Bob Smith’s new book, Misdiagnosed: Was My Wife a Casualty of America’s Medical Cold War? (Paraview Press, 2001), is a deeply moving story of love and faith in the face of profoundly difficult choices posed by a life-threatening illness. Smith recounts the tale, alternately harrowing and uplifting, of his late wife Jane’s final illness, and the particular challenges posed by the adversarial relations and lack of coordination between the alternative and conventional medical practitioners she consulted.
In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Smith discusses the crucial importance of proper and early diagnosis, the strengths and weaknesses of conventional and alternative medicine, and the ways he and Jane responded to her cancer diagnosis.
Smith is a former Washington correspondent and columnist whose work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Oregonian, Virginian-Pilot and elsewhere. He is the author of five previous books, including Edgar Cayce: My Life as a Seer (St. Martin’s) and The Tiger in the Senate, a biography of Wayne Morse. Since 1985, he has served as editor of Venture Inward magazine. He lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Misdiagnosed is available both as a trade paperback and as an ebook.
For further information: email@example.com
(Note: Dr. Daniel Redwood, the interviewer, was not among the health practitioners who treated Jane Smith during her illness.)
REDWOOD: What happened in the course of your wife Jane’s final illness that led you to conclude that there is a cold war between alternative and conventional medicine, with patients caught in the middle?
BOB SMITH: It was primarily because Jane got trapped in feeling that she had to be loyal to one side or the other, and because she encountered (and I witnessed it) so much hostility on the part of practitioners toward the other side. “Other side” meaning allopathic for alternative practitioners and also an adversarial relationship that existed among certain allopathic physicians toward alternative medicine.
Jane had become very convinced about the efficacy of alternative medicine years ago, and she was always so healthy that for years she never saw a conventional doctor. She didn’t have a primary care physician. She saw a chiropractor on a regular monthly schedule and was very healthy for all of the years I knew her, which was roughly ten years. Then she suddenly developed a backache, which led her to her chiropractor and then to other practitioners because the backache persisted. Her search for a solution to her pain lasted four or five months, and she saw many practitioners during that period before she was correctly diagnosed with cancer.
REDWOOD: And that correct diagnosis came from a conventional physician?
SMITH: She saw a series of physicians and surgeons, but it was primarily not because they were allopathic versus alternative, but because they used the latest high-tech means of diagnosing patients.
REDWOOD: MRI and so forth?
SMITH: MRI, bone scans, CT-scans, and just basic x-rays. None of the alternative practitioners used any of those, not even an x-ray. So they were, in effect, guessing what was wrong with her, and treating her according to what they would normally do.
REDWOOD: What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of alternative and conventonal medicine?
SMITH: I think the greatest strength of alternative medicine is that most of it doesn’t have any dire side effects. It seems to me that allopathic medicine has become so oriented toward the use of chemicals and drugs that may help, but also may do harm to the patient. They go through these long trials and the FDA eventually may approve a drug, but with all sorts of warnings about things that could go wrong. Well, a lot of people aren’t willing to take those chances and as a consequence are looking for other answers. I think alternative medicine offers help in many ways.
REDWOOD: What are some possible solutions to the current problems between alternative and conventional medicine? What can we do differently?
SMITH: It appears that there is progress being made, because a number of physicians are realizing that this “cold war,” as I call it, really doesn’t make sense and that the patient deserves better. The patients want better and are insisting on it. So medical schools today are including more information on nutrition and some other aspects of what we think of as alternative or holistic medical practice. That’s a good sign. And it may be that as the younger doctors come along, there’ll be a broader application of these various therapies rather than simply going the way it’s been in the last half century.
REDWOOD: Do you feel that if a person seeks out a conventional medical diagnosis, that he or she must then necessarily follow up with conventional treatment?
SMITH: No, I don’t think a patient should feel obligated to follow up with the conventional treatment if the physician isn’t open to alternative means. The best example of that, I think, is Marion Woodman, who is a psychotherapist in Toronto. She’s written a book called Bone, which is about her experience. She was diagnosed with a malignancy in her uterus and advised to have a hysterectomy. She didn’t resist that; she had the hysterectomy. But afterward, she was told she needed radiation. She went for the radiation, but in the meantime also saw a naturopath because she wanted some help dealing with her healing after the surgery.
Well, the conventional doctors who heard about her consulting a naturopath had a very negative, really hostile reaction. One of them threatened to report him as a charlatan. That’s the sort of adversarial attitude and relationship that puts the patient in a bind. If she hadn’t been the strong person that she was, strong in her own convictions about what was right, she probably would have buckled and just done what her radiologist wanted her to do, instead of doing what she felt she should do. She wanted the best of both and she got the best of both, and she survived to tell the story.
REDWOOD: What was Jane’s diagnosis and how did she proceed once she understood it?
SMITH: The first diagnosis was when they found some malignant cells in the fluid in her lung. That’s all we knew. But she didn’t have any pain in her lungs; all the pain was in her lower back, her spine. She went to a surgeon who thought the back pain might have been caused by a disc problem, and that she might need surgery to repair that disc. He suggested that we do an MRI to be sure, and that revealed she had tumors in her lower spine and hip. At that point there was no question that she was in serious condition with cancer. The big problem was that they didn’t know where it had originated, and they never were able to pinpoint the source. So, instead of their being able to target the source, they recommended a treatment that was general chemotherapy and radiation. And even that, they said, wouldn’t cure her or save her life.
So Jane sought alternatives because that was a death sentence. She sought help from a homeopathic physician, who prescribed various things which were, I think, far too late at that point. She died within four months of being diagnosed.
REDWOOD: Though your book is titled Misdiagnosed, it seemed to me that to a great extent, the love story between you and Jane was even more central to the book than the cold war between alternative and conventional medicine. What was it like for you accompanying her through this difficult illness?
SMITH: I guess the hardest part for me, other than the pain she was in, was being in a state of confusion as to what was the proper way to go. We had physicians on one side saying one thing, and alternative people saying another. I certainly didn’t feel qualified to determine what was best; all I could do was get the best advice available. Part of the confusion was that many well-meaning friends, who had been through cancer and survived, had a solution for us. But the trouble was, it was a solution for a different problem because cancer is not just one disease. It’s a whole range of different kinds of diseases that affect different organs in different ways. And since we weren’t sure where Jane’s had started, we never were able to find someone who had the same exact experience.
REDWOOD: What was your initial emotional response when you heard Jane’s diagnosis?
SMITH: Disbelief. I was at home when we got a telephone call from the doctor. Jane answered the phone and then she called me to the phone. I heard him tell her that the lab report on the fluid in her lungs showed malignant cells. I said, “What does that mean?” He sounded as stunned as we were, and he said, “I guess there’s some cancer in there.” But Jane never smoked in her life, and it just seemed so off-the-wall. I couldn’t take it seriously. But that was just my denial.
REDWOOD: How long did that denial last?
SMITH: In a way I continued to deny the seriousness of it all. Even two weeks later, when they had conducted all their tests on Jane and gave us the report that she had only months to live, I still refused to believe it. I thought I just needed to get Jane out of the hospital and start giving her good nutrition and everything would turn out well. It was one of those things where you care so much for a person that you can’t believe it’s a hopeless case.
REDWOOD: What was her response to the diagnosis?
SMITH: When she first got the diagnosis, she took it very literally. She started writing out instructions for her memorial service.
REDWOOD: Right away?
SMITH: Right away. It was almost as if she knew what was going to happen. And I just thought she was overdramatizing the thing. I couldn’t even talk to her about that. It just seemed so impossible that that could be the case. Even after everybody else had accepted her fate, I guess I was the last one. Jane had reached the point, maybe several weeks before she died, where she was saying that she felt so bad. She was so debilitated by then that she was saying, “Why can’t I die? Why can’t I die?” Several people thought it was because I was holding onto her, that I didn’t want to let go.
REDWOOD: Did you or she feel that was true?
SMITH: Yes, she did too. And she asked me to let go.
REDWOOD: How does one let go?
SMITH: Well, I didn’t know how in the world to do that. And my daughter, bless her heart, suggested that I write a last love letter to Jane. I wasn’t even sure I could do that, but I did it, and I read it to Jane. She was in bed at home, when I read the letter to her. I wasn’t even sure she was hearing it, because she was not giving any recognition to my presence. But I read it, knowing that sometimes even people who are unconscious can receive communiques of this sort. But she heard it, because there was a long pause after I read it. I just sat there and looked at her. Finally, she said, “That’s so beautiful.”
REDWOOD: You are a former hard-nosed political reporter who has edited a spiritual magazine for the past 15 years. How did you and Jane experience her illness from a spiritual perspective?
SMITH: One of the things that was a plus for both of us was that, since long before this illness, we have had no doubt that the life of the soul is eternal. That this thing we call life, from the time we are born to the time we enter the grave or are cremated, is not necessarily the main event. It’s an important event in the life of the soul, but not the whole event. And yet, until you are really tested by the threat of the death of someone very close to you, that’s all very nice and academic, easy to discuss and even believe. Jane never faltered in her belief about that. On the day when she received the first diagnosis about the malignant cells, she said, “I’m not afraid to die, but I don’t want to go this soon, because I have these lovely grandchildren who I want to see grow up, and you and I have this lovely marriage.” She just wanted to put it off for a while. Of course, everybody wants to do that. I did, too, and I believed we could. But that didn’t work out.
REDWOOD: I read a fascinating passage in the book, Health Through Balance, by Yeshi Donden, who for many years was the physician to the Dalai Lama. He said that from the Tibetan perspective, when there is an illness that does not respond to any treatment of any kind, that is a clear sign that the cause of the illness must be karmic. Do you believe this may have been true in Jane’s case?
SMITH: I really don’t have any way of knowing. We had the benefit of several intuitive readings concerning Jane, both before and after her death, and they offered some insights that I’ve thought a lot about. One of them suggested that Jane, from an early age, was kind of programmed to be fearful of being alone… she was concerned that I would pre-decease her. Whenever I would say to her, around the house, “Is there anything I can do for you?” she would say, “Just last.” [Laughter]. It was a wise remark and a wise-guy remark. It really did express her hope that I would last a long time. I never dreamed that she would predecease me.
After she died, I went to see a woman who has had success in talking with people who are in grief. She gives psychic readings, and she said she got in touch with Jane, and that Jane was told that the reason for her illness was not that we had done something wrong, or that she had neglected something, but that she had fulfilled her mission of service in this life.
REDWOOD: In reading your account of Jane’s illness, I noted two lines of thought which seem paradoxical. First, there’s the sense that Jane, at age 70, had concluded on a soul level that her life’s work was complete. Then, there’s the intensive search for an effective treatment for her cancer, and the question of whether an earlier diagnosis might have given her a much longer life in good health. How do you square the circle? How do you reconcile these two notions?
SMITH: We did all the searching, and made all the efforts to cure her, to eradicate the disease, while she was still alive. We didn’t get this psychic information until after she died. And then we were told, in effect, that it would have been hopeless in any event. I felt that it was important to write this book simply to illustrate the conflict between alternative and allopathic medicine, and the unfair position it puts many patients in, because the more we talk about that, the more we’re likely to get some resolution of that problem. Not everybody is destined to die when they get cancer; many people are able to cope with it in less traumatic ways. There’s no way to know whether, if the first time Jane had that back pain, she’d had an x-ray and we’d discovered that she had cancer… there’s no way to know whether we could have arrested it. It’s just an unknown.
Dr. Daniel Redwood practices chiropractic and acupuncture in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits of Holistic Health and Contemporary Chiropractic, and Associate Editor of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. A collection of his writing is available at http://www.drredwood.com. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2001 by Daniel Redwood