By Megan Wildhood
Almost 40 percent of Americans can expect a cancer diagnosis in their lifetimes. As the number of new cancer cases per year is expected to rise to 23.6 million by 2030 worldwide, people are desperate for answers, turning to alternative therapies that fall outside the typical "slash, burn, poison" treatment model.
Director and producer Sarah Mabrouk was initially inspired to report on the "quack" cancer clinics in Mexico that purportedly prey on the fear and vulnerability of cancer patients. But as she began researching the background of some of those doctors, she found that alternative therapies were not as absurd as she'd thought.
Rather than take sides, or present the debate as conventional versus alternative treatment, Mabrouk decided to focus on the patients of a particular nutritional protocol called the Gerson Method. Dr. Max Gerson was a Jewish physician in Germany who began developing a dietary approach to treating cancer, but he soon fled to New York City to escape the Nazis. In the United States, he continued treating advanced-cancer patients with a strict organic, plant-based diet that included raw juices multiple times a day, nutritional supplements, and enemas, all of which had to be precisely followed as instructed for at least two years.
Mabrouk was interested in what made patients turn to alternative treatments for cancer. How did they fare undergoing these treatments? What support systems did they have and how were they affected? Would people let her record their experiences over a period of three years no matter the outcome?
Six people from different countries and their families said yes, and the result is Mabrouk's documentary The Food Cure. The director selected patients as young as 5 months and as old as 72 by touring alternative therapy clinics internationally and writing to the Gerson Institute and asking for volunteers who, Mabrouk hoped, would be vulnerable enough to allow her to film their experiences, whatever the outcome. The product is a film that lets viewers see what three years of an intensive and controversial nutritional therapy does to patients' bodies, spirits and lives.
One might anticipate that The Food Cure would compare different nutritional remedies rumored to hack the malignant-tumor puzzle, but it turned out to cover only the Gerson Method. The viewer watches as patients adopt essentially a housebound lifestyle to make fresh juices every two hours. Such scenes leave the viewer wondering why, if the Gerson Method is so intense, other food-based options weren't compared. For example, research suggests that the low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet, while controversial, is easier to follow and can drastically reduce both tumor sizes and the risk of developing certain kinds of cancers.
Dozens of pounds of produce a week are required to make the multiple juices a day prescribed in the plant-based protocol. One patient's wife discussed the amount of debt the couple incurred as her husband followed the Gerson Method, estimating that it was around $60,000, but surmised it would still be less than chemotherapy, which can cost thousands of dollars a month even with insurance.
Although the expense of the Gerson Method is dwarfed by the costs of conventional treatment, the former is no small burden; it would be cost-prohibitive to many, especially with insurance typically covering only conventional methods of treatments and, in many cases, not providing full coverage for even approved treatments. In other words, a "food cure" is not equally accessible across class lines, and the documentary doesn't make that inequity clear.
Despite African Americans having the highest death rate of any racial and ethnic group in the U.S. for most cancers, the filmmaker chose to follow only one Black family (the other families are White). When the family is highlighted, key social issues that might impact their care are ignored: racial disparities in cancer diagnoses or treatment; underrepresentation in clinical trials; and implicit bias in medicine against people of color, women, and trans and nonbinary people. The reality is that racial, gender, and economic inequalities are lethal, and they take a much heavier toll on communities of color and the poor.
Additionally, the increasing toxicity of our environment and its role in cancer didn't come up. Our planet's health is inextricably linked to our health. According to the World Health Organization, 4.2 million people die every year as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution, which accounts for 25 percent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer and 15 percent of all deaths and disease from ischemic heart disease. That the planet has become more polluted and our food less nutritious deserves at least a mention in a film about using food to fight cancer. That this environmental pollution is racialized—that people of color have less access to healthier foods, accurate nutritional information, and adequate health care—demands a deeper, more critical discussion.
Some of the patients in The Food Cure went into full remission after the Gerson therapy. Some of them struggled to follow the protocol exactly, while others adapted to the rigorous juicing protocol and found ways not only to maintain the intense treatment, but also get out of the house once in a while. Those who experienced what the medical establishment might call miracles found the severity of the therapy worth it. But the film is not black and white and does a good job of highlighting the uncertainty inherent in all cancer treatment and the gray area of alternative therapies, which still need more research.
Showing the impact of cancer treatment on relationships is where The Food Cure really shines. Some patients experienced strong support from partners and families; others, shockingly, were abandoned or plunked down in the middle of a custody battle for their children because of the treatment route they chose. Your heart will leap and ache and race for more reasons than pending test results, bad news after a biopsy, or the five-year "all clear"—when an oncologist declares a patient cancer-free five years after diagnosis. You can't help but be drawn into each patient's life so deeply that, rather than waiting for a medical cure, you're just witnessing their journey, their hopes and fears, with compassion and a sense of shared humanity. And that, despite some of the more painful outcomes the film shows, at least feels like therapy.
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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