Being a champion of change instead of conformity
Good health is 90% prevention, and I believe in educating patients with all the lifestyle and dietary information I have available to me so that they can make the best health-supporting decisions for themselves.
In 2014, I came across the book, Dressed to Kill, by Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, that put forth a relatively well-researched theory that there may be a link between underwire bra usage and breast cancer.
Building on this theory, I wrote an article that was published online for which I was mercilessly criticized in the press—not because the media offered any legitimate evidence to disprove the possible link between underwire bras and breast cancer, but because I was so bold as to draw women’s attention to an idea that modern medicine had deemed taboo.
What follows is the foreword I was asked to write by the authors of Dressed to Kill for the second edition of the book. The online article in question was published in the 2015 edition of MegaZEN.
We live in interesting times. As the world becomes more politically and socially polarized into an ever-increasing number of interest groups, it seems that everyone has something to say.
The problem is that except for the members of one’s own in-group, no one wants to hear it.
In a world where tolerance is supposed to be the order of the day, we’re becoming increasingly intolerant of anyone who happens to hold a view that challenges our own, so much so that laws are being enacted the world over to limit and even criminalize the free expression of thoughts and ideas.
It’s no longer enough to refuse to hear viewpoints that oppose our own; we must make public examples of such heretics who dare to challenge the status quo by either having them arrested, or shaming them into silence through merciless ridicule in the press.
In either case, the larger goal is met; the offender soon comes to understand that expressing thoughts outside the socially correct box will not be tolerated. With repeated punishment, he’ll eventually stop thinking such thoughts as well, and simply conform.
In turn, his public humiliation serves as the perfect warning sign to prevent any would-be revolutionary from also stepping out of line.
In no other social sector is the resistance to new ideas and pressure to conform to the status quo greater than in medicine. There is simply one way of doing things, one philosophy of patient care, and it will not be challenged without great consequences.
Even so, any physician who takes his vocation of healing seriously cannot remain silent when the health and wellbeing of patients are at stake.
Free speech is crucial in any civilized society and particularly in medicine, which hasn’t cured or eradicated a single disease in over 60 years.
If we intend to keep our children and grandchildren from suffering from the same chronic diseases that plagued the five or six generations before them, we must allow the free exchange of ideas to flow, especially when it comes to medical research, treatment, and prevention strategies.
That means sharing ideas that many people may find unacceptable today, but in a generation might easily be viewed as self-evident.
How does the discovery that allows our world to move forward occur if humans do not challenge each other’s ideas? George Orwell, author of the dystopian novel 1984, said, “If freedom has any meaning at all, it’s the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.”
Many people don’t want to hear about alternative healthcare theories because there are countless careers, professional reputations, medical journals, educational institutions, billions of dollars in research, pharmaceuticals, and surgical interventions wholly dependent on doing things the way we’ve been doing them for nearly 100 years.
It’s been said, however, that if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.
While modern medicine has improved greatly with regard to diagnostics over the years, it still holds a dismal record when it comes to curing the diseases it’s gotten so much better at diagnosing.
That’s because the philosophy of and approach to medicine itself has not changed, and those who are the gatekeepers of information exchange in the medical community are highly resistant to and even threatened by any idea that’s remotely non-traditional, because too much is invested in the old ways.
I’ve come to understand through firsthand experience that to be a true healer today, you must be a nonconformist.
As diseases like cancer and neurodegenerative disorders continue to ravage the present generation, just as they did in the past, doing things the way they’ve always been done is not only irresponsible but negligent.
It’s now incumbent upon physicians as healers to say it’s time to find another way. Of course, this requires stepping out away from the crowd and forging a new path, becoming a trailblazer, a reluctant leader who isn’t so much self-declared but chosen by fate and necessity to ignite the next evolution in healthcare.
In fact, it’s never been any other way.
All the greatest scientists, physicians, and philosophers from Galileo onward were threatened, professionally ruined, and even jailed for expressing ideas that we now take for granted.
To be a healer means to be a leader, whether one likes it or not.
To be a leader also means to be alone, at least until an idea gains favor, because society is overwhelmingly populated by followers.
An old Polish proverb states that eagles fly alone, but sheep flock together. That is how I’ve chosen to run my life and my medical practice, by flying alone and showing others a new way, regardless of those who would seek to ground me.
When I first came across Dressed to Kill, its message resonated deeply with me. I felt that authors Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer had presented a substantial case. While not conclusively proving that underwire bra usage caused breast cancer, they certainly put forth a credible argument that underwire bras might well play a significant contributing role in breast cancer development and that further research was warranted.
Because I regularly contribute to several online media news and health information outlets, I decided to write an article on the findings Dressed to Kill had put forward. I felt Singer and Grismaijer’s research deserved to be heard by a larger audience and that the conversation about a possible link between underwire bras and breast cancer was one women needed to be having.
I wholly believe in patients taking charge of their health through dietary and other kinds of lifestyle choices. That includes everything we choose to put in, as well as on our bodies such as colognes, personal care products, and even clothing.
We have far more control over our health than we think we do, and I believe in empowering my patients as much as possible.
The cumulative effect of the choices we make every day over time are often the collective cause of the diseases that seem to “just happen” later in life. Nearly 30 years in medicine has taught me that no disease just happens and that there is far more we can do from a preventative standpoint to secure our health later in life if we have the proper information to help us make the right choices.
Within hours of my article being posted online, the backlash began. To say that I was universally excoriated by the press would be putting it mildly. I was called a kook and a guru who was “sparking outrage” by pushing a “debunked breast cancer myth” that had long been “scientifically discredited.” Not only that, but I had the audacity to release such “pseudoscience” during National Breast Cancer Month.
How foolish I was.
I thought the research, medical and media communities would be as intrigued by Singer and Grismaijer’s data as I was, and would conduct further investigations in the hope of empowering women.
Instead, I discovered how high a price one can pay for stepping outside the lines of what’s socially acceptable.
All the major news networks covered my article with equal amounts of snarky ridicule and self-righteous outrage. What they didn’t offer, however, was any solid evidence that convincingly contradicted that of the authors of Dressed to Kill.
I believe that words have power. Quite often in the press, words are carefully chosen to send an implied message with the intent of exerting influence over or stigmatizing a particular person, group, organization or idea.
One particular reporter stated that my article, originally written for actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website goop.com, was based on a “long-discredited” theory.
To simply say the theory was disproven would be one thing, but that would imply that the original hypothesis was a legitimate theory at the outset and was later shown to be unsubstantiated by physical evidence.
When a cancer medication or intervention fails in clinical trials, we don’t say the drug, procedure, developers, or theory behind it were “discredited”; we simply say it was ineffective and move on.
Because everyone is (or should be) working toward better cancer prevention, treatment, and a cure, there should be no time for this kind of infighting.
By using the word discredited, the reporter sought to imply that the underwire bra/breast cancer connection theory was illegitimate from the start, or worse, that an intended fraud that was exposed, much the same way a false witness has his phony credibility stripped away in court.
Nothing could be further from the truth. To even imply this theory is pseudoscience or that the medical professionals who spent years researching it are quacks does a great disservice to women who would otherwise read the findings with an open mind and then choose for themselves whether or not to make minor lifestyle changes that could increase their protection against breast cancer.
I feared that women who stopped short after seeing such reactionary and dismissive reviews of my article would never go on to read it and decide for themselves.
In her further attempts to discredit my article, the reporter stated that I offered “as evidence” only one source for my ideas, Dressed to Kill. It seemed convenient that she attributed my entire article to this book, which was just one of twelve sources in the original piece.
In doing so, it was clear she was seeking to cast doubt in the minds of potential readers because Singer and Grismaijer committed the crime of being medical anthropologists instead of medical doctors.
The obvious implication was that the book and my article were written by unqualified self-proclaimed experts and therefore the theory was nonsense.
What the reporter didn’t share with her readers was that Dressed to Kill was inspired by research that had been performed by real doctors at Harvard University. The research revealed that women who did not wear bras had half the breast cancer risk of those who did. The reporter also didn’t mention that the other evidence for my article included citations of studies from the U.S., China, Venezuela, Scotland, and Africa, as well as research published in three medical journals and one from a national department of public health.
After providing this amount of evidence, which was only a small sampling in support of the bra/breast cancer connection, the reporter still labeled the theory as “completely bogus” (another charged word) according to her generically-named list of “medical professionals.”
It seems irresponsible to assume there are no credible medical professionals at Harvard University or on the boards or within the pages of either the officially recognized medical journals I cited or their related institutions.
In support of the claim that the bra/breast cancer connection is bogus, the reporter offered as her sources one quote from the American Cancer Society (ACS) that linked to a Fact Page on their website that provided no research, data, or scientific citations to support their statements; one link to a short Q&A article from the New York Times interviewing a doctor inside the ACS that also provided no research citations; one link to a private OBGYN blogger in San Francisco who, in the reporter’s words, “eviscerated” my article; and a link to a USAToday piece mentioning a 2014 study that I had already included in my article because of its controversial and unscientific approach of not using a control group in its proceedings.
In addition, the reporter quoted her independent blogger source who claimed my article suffered from a “lack of evidence” and asserted that, “This stuff scares women.”
On the contrary, I don’t believe I, Singer or Grismaijer are scaring women at all.
We’re offering them information that may very well (if acted on in conjunction with other choices), give them the best chance they have against being diagnosed with breast cancer. More choices empower women; they don’t frighten them.
My phone was ringing off the hook with calls from hundreds of truly frightened women after actress, Angelina Jolie’s New York Times editorial, “My Medical Choice” was published in 2014.
They were insisting that they needed the test for the BRCA1 gene and many told me that they were contemplating preventative mastectomies of their perfectly healthy breasts. My intention and the intention of the authors of the essential second edition of Dressed to Kill has always been to raise awareness, not alarm, to open up an educated debate free from egos and self-interest.
The media attack on me was so pervasive that within 24 hours of my article being uploaded, Sydney Ross Singer sent me a supportive email that could only have come from someone who had personally experienced the kind of media backlash I had—a backlash provoked by those who dare to take the risk of stepping outside socially accepted norms in order to serve the greater good.
Sydney Ross Singer is a real leader and forward thinker who is truly ahead of his time.
His supportive words and knowing tone bolstered my resolve and reminded me why I’ve chosen to take the road less traveled in medicine.
Ultimately, I believe the media’s anger, frustration and immediate dismissal of my article was more telling than the message they sought to convey. As I tell all my patients, how you react to an issue is the real issue, and it was clear to me that the media was protesting this issue way too much.
Because the fight against cancer has been going on for generations with limited success at best, it’s time to welcome other voices to the conversation regardless of how unconventional they may seem, particularly when what they have to say is supported by research.
In 1847, Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, had the audacity to suggest the absurd idea that something as simple as doctors washing their hands between patients while delivering babies could prevent thousands of mothers from dying of infection and puerperal fever.
Semmelweis and his idea were met with outrage by the medical establishment. He eventually lost his position and was only given credit for saving millions of lives years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed germ theory. Today, the largest university in Hungary is named after Semmelweis.
So perhaps the unconventional does have something to offer in the way of disease prevention and saving lives, particularly in the way of cancer.
I owe my life to making the choice to not shut out unconventional ideas during my battle with cancer more than 20 years ago.
As such, I hope that women and patients everywhere will never relinquish their most powerful weapon in their fight against cancer, the ability to educate themselves on all options, regardless of how unconventional they may seem to those in the establishment, and then make a fully informed choice.
Back in 1987, I discovered anthropologist and behavioral scientist, Robert Ardrey, author of The Social Contract. Ardrey explained how all animals have built-in alarm systems to alert them, as well as their social group, to danger. When one starling sounds an alarm, the entire flock takes to the air, flying in close formation and moving in unison, often changing directions at odd angles and with sharp turns to confuse the oncoming predator. The visual overwhelm is enough to deter most birds of prey, including falcons.
The impulse to fall in line with those around us and “do as the Romans do” is deeply ingrained in human survival instinct, as well.
The problem is that human beings today are rarely in any mortal danger and yet regularly deny their personal opinions and desires, and instead follow the crowd to do what’s more acceptable.
Many religious sects that use shunning to get people to conform to the group understand how deep-seated the impulse to be accepted is.
Our prehistoric ancestors knew that to survive, they had to work and stay together. Getting separated from the group guaranteed an early demise. Even today, we have a very strong instinctual, yet unconscious association that says separation = death. Although they may not realize it, it’s the reason people jump into fads and buy or wear something just because everyone else is doing it.
It’s the need to belong, which is synonymous with the unconscious need to survive.
It’s not easy to break with what everyone else is doing in medicine. I know what it’s like to forge a new path while resisting cookie cutter symptom management.
It saddens me when physicians admire my practice and patient outcomes and yet still reply with comments such as, “That would be so different for me. What if I lost the respect of my colleagues? What if patients left my practice?” or even worse, “That’s just not the way we do it at my clinic.”
Of course, it isn’t. That’s the whole purpose of blazing a new trail and trying to move medicine forward rather than continually flying in the same patterns and going nowhere. It’s trusting that taking a new direction will reveal a new vision.
Unlike birds, we human trailblazers hold on to the hope that we won’t be pecked to death if we move out of formation. Yes, there will be humiliation and even intimidation in an attempt to get us to return to the fold.
We’ll be called pseudoscientists and snake oil salesmen. However, if our persistence holds out, and we can separate our misinterpreted drive to survive from our passion for progress, we just might end up being called visionaries, forward thinkers or courageous inventors.
The masters who have come before us have proven this to be true. Progress is always seen as blasphemy before it is understood to be a blessing.
Healing often requires going against convention, and I’ve certainly had my experiences as both a doctor and patient.
Singer and Grismaijer are forging a new path, a new way of looking at cancer prevention that’s as relevant today as when Dressed to Kill was first published in 2002. I’m grateful to have their voices back in the national conversation on cancer at a time when free thinking is needed more than ever. If you dare to leave the flock, when you look back you just might find everyone else following you.
Eagles fly alone, sheep flock together. The choice is yours.