Actor Peter Bergman was famous for his commercials in which he said, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Say what you want about the commercial, but at least he was honest and up-front. Not so with Suzanne Somers, who recently published a book full of medical advice. Even though she’s no doctor, and hasn’t a minute of medical training, she nevertheless feels free to tell you how to treat cancer. It’s all about “alternative medicine,” you see, because to Ms Somers, “conventional medicine” is “destructive.” The Human Condition blog at Newsweek reports on this book:

The gist of Somers’s argument is that conventional cancer treatments—surgery, radiation, chemotherapy—take a destructive approach and that chemo, in particular, is overused. Long an advocate of alternative therapies, Somers argues that it makes more sense to build up the body to fight cancer than it does to tear it down through radiation and chemicals. She is particularly enamored of nutritional “cures.”

Even though Ms Somers has no medical credentials to speak of, she nevertheless claims to have them:

Of course, Somers has had no formal medical or scientific training, but considers herself an authority—in part because she’s survived breast cancer after choosing not to have chemotherapy, and because she’s a regular on the alternative-medicine circuit. This book, like her others, consists mainly of transcripts of her conversations with various alternative-medicine doctors, as well as lots of details about her own experiences and prevention regimen, which she has spelled out many times before, most notably on Oprah earlier this year. It’s noteworthy that her promotion of the book began by publicly blaming Patrick Swayze’s recent death on chemotherapy, rather than his pancreatic cancer. (She has since apologized to his family.)

How very nice of Ms Somers to take advantage of another person’s death, to promote her book. (Yes, she did apologize … but she knew what she was doing when she did it, and it was every bit as mercenary a decision as I just described it.)

Sprinkled into her anti-medicinal whiney tome is a bit of good advice and sound medical caveats, as Newsweek concedes:

Not all the recommendations Somers makes in the book raise eyebrows. She says eating healthy and exercising, reducing stress, and getting a good night’s sleep may reduce the risk of cancer. That’s true, but it’s not news. She’s right that not every woman with stage I breast cancer needs chemo. Few doctors would argue. In fact, they have the technology to calculate the size of the likely benefit, and agree that sometimes it’s quite small. Most doctors offer it as a choice to women who want to do everything possible to prevent cancer’s return.

But dropping a load of bullshit on people, doesn’t become any less bullshit, because she sprinkled a (metaphorical) cup of sugar over it. It remains predominantly bullshit.

The unconscionable part of this is that Newsweek had, earlier this year, exposed Somers’ questionable medicine in the course of its exposé of Oprah Winfrey’s pseudoscience promotion (as I blogged in June). Given this revelation, Somers has no viable excuse for having chosen to proceed with publishing a book full of assorted pseudomedicine and potentially-harmful medical instruction.

This whole episode just goes to show that Americans are a strange — and overly credulous — bunch. All someone has to do is become an actor or actress on a famous show, and people attribute all sorts of expertise to that person, which they do not actually possess. Ms Somers is irresponsible to assume the mantle of “physician” merely because she’s a celebrity and had cancer. Lots of celebrities have, unfortunately, had cancer … but few, if any, are credentialed to actually practice medicine or offer medical advice; and most are responsible enough not to “play doctor” by writing books on “medicine.” It’s time we realized that the cult of celebrity-worship — coupled with a vast lack of critical-thinking skills — that has consumed the US, is becoming dangerous.

Update: CNN has commentary by Dr Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. Unlike Ms Somers, as a practicing oncologist, Dr Brawley actually does possess credentials in the treatment of cancer. However, I’m sure Ms Somers, her friend Oprah, and their sheep followers will dismiss what he says, since he’s part of the Vast Conventional-Medical Conspiracy that works to destroy people and keep them sick, rather than cure them. (OK, folks, that was just a touch of sarcasm!)

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