Five years ago, Bronnie Ware was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
The then 45-year-old decided to take a “natural” approach to healing.
For two and a half years, Ware tried a variety of alternative remedies, including herbs from naturopaths and an alkaline-based diet, to manage the autoimmune disease that causes pain and swelling of the joints.
Her well-intentioned approach only saw her deteriorate.
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“It got to the point where my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter was helping me get dressed,” explains the single mother and internationally best-selling author of Five Regrets of the Dying.
She struggled to walk more than 30 metres at a time and couldn’t get up and down from the floor.
“I was in horrific pain,” Ware says. “I was exhausted.”
Eventually she was forced to admit that her rigid resistance to conventional medicine was backfiring. She went to a GP who also practised alternative therapies including acupuncture and Ayurveda (India’s traditional medicine system which incorporates nutrition, yoga, acupuncture, massage and herbal medicine).
“He said, ‘OK, I understand where you’re coming from but your body is in too much trauma to come back on its own now – it’s too far gone, you really need to try these immuno-suppressant drugs’,” Ware recalls. “Reluctantly I did.”
Despite her reluctance, the medicine helped.
“They gave me a lot of mobility back and freedom and it gave me a sense of hope again,” she says.
“It’s been a huge journey of surrendering my very rigid beliefs that this is the only way to go. The pharmaceutical medicines did have a lot of side effects but they also had a lot of other benefits that brought me back to a place where I could actually heal from.”
Up to 70 per cent of Australians use complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) and about 24 per cent of adults with a chronic health condition regularly use complementary medicines to help them treat their condition, in particular for arthritis and osteoporosis.
With each year, the $4 billion industry grows. In fact, the number of people visiting a complementary health professional (most commonly a chiropractor, naturopath or acupuncturist) has increased more than 51 per cent in 10 years.
“There are some conditions where medical treatment is, in my view as a GP, non-negotiable. I think rheumatoid arthritis is one of those examples,” says Dr Kerryn Phelps, who adds that delaying treatment can cause irreparable joint damage.
“Cancer treatments are another situation where I quite often have people saying ‘I’m just going to battle this with the power of my mind and diet’ when they’ve literally got no chance of surviving without chemotherapy.”
Phelps, the author of The Cancer Recovery Guide, adds that there is a place for ‘adjunctive therapies’ as she prefers to call them. “There are many instances where recovery can be enhanced by adjunctive treatments.”
There are also instances where pharmaceuticals are not the best option.
“There are lots of conditions where pharmaceutical treatments can be minimised or even eliminated if people take the right lifestyle measures,” Phelps says, pointing to Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular risk factors and osteoarthritis.
“The thoughts around pharmaceutical and medical treatments changes with time and as we understand more about side effects.”
Those wanting to explore different treatments should find a doctor who has an understanding of “a broad range” of options, Phelps advises.
“Someone who can direct them to appropriately trained allied health practitioners … and who has an understanding of when medicine is the most appropriate treatment and how to combine those things.”
Along with conventional treatment, Ware continued to care for her diet and use CAM, including a “prescription” from an Ayurvedic doctor to do something “really fun” each week.
“She said that stress is far more detrimental to our body than anything we can do with our diet so it’s much better to eat a chocolate when you’re happy than have a green juice every day when you’re stressed,” Ware says. “We have so much pressure and stress we sometimes lose the fact that life is to be enjoyed. We need joy and lightness to balance the stress and pressure on ourselves.”
Ware, who details her journey in her new book Bloom, says she now has a very different attitude to health, one that embraces both the conventional and CAM.
“I was very rigid that ‘I’m going to find the natural path to this’ and it was just causing me so much stress so I’ve let go of all that nonsense now,” she says.
“I went to some pretty low places with RA and I still live with RA but I’m jumping on a trampoline now and riding a pushbike and travelling and I’ve got my life back.”
– Sydney Morning Herald