12 May 2018

Barbara Ehrenreich - Natural Causes

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 12 May 2018

At the age of 76, US author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich questions whether death can, in fact, be postponed if we just work out, eat the right things and get enough tests done.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich Photo: Supplied

Ehrenreich's 2010 bestseller Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World was in part a response to being confronted with a tide of positivity after a breast cancer diagnosis in 2000.

“It’s been an old myth within breast cancer culture for a long time that if you think positively your cancer will go away – you will be arming those little immune cells to fight the cancer cells.

“Breast cancer is one of the many kinds of cancers that we cannot pin down to an environmental or lifestyle source … There are things we don’t seem to understand yet or know how to control.”

Ehrenreich says she endured months of chemotherapy in a rage.

“You cannot imagine how angry I was.

“So should I write a book saying rage and hate got me through cancer? I don’t think so, you need a little more evidence.”

She continues to question received wisdom in her latest book, Natural Causes.

The US health system – in which every person gets some form of health insurance when they turn 65 – means older Americans become “vulnerable” to testing and screening that may be unnecessary, she says.

“As I got to the age where they start insisting that you undergo more and more tests and screening, I, in my usual sceptical way, would do a little research on every one of them and try to decide for myself whether it was worth the trouble – and the possible risks.

“I think things are frightfully skewed toward the elderly, of whom I am one, but without making the elderly happier in any way.”

Such preventative care in the US could be better directed to testing for lead poisoning in children or prenatal care, she says.

“We very often neglect the care of the young.”

Though Ehrenreich is no fan of extreme fitness and diet regimens, she enjoys exercise and gets grumpy if she can’t get to the gym. 

But in contrast to older people she has observed being “in terror” of not eating a healthy diet, she has become more relaxed over the past 15 years, concluding whatever “gets us in the end” is beyond our control.

“Butter had something to do with this, I will admit," she says.

“I would be scolded by friends for buttering bread. I’m sorry, bread exists as a vehicle to carry butter into my mouth.”

Ehrenreich still has work she’s passionate about and wants to continue.

As we get older, "every bit of life that remains to you remains precious" she says.

But she has a deal with her own doctor: “I will come to you if I have a problem but you are not to go looking for problems.”

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 14 books, including Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America (2001) in which she went undercover as a low-wage worker to examine the impact of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act in the US.