happily pointing out all of her wares – potato chips, cookies, candy – were free to Keith as Duke’s cancer patient.
The colorfully packaged brands on her cart all originated from the ubiquitous, revered industrial food companies Americans were raised on as children and happily gobbled up for decades, even as mainstream medical doctors now caution against regular consumption of inflaming junk foods that contribute to the nation’s epidemic of chronic disease, obesity and even cancer. (A new study out this week by the Federation for American Societies for Experimental Biology is entitled, Even a little is too much: One junk food snack triggers signals of metabolic disease.)
“We’re good, thank you,” Keith replied as I slipped out my phone and searched for a local grocery store. There it was, first priority identified: bring in our own nourishing and non-inflaming “whole foods.”
Five minutes from the sleek, hi-tech medical university campus I found the Whole Foods of Durham, NC, located in an ancient strip mall with a parking lot designed for a pre-SUV era. The parking lot and store were packed.
I blame my own state of shock on the overloaded cart on my first trip to Whole Foods in Durham. The offerings of organic fruit, probiotic drinks, whole snacks for Keith and natural energy boosters for me felt like a gift, like someone above was looking out for us and helping us to find what we needed when we needed it.
Standing back at the hospital’s front entrance revolving doors, the weight of the recycled shopping bags threw me off balance, with my right leg tenuously propped up in the bulky support boot enabling me to stand on my broken leg and dislocated ankle, an injury from a family day hike five months earlier. I eyed the row of wheelchairs lined up near the curb and wondered through the seeping exhaustion at the pronouncement of DUH DUH DUH they all declared on their stenciled signage. I can’t remember when I finally realized the pattern meant Duke University Hospital, duh.
I sent our 16 year-old son home on a train the day before when I caught the look of paralysis and overwhelm on his face standing among the streams of hairless, skeletal cancer patients and realized this was too much to ask of him. With his new driver’s license, and my right foot in a boot, he bravely drove the two of us to Durham the morning after Keith’s emergency room ambulance transport. I took the boot off and on to drive, mostly with cruise control and Advil gel caps. Without my son to push me up to the ninth floor, I prayerfully asked for strength for all of us and made my way to the elevators.
Over the next seven months, we returned to Duke bi-monthly for Keith’s chemotherapy treatment that was designed for the Hodgkin’s lymphoma the DUH! researchers easily identified, not the death sentence of “gray zone” our local hospital inaccurately dealt. In the beginning, friends and family members offered to help with the drive, but deep into chemo, it was clear that Keith would require more than we could ask of our loved ones.The worst of the treatments came this past spring when one of the chemo drugs contributed to a lung infection, a known side effect. In true television medical drama-style, the Duke doctors rushed Keith for a series of tests to various departments throughout the vast medical campus. The infection was caught and stopped, along with one of the four chemo drugs contributing to the infection.
Last week, on an every three month visit now, we returned for a follow-up that included blood work and CT scans. The cancer is still gone, but the damage to Keith’s heart and lungs from the chemotherapy treatment is still there, prompting the oncologist to caution against Keith picking up seasonal bugs that could quickly lead to pneumonia. What is the recovery plan for the damaged tissue? What is the wellness plan going forward? We wondered. And here’s where we stepped off a cliff and out of the paradigm of the medical model: There isn’t one because this isn’t what Duke’s world-renown Cancer Center does – but the oncologist DID offer a flu shot.
“No thanks,” Keith replied before we headed off to Whole Foods for a lunch buffet that included organic, cooked collards with garlic and a feast of nourishing, colorful living foods surrounded by aisles of labeled products that allowed consumers to know, and therefore take responsibility, for what they were putting into their bodies. We knew the wellness model and knew we would find our way through it with lots of help and support in the coming days.
Today, November 4, 2015, Keith forwarded to me a smarmy Daily Beast article posted on Facebook pronouncing – specifically – the Whole Foods in Durham near Duke’s campus, the one we frequented during seven months of chemo, as “America’s Temple of Pseudoscience.” I winced reading the high-horse parading piece by Yale religious studies graduate, Michael Schulson, whose bio featured pages of smug status quo defender rants on all the usual favorite topics for trolls and corporate shills: fluoride, GMOs, vaccines, etc.
The outright desperate leaps in logic the freelancer attempted to make in cramming the square peg of his faultily constructed points and cherry-picked product examples into round holes of zombie head-shaking agreement included comparing Whole Foods’ Organic Integrity efforts to Jewish “kosher law.” His intentionally outrageous and purposefully inflaming claim that there is no difference between believing in Creationism and choosing to make a conscious, informed choice to eat a healthy diet was a painful to witness self-immolation of a devoted corporate disciple. “If scientific accuracy in the public sphere is your jam, is there really that much of a difference between Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, who seems to have made a career marketing pseudoscience about the origins of the world, and John Mackey, a founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, who seems to have made a career, in part, out of marketing pseudoscience about health?”
One Facebook commenter called Schulson out and quipped, “Maybe get someone with a background in nutritional science to write the article, not a B.A. in Religous [sic] Studies from Yale.”
Still, the article, written in 2014, received hundreds of likes and shares today, over a year later. And this is where the real issue lies: columnists like Micheal Schulson who case subjective observations and comparisons in the inflammatory language of religion in defense of status quo beliefs, consistently and effectively distract us from the real and needed discussions around the limitations of a medical model system that has no wellness and recovery plans for its patients once they walk out the door, and home to their mountain of medical bills.
Schulson’s claim that Whole Foods is a temple of pseudoscience begs the obvious and missing comparison: what science supports the human ingestion of unlabeled biotech products (now banned in 38 countries), additives, herbicides, high fructose corn syrup, pesticides, processed and factory farmed meats found gracing the aisles of most American grocery stores?
More critical to recognize in Schulson’s predictable shaming and bullying “religious” approach is the echo of a very age-old war cry, one that for centuries has been refined to publicly threaten and socially alienate freethinkers (Cultural Creatives) while demanding that we pick our god, the right one mind you, the one that demands we war with ourselves – abandon our intuition, common sense and wisdom – in exchange for social acceptance and access to a higher power (science) available only through its high priests (like Schulson) who are better able and qualified to steer the course of our lives for us. As a religious studies major advocating for real science, Schulson forgets, or perhaps as a freelancer is paid to forget, that all true scientific “conclusions” become the next study’s hypothesis. When a scientific study’s conclusion is presented as a religious tenet, rigid cultural bias or a billion dollar marketing campaign, it is no longer science at all. But let’s not quibble with the basics.
Perhaps the real question is: Do you really think those of us, most of us, without parading high-horses and Daily Beast columns should allow intellectually indefensible, status quo defenders to bully and shame us into bowing our heads and waiting for their revered corporate engineered “science” to tell us what shiny, fried, high fructose corn syrup product we should purchase from their corporate-sanctioned candy cart?
The answer, for those of us who have found ourselves both grateful for the big guns of medicine and those organic, healing greens at Whole Foods, is this: Why not accept our humanity?
Why not accept the humanity of the Duke doctors and local researchers – that they have limitations in their fields, training and worldviews? Why not accept the humanity in ourselves as individuals, who deserve the protected right to make informed choices across the board for our own health and bodies? Why not accept the humanity in ourselves collectively? That human beings always and will only ever evolve, not by abandoning our Old Story lines, but through integrating them and their insights into our emerging worldviews? This is how the human brain evolves: by biologically enclosing the old animal and reptilian brains and INTEGRATING their insights, not by discarding millions of years of intelligent creation and experimentation.
Could acceptance of our humanity provide a needed bridge between what is now perceived as two disparate worlds, even though, as Schulson notes, Durham’s Whole Foods borders the edge of the world-renown medical university campus, the health food giant may as well be on another planet?
Perhaps we’re not ready to express the depth of humility, compassion and gratitude needed for accepting our individual and collective humanity. I think we’re moving in this direction, in the direction of integrating our worldviews and discarding an outdated war cry of “Conform Or Die” in exchange for the affirmation “Evolve And Live.” At least, that is my family’s wellness plan for moving forward.
Our Year With Cancer And Recovery
Featured photo of the interior of Duke’s Cathedral by Lisa Reagan