Suzanne Somers claims she didn't need chemotherapy to beat breast cancer. Naomi Judd says herbal remedies and a change of diet were all it took for her to conquer hepatitis.
Stars pushing alternative cures is creating quite the stir in Hollywood. It's one thing for a celeb to choose herbs over radiation; it's quite another for a revered star to influence millions of TV viewers with an infomercial-like pitch. Some doctors say flatly, their appearances have fatal potential.
"None of these alternative treatments are panaceas," says Dr. Barry Unger, "but a lot of celebrities on TV sell them as if they are."
Unger, who has a stable of celebrity patients in his Beverly Hills practice, says stars who speak publicly have a powerful impact on medicine. He says celebs refer a number of patients to his office -- patients who want exactly what the stars get. Conversely, with one TV sppearance, a strident celebrity can push a patient out of the traditional medical arena.
CNN's 'Larry King Live' has become the forum of choice for many stars -- including Somers and Judd -- to promote alternative medical treatments.
In her appearance on the show in April 2005, Somers said she no longer had signs of the breast cancer she was diagnosed with in 2000. "I looked at cancer in two ways," Somers said on the show. "Destroy or build up. Western medicine's standard of care is destroy." She went on: "Chemotherapy. It's poison. I chose to build up." Somers said she used mistletoe therapy and hormonal medicines such as Iscador to treat her cancer.
In 2002, Judd appeared on 'Larry King Live' and discussed her battle with hepatitis: "When I was diagnosed and the big guys told me I had less than three years to live ... I didn't buy it. So I got real proactive ... I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Food really creates your moods ... when you eat right, you stimulate the body's immune system ... I wonder if people realize that the medications, the prescriptions they're taking are usually based on plants."
The line between passion and overselling is often lost on celebrities who tout their treatments. In a 2004 interview with Caregiver.com, Judd made it clear -- diet, not medicine, is the magic bullet for curing disease: "Food is like the medicine of our future: When you open up your refrigerator door, imagine that you're opening up your medicine cabinet."
Unger says the logic escapes him: "If they're good at acting, people assume they know what they're talking about." Tom Cruise, for example, has stridently claimed to know more about psychiatry than psychiatrists do.
"It could be misleading, of course," says Lucy Postolov, a Brentwood, Calif., acupuncturist who treats many celebrity clients, "but at least they give some positive exposure to Oriental medicine." Postolov says if celebs go off the deep end a bit with their enthusiasm, it counters the Western view of many medical doctors who say that "Oriental medicine is a voodoo medicine and that's just not true."
Even if alternative medicine is effective, celebrities may not be the most reliable messengers. Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, says, "We're talking about testimonial evidence, which is the lowest form of evidence from a scientific point of view."
The lowest form maybe, but the reality is that 'Larry King' influences more Americans than the New England Journal of Medicine.