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Dear Anti-Vaxxers: I Believe in Western Medicine Because it Saved My Life

03/13/2015 01:07 EDT | Updated 05/13/2015 05:59 EDT
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Doctor holding heart with bandage

As someone who has had both leukemia and measles as an indirect result of chemotherapy, I'm a firm believer in Western medicine (though I do enjoy organic kale juice from time to time).

Watching the vaccination furor from afar, I've been thinking about the connection between this debate and the two First Nations girls from Ontario who opted to have "natural" therapies to treat their Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia instead of proven chemotherapies.

While a vaccination is drastically different from months of chemotherapy, at this point, certain things are essentially the same for both: preventable harm and near-certain survival. With the standard protocol, the survival rate for ALL is 95 per cent -- the same as the rate of immunization with the measles vaccine.

In 2002, when I was 15, I was the first person recorded to have the type of leukemia I was diagnosed with -- a combination of Acute Myleogenous and Natural Killer -- and had I opted out of treatment, I likely would have survived a week, not a year. While not having treatment never even crossed my mind, my parents were keen to find natural therapies to complement the aggressive chemotherapy. When I was able to eat, I ate healthy, homemade food and I regularly saw physiotherapists and massage therapists. While these treatments made my life more pleasant, nobody is claiming that they are what cured me.

But I also remember being in the parking lot of a strip mall in Markham after having seen an acupuncturist, thinking that if he was correct, and that pressure on my knees would indeed "cure me of blood cancer," then he wouldn't be working out of suburban strip mall. I was angry with this man because his false claims belittled the gravity of what I was going through.

I feel similarly angry towards Brian Clement, director of the Hippocrates Health Institute, for claiming that a wheatgrass and sugar-free diet can help patients "cure themselves," as well as towards parents who claim that they will keep measles at bay by feeding their children organic food and channeling their chakras.

In the summer of 2010, eight years after I entered remission, I thought I had a cold. (I got colds so often that my doctor in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, where I was living at the time, suggested I move to the countryside. I protested that I was not a Romantic Poet, and we were not living in the 18th century and he merely shrugged.) This cold was different, though, because it was combined with a tiredness so profound I couldn't get out of bed. A few days later, I broke out in a full body rash.

I dragged myself back to the doctor and he explained that I had a "maladie virale inflammatoire." I immediately erupted in tears. The words sounded so much more serious in French: I had a malady! An inflammatory viral malady! He said the word for measles, but I didn't know what that meant -- when he said rougeole I thought he was just telling me that I was red, which I knew well enough already. The doctor laughed at my reaction, passed me a box of Kleenex, and reassured me that it was a typical illness in children, and that it would go away in a few days.

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My Canadian doctor, fluent in international inflammatory maladies, later explained that while I had been vaccinated for measles when I was a toddler, back when anti-vaxxing hadn't started trending, my cancer treatment had eradicated my immunity. (Yet another side effect!)

But had I caught the measles seven or eight years before, when my immune system was life-threateningly low for months at a time, the measles could have been one of the thousands of contingencies that claim immunocompromised kids and adults.

The language used by Sault, J.J., and their families -- as well as the people who backed their decision -- has a lot in common with anti-vaxxers' language. Both chemotherapy and vaccinations are spoken of as "toxins" and "poison," like Kelly McMenimen quoted in the New York Times saying she was avoiding the vaccine for her son because she didn't want "so many toxins" entering his body.

In a letter to the CBC, J.J.'s mother wrote: "I will not have my daughter treated with poison." Sault said she wanted to pursue "a regime of natural medicine" because "Jesus appeared to her," but this statement ignores a fatal irony: the colonizers imposed their gods, but Western medicine didn't come on the Mayflower, so to speak, since it wasn't even invented then.

Makayla Sault did not die of a stroke unrelated to her leukemia any more than someone who was shot in the heart would be said to have died of hemorrhaging unrelated to the wound. If J.J., and any other patient with ALL, continues not to pursue chemotherapy, then she too will almost certainly die of cancer. When I was in the hospital, kids died of things as banal as colds and common fungus, but nobody anywhere would deny the fact that it was the cancer that killed them.

I have survivor guilt, a therapist once told me, but like any sentient human I also have empathy, and it upsets me to think of people dying unnecessarily. There are already too many who die after having put up such a fight for their lives.

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