Nothing but Snake Oil?
by Ute Carson
Vol. 3, Issue 6, November 2007

After completing my hypnosis training, a physician friend teased, "Nothing but snake oil." That comment came back to me recently after an oophorectomy. As a privileged 66 year-old patient I had a superb team of doctors, excellent nursing care and was released the same day as the surgery. Following a speedy recovery, I felt it had all been a piece of cake. Modern medicine is amazing but what about the snake oil? More and more patients and health professionals are asking questions about alternative therapies.

In 1998 Eisenberg, et all published the results of a follow-up national survey on alternative medicine use in the United States in the journal of the American Medical Association. They concluded that "estimated expenditures for alternative medicine professional services increased 45.2% between 1990 and 1997 and were conservatively estimated at $21.2 billion in 1997, with at least $12.2 billon paid out-of-pocket. This exceeds the 1997 out-of-pocket expenditures for all US hospitalizations."(1) Austin reported similar results that same year and the trend toward alternative medicine is still rapidly rising.(2)

What's going on?

Maybe my recent experience can shed some light on this question. My physicians and I had tracked bilateral cysts on my ovaries for several years when in October 2006 we discovered that the right cyst had changed shape. My doctors recommended immediate removal of both ovaries and my uterus as "standard medical procedure," the second most common surgery for women in this country. There are over 600,000 hysterectomies each year in the United States and one in three women will have had a hysterectomy by the age of 60. (3) I asked for a reprieve. Dr. Taylor, my gynecologist of many years, is a wiry man who speaks first with his eyes. They darkened by the moment. Furrowing his eyebrows, he voiced his dismay, "You are playing Russian roulette." I admire him for his dedication. His focus is on prevention. But he often frets when a dark spot in the road is not a sinkhole but only a shadow. I stood my ground against speedy invasions. I needed to investigate the shadows.

I sprang into action and used the tools of my trade, hypnosis. I also employed Reiki healing touch methods. I balanced my chakras with my color (all matter has a unique frequency which vibrates to one of the colors in the color spectrum and mine is yellow). A crystal with its electromagnetic properties helped. So did my friend Debra, an energetic screener who put me on nutritional supplements. I uncovered some psychological reasons for my physical symptoms. I reread old mythologies. I was bent on restoring my ovaries to their original functioning. All approaches that are snake oil to most!

During the wait I was not immune to anxieties and doubts. I remembered my first hospice patient, a young woman who died of ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is stealthy. The symptoms do not surface until the disease has spread in deadly abundance. But the greatest challenge is that of fear itself. When I went back to the doctors in early December and my ovaries had not changed for the better, the pressure mounted. Why did I ask for still more time? My own beliefs were at stake, or so I thought. I was still asking the wrong question, "Were my tools just snake oil after all?"

When the next ultrasound showed no improvement, my surgery date was set for the end of February. Now I shifted from disappointment to a search for meanings. They thundered in like an avalanche.

Many people, including doctors, are poor listeners when the body speaks. They have difficulty deciphering and trusting bodily symptoms with their own senses. How often can doctors still make a diagnosis from a whiff of urine? As Abraham Verghese, writer and physician notes, "I was taught to tap and thump my patients and listen for the sounds of sickness and health. But this is fast becoming a lost art."(4) By not knowing the language of our bodies, we unnecessarily relinquish much control and neglect our innate powers.

If you can't see it, it's not real. I too fell under that fallacy. Intuitively I felt that I was not afflicted with cancer. I could have been wrong. I had been wrong before. I became like the doubting Thomas who needed to touch Jesus' wounds to believe in his resurrection. If only we could reclaim our bodies as trusted allies!

Most of us no longer know how to mine the wisdom of nature either, for instance using flower essences and herbal remedies. Ongoing long-term studies of natural compounds like the one being done at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center using curcumin as a complementary therapy for pancreatic cancer and multiple myelomas are rare. (5)

With my affinity for alternative healing methods, I was haunted by the question, "Why is the use of these obvious tools missing from medicine's miraculous technologies?" A partial answer may lie in our view of the body.

Modern Medicine versus Ancient Medicine

Doctors often see the body as a complex machine. Medical scientists dig deeply into the minutest body parts, down to the DNA of a cell, the better to be able to remove a diseased growth or replace a faulty part with great efficiency. What this view ignores are not only the emotions and environmental influences on health but also the vital forces which breathe life into each organism. The ancients knew about that energy, be it called Chinese Chi or Hindu Prana. We sometimes call it Spirit but then place it at a distance, outside of our bodies, instead of seeing it as the moving energy which swirls through and around us. Present-day medicine wages war on diseases, aggressively manipulating organs and cells. But there have always been other ways to heal. Vibrational medicine, for example, takes a different path. It is based on attunement, adjustment and harmony, rather than a fight with the body's ills. Health and illness are examined from the perspective of energy fields. This healing method works by rebalancing disturbances of structure and energy flow within the context of multilevel interactive energy fields. Not a single cell can be disturbed without having an effect on every other cell in the body. Not Newton but Einstein! Can these two ways of thinking be linked or are they irreconcilable? Is snake oil just greasing a complicated machine?

Let's return to my operation

My gynecological surgeon, Dr. Angeles has impatient hands and dexterous fingers. Her beautiful first name is Concepcion. I was taken by the symbolic connection between that name and her profession. I liked Dr. Angeles immediately. When my daughter explained to my three year-old grandson, Zachary about my operation and that Dr. Angeles was my surgeon, he said, "Tell her to do a GOOD surgery." She would indeed perform a perfect laparoscopy while respecting my wishes to minimize the invasion as much as possible. Of course, she could not predict the outcome. She had to wait and venture inside my abdominal cavity before she could weigh the options. Ovaries are risky to biopsy. If cancerous cells spill into the bloodstream, the disease can spread. I had to trust her judgment. For me even organs that have limited function never lose their symbolic value. Since ancient times ovaries have represented creativity in its kaleidoscopic forms and the uterus symbolizes motherhood in all its beautiful ramifications.

Unsure of its contents, Dr. Angeles removed my right ovary, maneuvered it into a small sack, and pulled it out through a tiny incision. The cyst on it turned out to be benign. My left ovary and uterus which had grown into each other in a curious embrace, she left intact. Had not my creativity always been intertwined with my feminine intuition?

My witty anesthetist, Dr. Whale, is cut from a special mold. He spent much time on the phone discussing my concerns and answering questions. When my surgery was over he whisked in and out of the recovery room for two hours until he was sure I was alright. Safety is his highest priority. Dr. Whale's surname is symbolically linked to the largest mammal in the sea. According to Ted Andrews these animals possess ancient knowledge of how to use breath for a variety of purposes.(6) They can conserve oxygen under water by decreasing the blood flow to areas in the body where it is non-essential. Could I withdraw from the surgery just enough to help myself survive but also recover speedily?

The operating room - or OR - is an unfamiliar place to me. Since I had declined a pre-op sedative and asked to use self-hypnosis for relaxation, I was able to take in my surroundings. The equipment is astonishing. Inflatable warm blankets, wrap-around leg massagers and tables with blinking, clinking instruments, blinding lights and a masked staff. They looked liked they belonged to the raccoon family.

When I entered the OR I was enveloped in a cocoon of love, flowing from my husband, my children, grandkids, sister Katie, friends, clients, readers. I had a well-made plan in mind but the unconscious had its own ideas. As my team assembled around the operating table, Dr. Angeles placed a reassuring hand on my arm, Dr. Taylor's eyes flickered, "You asked me to be present. Here I am." I blinked back a thank-you. Dr. Whale was humming, rhyming. Whales have a great sensitivity to sound, a form of sonar, echo-locator. They sing. I was not in enemy camp but among professionals who meant well, and I knew they would respect my wishes while performing their expert tasks.

Grateful thoughts spread positive vibes. All anxieties evaporated and the room became crowded with healing energy. A line from Mary Baker Eddy that my friend Natalie had sent the day before flashed by, "Divine Love always has and always will meet every human need." Just before I started to inhale life-giving oxygen through my mask and send it to all my cells, my eyes fell on a silver cross vibrating along the indentation of the attending nurse's throat. She was not yet gloved and an old-fashioned ring, red-gold with tiny rubies, reflected the artificial overhead lights. I felt grounded. All would be well. Dr. Whale calmly instructed the team to give me time to center myself. He assured me I would not be rushed. He would wait until I had put myself to sleep. Hushed voices hovered in the cold air. A snake-oil ritual?

When the natural energy flow of the body is compromised, we can harmonize our chakras with our color, unblocking the pathways. I never have trouble stepping into a yellow circle and then allowing that color to travel through me. But this time I could not visualize any colors at all. In retrospect I realize that circumstances prevented me from balancing myself. That's when my unconscious helped. In hypnosis I have often gone to a safe place in my childhood and, when I failed to see colors, I decided to take myself there again. But to my surprise I was whisked to Abaco Island where years ago my husband and I had spent a romantic week in a rented cabin, doors open day and night to the roaring music of the ocean. Now I found myself again on a big brass bed, listening to the murmurings of the sea when, as if through dense fog, Dr. Whale's instructions rolled in, "Ute, Ute...," sounded like a far-off echo. I didn't hear what he said next, nor did I feel the chilling, then burning infusion of Propofol which sent me into deeper regions of slumber.

Awakening from surgery can be fraught with anxieties. When my husband whispered the good news I felt like crying. I have been asked how I would have reacted if instead of a joyful recovery a struggle for survival had been my fate. The tears would have been tears of sorrow, but I hope my outlook on the future would have been the same, enabling me to activate all the dormant healing powers my body has in store. As soon as my sentences were coherent again and I was back in my room, I repeatedly asked nurses and helpers, "How do people cope?" To a person the answer was, "If they have a positive outlook, they recover better---no matter the medical condition." Positive attitude? What kind of snake oil is that?

Pain is our body's alarm. I wanted no pain medication except what had already been given during anesthesia. I had little discomfort in my abdominal area, only a delayed shoulder ache due to escaping carbon dioxide bubbles trapped under my diaphragm. But for several days my urethra burned like a flame from the catheterization. Easy explanation. Despite my conciliatory demeanor, I was pissed! A warm sitz-bath helped.

I was voiceless after the intubation. I coughed when I tried to talk and my throat was sore. The enforced silence sent me inward to reflect. Two weeks later I was still detoxing my body and my liver was working overtime to get rid of all the poisons. But I was gratefully on the mend.

A New Paradigm

"Nothing but good can come of this," Debra said. That's what I hope. High-tech medicine is here to stay and can be of great benefit when we use it wisely and sparingly. And sometimes expediency is not only desirable but necessary. My only wish is for more awareness and acceptance of other therapeutic approaches. The common goal is to ease suffering, and there is more than one way to reach it.

Many doctors know about invisible forces, have seen them at work, and on occasion used them themselves. Both Dr. Whale and Dr. Taylor shared their stories. Dr. Taylor had witnessed a hypnotist helping with a difficult delivery and Dr. Whale told how he once promised a colleague to be his wife's substitute liturgist. He chanted all through the operation, "You will heal quickly... You will not hurt... You will not bleed excessively... You will fight infection... You will be up in a chair today... You will be walking tomorrow." The attending surgeon thought Dr. Whale had lost his mind. But the patient recovered swiftly.

The ways of healing work differently for all manner of people and vary under diverse circumstances. I became a zealous advocate of natural childbirth after three very easy deliveries. I was chastened by an experience of one of my daughters who, only after hours and hours of strenuous labor and considerable pain, delivered a ten-pound boy. She was not only exhausted but nearly delirious. Maybe she should have had a C-section.

Medicine has the caduceus symbol of two snakes which heal through wisdom, a knowledge that moves from past to present to future generations. Because of a very flexible spine the snake can slither back and forth with speed and agility. In ancient ceremonies snake poison was intentionally injected into the body through venomous bites. People who survived had succeeded in transmuting the poison within their bodies and were then believed to be able to convert all poisons, physical or otherwise.

Snakes have been seen as symbols of rebirth because they shed their skin. When the molting starts their eyes cloud over, giving them a trance-like stare. The eyes clear as soon as the skin is shed, enabling them to see the world with fresh eyes. I too gained a new perspective.

Ten days later I had my follow-up appointment. My old vitality was back and the three incisions were now faint lines like thin pencil marks. "You are doing fantastic. You look like you never had surgery." Dr Taylor, ordinarily a reserved man, was exuberant. I felt like hugging everyone. But my privileged treatment, outcome and recovery will be an obligation to share and a commitment to help others heal themselves. Snake oil has more than one ingredient. Some I used for myself. There is plenty to go around.


1) Eisenberg D, Davis R, Ettner S, Appel S, Wilkrey S, Van Rompey M, Kessler R. Trends in alternative medicine use in the United States, 1990-1997; results of a follow-up national survey, JAMA, 1998; 280:1569-1575.
2) Astin, J A. Why patients use alternative medicine: results of a national study. JAMA, 1998;279:1548-1553
3) U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office on Women’s Health. The National Women’s Health Information Center. Available at Accessed August 13, 2007.
4) Verghese A, Bedside Manners, Texas Monthly, February 2007; 296:70.
5) Stix G, Spice Healer, Scientific American , February, 2007; 66-69.
4) Andrews T, Animal Speak, St Paul, MN, Llewellyn Publications; 1993.

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