The magical thinking associated with illness

The hardest thing about having multiple sclerosis and my husband having colon cancer is sometimes not actually what we’re experiencing, but that everyone else has this magical thinking about serious illness. And of course, they want to share their magical thinking with you.

I found this article that offered a lot of insight into how the randomness associated with cancer makes people feel a loss of control. In response to that loss of control, they turn to things they can control, namely diet. So you get a lot of advice from people who insist that the way to beat cancer (or MS, for that matter) is through diet. Note that these usually aren’t people who actually have cancer themselves, they’re just afraid of it.

It’s true that some dietary changes are scientifically proven to be associated with better outcomes for colon cancer in particular, like regular consumption of tree nuts and lower insulin levels.

But overall, cancer is still ultimately random in who it affects, who recovers from it, and who dies from it. That’s absolutely terrifying to realize that you don’t have control over something that is affecting you so profoundly.

Multiple sclerosis is much the same. On the one hand, it can rarely kill you (but secondary infections due to treatment itself can), but on the other hand, it also has no cure. There’s some anecdotal evidence that diet can affect it but there’s no scientific agreement about it.

I’m admittedly bitter about dietary changes being presented as a cure-all because I place a lot of blame on that for my husband’s cancer going undetected for so long. Part of that delay was a combination of stereotypical male avoidance of doctors and expensive health insurance.

But the surgical oncologist who did his surgery said it looked like he had years of undiagnosed ulcerative colitis that turned into cancer. And during all those years when he was suffering, he just kept giving up more and more foods, buying into documentary woo about dietary cures. I blame myself for bringing a lot of that documentary woo into our house, since I wrote for the natural health industry for so long.

He largely gave up drinking milk in his teens and was a vegetarian for many years. He spent the past 10 years or so gluten-free. He pretty infrequently ate processed meat. By all accounts, although he did not have a perfect diet, it was free of most of the things the woo-sayers tell you to give up. And he still got cancer anyway.

The randomness of cancer is scary. In fact, that’s the aspect I still find scariest, since I’m a recovering control freak with anxiety that I’m learning to manage.

I was reading cancer forums in hopes of finding support but instead they freaked me out. I read about one person whose husband died of colon cancer (itself scary to read) who ended up also being diagnosed with it herself, which then made me worry about myself as well. Just because I have MS doesn’t mean I won’t get cancer, too.

But MS is also random. Will I be one of the people who loses some mobility but otherwise lives an okay life? Will I someday find some gainful employment I can do? Or will I be one of the ones who ends up in a nursing home in my fifties?

People are just as bad about telling people with MS that diet is the cure as they are to people with cancer. Yet in one of the groups I follow for people with MS, a woman just yesterday said that she followed a vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free diet for years and her MS still got worse anyway.

The randomness of illness sucks. There’s no other way to put it. You can and should do things to try to be healthy. Healthy habits never hurt. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll prevent anything from getting worse. That’s how randomness works.

I’m really, really tired of woo peddlers saying that an alkaline diet or apricot seeds will cure cancer or a low-fat diet will cure MS (or alternately, a low-carb, high-fat diet…not like low-fat and high-fat are complete opposites or anything.)

The hardest part of being sick is how little control you have over it. But when people insist that you do have control over it if you just do the right things, that skirts the line awfully close to blaming people for being sick.


  1. skinnyhobbit says:

    Ugh, how frustrating. People like to push all sorts of supposed cures too, alongside a heaping dose of “you have to stay positive to fight the disease!” which doesn’t give the ill person any room for grief or other emotions.


    1. Holly says:

      Barbara Ehrenreich (a breast cancer survivor) wrote this whole book about how toxic the positivity culture can be. You’re absolutely right that people need to be allowed to feel their emotions, good or bad.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. skinnyhobbit says:

        I’ve read that book! You’re right, it’s a really good book 🙂


  2. Dawn says:

    When my best friend was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, which is always fatal, she went to see a psychologist who was theoretically an expert on cancer diagnoses (someone who was employed by the breast cancer center who was treating her) and told her to “stay positive” and to think about going on a macrobiotic diet because “you never know.” My friend was rightfully furious and I’m still angry about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Holly says:

      I’m so sorry to hear about that. That’s absolutely disgusting and inexcusable, especially from someone charged with treating her.

      Liked by 1 person

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