I wasn’t going to do this. I kept my mouth uncharacteristically shut through the final months of the death watch, and I was going to let the dead lie in peace until a few weekends ago, when I read some reviews of John Diamond’s posthumous book, Snak
As most of you probably know, the late Times columnist John Diamond was diagnosed with throat cancer some years ago a cancer the doctors assured him was easily treatable. Over the years, he submitted himself to the best that modern medicine offers for cancer chemotherapy, radiotherapy and several rounds of mutilating surgery that eventually left him without a tongue and, consequently, the ability to speak. And through all of this, Diamond kept up a running commentary in his column of the pain, humiliation and degradation of modern orthodox cancer treatment, all the while constantly reaffirming his faith in it as the only possible recourse.
So unshakeable was Diamond’s faith that, when orthodox treatment failed to work, he refused to seek any alternative treatment and stoically accepted his fate. How are you, people would ask. Dying of cancer, he would respond. Technological medicine had spoken and he, the willing disciple, felt compelled to listen and obey.
Snake Oil was to be Diamond’s final oeuvre, a broadside attack on ‘ologies’ of all varieties. He got as far as a rant, but died with the words “Let me explain why” on his computer screen. He never did provide a shred of evidence in support of his views, but that didn’t stop the press from lauding his book as a refreshing return to sanity and rationalism. It is as if believing that nothing exists beyond current human knowledge or understanding represents a type of metaphysical machismo the hard as nails realist compared with the quiche eaters among us who happen to believe that another medical paradigm, even if we don’t yet fully understand it, may present us with a better approach to healing.
We need to be more clear eyed about Diamond and what his views actually represent, and move beyond the obvious tragedy of a charismatic man who died young, leaving behind an equally charismatic widow and two small children.
Diamond’s utter reliance on modern medicine was a throwback to the time immediately after WWII when, flushed with the success of the atomic bomb, we believed that modern technology was capable of supplying us with a solution to all of life’s problems. Better living through chemistry.
But now, some 60 years later, when chemotherapy and radiotherapy can claim to cure only a tiny percentage of cases, it’s all too evident that high tech medicine doesn’t have all the answers indeed, will never have the answers.
We also have to acknowledge that death didn’t appear out of the blue to John Diamond. He killed himself. He developed cancer because he was a smoker. Years after it was well accepted that smoking causes cancer, he carried on smoking. Then, when his doctors could do nothing more for him, he returned to smoking, and drinking, and staying out late.
In his mind, his personal responsibility to care for his body had nothing to do with his fate once his doctors had spoken. If the magic bullets of modern medicine didn’t work, nothing would.
John Diamond saw medicine as a stark either or choice. The reality is far more complex and multifaceted. Some conventional medicine certain forms of surgery has a good track record with cancer. Some alternative medicine, such as Burzynski’s antineoplastons, works and is supported by excellent scientific evidence sanctioned by the US Food and Drug Administration. Others have no scientific evidence, but a great deal of anecdotal success.
Still others are no better than snake oil as, indeed, are chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery for many types of cancers.
John Diamond was a talented writer. But when it came to his health, he was pitiably fatally wrong.