25 November, 2013

My father-in-law died a few weeks ago. Well, he wasn’t technically my father-in-law. Richard, my partner (who died of cancer eleven months prior), and I weren’t officially married. Though before he died, he did say to me, “You’re my husband. That’s what you are.” So…Richard’s losing battle with cancer (ultimately, I suppose they are all losing battles), was short (very short) with no heroic actions… other than his own incredibly courageous and strong desire to keep living his normal day-to-day life until the end.

His father’s battle was much longer… he’d first been diagnosed with prostate cancer fifteen years or so ago. Surgery and treatments supposedly cured it. But in recent years the cancer returned, and was in his bladder and, despite chemo and radiation, ultimately his lungs as well. Understandably his decline sped up after the death of his son.

I went down to Maryland (where their home is) from New York for the “Celebration of Life” five days after his death. There wasn’t to be a funeral per se, he had been cremated. But this gathering of family and friends was to be held at the local funeral home… the same funeral home where Richard’s service had been held eleven months prior.

The next morning, sitting at the kitchen table with my mother- and brother-in-law, the conversation was about Richard, Sr.’s last couple of months, when it was clear he was failing. Suddenly my brother-in-law got up from the table and headed to one of the cabinets. “I’ve got to show you something.” He came back with a 32-ounce plastic bottle. It was a marvel of packaging; three or four shades of calm blue and white, with a graphic of a chemical structure drawing… very clean, very cool… simultaneously new-age and scientific.

My brother-in-law explained that in that last month or two, when his father was too weak for any more chemo or radiation, the urologist had strongly suggested he try this product, which (as he said), had shown great success with patients, and which, coincidentally, the doctor’s wife represented. The nurse added that her husband had stage-four cancer and after starting to take this product daily, all his numbers got significantly better. Quite a sales pitch.

Desperate for something positive, my in-laws understandably agreed to try the miracle drug. They were sold a case (a month’s supply); four 32-ounce bottles, for $178 (approximately $45 per bottle), and Richard, Sr. began the 2-ounce per day regimen. Obviously, it did nothing to change the trajectory of his cancer.

I read the label.

“This bottle contains trillions of stable, perfectly balanced Redox Signaling molecules – the same molecules that exist in all human cells. Redox Signaling is a natural function that is essential to all life, enabling and enhancing health on a cellular level. ASEA is the world’s first and only stable Redox Signaling supplement.”

Science was not one of my strongest subjects in school. But bullshit is something I understand implicitly. I turned the bottle and read more. “Ingredients: Distilled Water, Sodium Chloride”

Water and salt. I was holding a $45 bottle of salt water. The doctor and his wife, with the sales help of his nurse, had pushed on my father-in-law a $45 bottle of salt water. And in a fragile, frightened, frustrated, desperate state, this college-educated man and his wife had bought a case of Latter Day Snake Oil. I use the phrase “Latter Day” specifically. According to some on-line research, it appears this product, manufactured in Salt Lake City (in an interesting bit of irony) is reportedly produced by a Mormon-owned company.

As I said, the 2-ounce per day dose of salt water did nothing to change the course of my father-in-law’s illness. But after he died, the next month’s supply (pre-billed to his credit card) arrived. He may not have benefited from the snake oil, but someone definitely was.

Are we a society that has become so greedy, so cynical, that some companies and even some doctors are happy to grab as much money as they can from a family in crisis?  Apparently so.

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