Image: Jessica Ainscough
The tragic death of 30-year-old health blogger Jessica Ainscough has thrust alternative cancer therapies into the spotlight this week.
For seven years, Jess, a former Dolly magazine staffer, had been living with a rare cancer called epithelioid sarcoma. Doctors informed the then 22-year-old her best chance of survival would be to amputate her arm at the shoulder.
Initially, Jess underwent a type of chemotherapy known as isolated limb perfusion, but the tumours returned a year into her remission. She also She then began looking into alternative approaches, which eventually led her to Gerson Therapy, a natural treatment that “activates the body’s ability to heal itself” through an organic, plant-based diet, raw juices, coffee enemas and natural supplements.
An evaluation by the National Cancer Institute concluded there is no benefit from this treatment, while The American Cancer Society has labelled the therapy as both ineffective and dangerous.
Jess wrote extensively about her experiences with Gerson Therapy on her website The Wellness Warrior, which garnered a following of thousands, and published a book on the subject. Sadly, when Jess’ mother Sharyn lost her battle with cancer two years ago, Jess’ health took a turn for the worst. Like her daughter, Sharyn had also pursued Gerson Therapy.
Since Jess lost her battle on February 26, there's been a lot of discussion about whether Jess' chances of survival would have been higher had she chosen to have the intensive surgery her doctors originally recommended.
Cancer surgeon David Gorski (known online as 'Dr Orac') wrote an op-ed stating that Jess was "a victim of the very pseudoscience that she promoted", and claiming there's a 70 per cent chance she'd still be alive if she'd opted for further conventional treatment.
"Jess Ainscough had a shot, one shot. She didn’t take it. What saddens me even more is that I can understand why she didn’t take it, as, through a horrible quirk of fate, her one shot involved incredibly disfiguring surgery and the loss of her arm," Dr Gorski writes.
"Still, I wish she had taken it and hadn’t instead decided to become an icon of “natural healing.”
The Ainscough family has responded to claims of this nature, stating: “It has been speculated by people who have never met or treated Jess that, had she chosen to amputate her arm or undergo further conventional treatment, her chances of survival would have increased. Her treating oncologists do not agree with this uninformed view."
Many people share Gorski's view, while others are adamant that Jess, and anybody else living with cancer, has the right to choose what treatment they pursue.
It's not uncommon for patients to explore alternative or complementary avenues such as mind body therapies and different lifestyle approaches alongside their medical treatment. In these cases it's recommended that a patient discusses this with their doctor. Eschewing conventional treatment entirely, however, is another thing altogether – especially considering the wealth of uninformed data and opinion circulating online.
According to the Cancer Council, there are several important questions to consider when looking into alternative approaches to treating cancer. These include:
Is this therapy specifically used for cancer patients or for people with other diseases?
Are there any side-effects?
Who will be involved in delivering the therapy?
What are their qualifications and are they registered with a professional organisation?
What are the costs of the therapy and are they covered by my health insurance provider?
What does the therapy aim to achieve?
Will this therapy affect my conventional medical treatment?
A public memorial for Jess was held earlier today, March 6, on the Sunshine Coast.