Belle Gibson, Diet and Ethics, and Me

They say the beach is one of society’s most egalitarian places; where people of all races, classes, and varying body sizes come to bare their flesh to the sun.

But there is another place where you will find people from all walks of life - and that is in the radiology clinic, where I now sit silently waiting, one of around 20 people, all with our heads bent to our phones or staring at the large-screen TV on the wall ahead of us, where the bright, shiny hosts of breakfast television trot out their morning dose of infotainment. 

I have earphones in, and am listening to a podcast where Oprah and Eckhert Tolle are talking about living in the moment. 

And in this moment, I am awaiting a pelvic ultrasound to be performed. 

“What is your symptom?” the slightly harried lady asked me on the phone yesterday, when I booked the appointment. “A pain in the right ovary area,” I replied.

“What is your symptom,” I now hear a young man at reception desk enquire of another caller. “A lump,” he says, repeating the caller’s response. He does not react, simply scribbles on the form on his desk. 

***

They take photos of my ovary with an Internal camera. There is a screen high on the wall that displays the images, but I don’t look - afraid that I might see something I don’t understand.

My doctor will have the scans and radiologist’s report within four hours.

I check my phone, thinking to myself that if there is something wrong, my doctor will call. If she does not call, everything is likely okay…

She does not call. The scans are clear.

***

As the author of ‘Gut Instinct: Mrs Snook’s Diet’, I am only too aware of the irony of being someone who has publicised the reputed cancer-fighting properties of naturopath Dorothea Snook’s gut-cleanse diet then finding myself facing the dreaded disease.

I think of a terminal cancer sufferer I recall from Twitter, who angrily tweeted to someone promoting a diet which he said cured cancer, how she hoped he himself would get cancer. It would be karma, she said, implying that he deserved to get cancer because he was falsely and unethically promoting that his diet could cure cancer.

Her anger unsettled me. Why? Probably two things. Firstly, I worried for her, that she was so angry and spending time in Twitter fights and, secondly, because I was concerned that my book about Mrs Snook’s diet might be considered to fall into the category of unethically claiming, or over-promising, certain outcomes from Mrs Snook’s raw-food gut-cleanse diet.

It is an issue I took very seriously when I was writing my book – thanks to Belle Gibson, a 27-year-old woman described by Wikipedia as an “Australian scammer, blogger, and alternative health advocate”.

Unlike Belle, I was not claiming to have cancer and to have cured that cancer through diet.  

However, I was writing the biography of Dorothea Snook, a Perth naturopath, who discovered a wholefood, plant-based alkaline diet in the 1940s, and became a passionate advocate for a three-month raw-food, gut-cleanse diet. Mrs Snook’s unwavering belief that her diet could help reverse the symptoms of mostly any disease, and her work with cancer and arthritis sufferers in Perth in the 1970s and 80s, was central to her story. The Perth press called her naturopathy centre at her farm in Northam a “cancer clinic”. High profile television journalist Terry Willesee featured clients of Mrs Snook’s on his popular Perth current affairs television show in 1979, who claimed Mrs Snook’s diet had helped their fight against cancer.

Despite Mrs Snook’s many testimonials and success stories, our bodies are complex, incredibly intricate biological systems, and as I say in my Raw podcast on Mrs Snook’s Diet and also in my book, we simply do not known enough to make generalised, sweeping statements (of the kind Mrs Snook would have made). But we do know that diet and lifestyle is a factor in about 70-80 percent of chronic illness. However, again, the story is complex – and we are only just beginning to uncover the way our genetics, gut microbiota and lifestyle interact to influence our immune systems.

According to Wikipedia, Belle Gibson claimed she had a diagnosis involving multiple cancer pathologies throughout her internal organs, and that she had forgone modern science-based medical treatments to self-manage her multiple cancers through diet, exercise, and alternative therapies. The viral attention her claims received on social media led to Gibson developing The Whole Pantry smartphone application and its later companion cookbook, both of which were subsequently withdrawn from sale from the Apple Store. Gibson also claimed to have donated significant proportions of her income and her company's profits to numerous charities. All of these claims were found to be fraudulent.

I was very much aware of Belle Gibson’s story as I wrote ‘Gut Instinct’.

And I did not want to get into the territory of posing as a wellness or health expert, or offering false hope to cancer sufferers.

People often say to me that they knew someone who had cancer and tried to treat it with juices and diet, and that person died – therefore, diet does not work. One person told me of a friend of hers who, in the face of a terminal illness diagnosis, had gone down the alternative health path and, later, when the disease began to ravage them, had regretted it. I commented that perhaps this friend would have had similar regrets if she had gone down the chemotherapy path and the treatment had similarly not worked.

I feel sure that, in the case of a terminal illness diagnosis, the great majority of people will have done all the research they can when they make decisions about their treatment. And I also believe that, ultimately, the final decision must be theirs – no matter whether it is not something their family, friends or health professional feels is the right choice.

I don’t pretend to know what causes cancer, although I do believe that lifestyle factors such as diet, stress and other factors, such as smoking, exposure to toxic or dangerous substances or environments, do have an impact. Yet, as Professor Stephen Myers, a prominent Australian naturopath and academic who is also a medical doctor, told me for my Raw podcast, people who eat well and have healthy lifestyles still get cancer.

I recommend Mrs Snook’s diet for anyone who wants to feel amazing! For anyone who is sick, I recommend you see a doctor, and get as much information as you can, from as many sources as you can, about the options you have to fight your illness.

In his book, When Breath Becomes Air Paul Kalanithi comments that he no longer asks why him? Why did he develop a terminal illness? Rather, he asks himself, why not him? Untimely death and disease does not only happen to other people. It can happen to anyone.

Why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t know.

But I do know that, if I live long enough, one day the news from the radiologist’s clinic won’t be so good.

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