Dangerous message behind glamorous pictures
YOU'LL find them smiling behind a smoothie. Or seated in the namaste pose. Walking barefoot on sandy beaches, or contorting their ab-tastic physiques in mirrors.
As they slurp and crunch and stretch, influencers like Sarah Stevenson, commonly known as Sarah's Day, and Tegan Martin appear to have struck the health jackpot. And perhaps they have. Only, behind the droves of adoring fans is a stark reality; one that leaves vulnerable Australians open to dangerous works of medical fiction.
Stevenson, who is based in Sydney and boasts 1.2 million followers between her YouTube and Instagram accounts, describes herself as "YouTubes (sic) Holistic Health Princess".
Her latest mission is to inform her young, female fanbase about how she apparently "healed" her high-grade cervical dysplasia - a condition characterised by the presence of abnormal cells in the cervix - instead of following her gynaecologist's primary advice to have the precancerous cells surgically removed.
"I truly hope this helps even just one girl out there!" Stevenson wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post about her new video, "How I Healed Myself Naturally: Cervical Dysplasia CIN 3 (High Grade)", which was published to YouTube on July 25.
Only, the Cancer Council and Australian Medical Association (AMA) hope for the opposite; that the 130,000 young women who have watched Stevenson's video will understand her story of "food is thy medicine" is not grounded in reality. And, ultimately, that her message could endanger lives.
Despite Stevenson's insistence that CIN3 is "the most serious health issue that I've been able to tackle in a healthy and holistic, natural way", according to the Cancer Council, there is no known link between precancerous cell regression and diet or lifestyle factors.
"There is strong evidence that 28 per cent of women with CIN will regress spontaneously," Professor Sanchia Aranda, the CEO of Australia's peak independent cancer authority, told news.com.au in a statement.
"However, there is no evidence that there is anything a woman can do in terms of diet and lifestyle that promotes regression."
In other words, pencilling CIN3 regression down to diet and lifestyle changes is akin to checking the Bureau Of Meteorology on a day where showers are possible, doing a dance until the first drops fall, then arguing your rhythmical prowess was what caused the rain all along.
And yet, according to Stevenson, who was lucky to be in the quarter of women who regress randomly, a cocktail of six vitamins and supplements every day, combined with cutting out coffee ("it's not the best for you"), a diet of organic-only food, a ritualistic "morning tonic" drink, positive affirmations, prayer, and homemade suppositories were to thank after her cervical dysplasia downgraded from grade three to a "possible grade one".
"I went hardcore. I did so much research, I bought so many books," Stevenson said in her video.
When asked to point to such resources by news.com.au, the 25-year-old responded: "(I read) literally more than 50 research sources. It is simply unrealistic to ask me to provide them to you. Anything that seems relevant to me, I read and clicked off. I don't save any of my research. Never have with anything."
When probed as to why the Cancer Council's stance on cervical dysplasia regression was not included in her video, Stevenson said: "This video was about MY experience and MY journey. Not about the Cancer Council. Everything I did was under the guidance of my gynocologist [sic], GP and naturopath who worked together."
According to the chair of the AMA's Council of General Practice, Dr Richard Kidd, while aiming for a strong immune system was always ideal, sharing anecdotal advice with the masses was troubling.
"My worry about misinformation of this kind is someone who got lucky is not evidence, it's just one person who got lucky. That is not evidence," Dr Kidd said.
Dr Brad McKay from East Sydney Doctors - who emphasises that CIN3 will progress to cervical cancer in 30 per cent of cases if not treated conventionally - said: "It's narcissistic to believe that you can heal your cervix with positive thoughts and green smoothies.
"Declaring that you've healed your cervix 'naturally' is not only ignorant, but it's also insulting to those people who have been diagnosed with cervical dysplasia or cervical cancer.
"It implies that if you require treatment you haven't prayed hard enough, haven't thought positively enough, or haven't eaten the right nutritional supplement."
Stevenson isn't the only influencer positioning herself as a purveyor of health information. Former Miss Australia Tegan Martin's "health coaching business" is yet another example of influencer culture gone mad.
Martin, who was crowned the country's top beauty queen in 2014, was last week criticised for exaggerating her qualifications.
In a July 5 email to a potential client, sighted by News Corp, Martin reportedly claimed she had "done two courses, one in nutrition and a health coaching cert at IIN the worlds (sic) leading school", when she hasn't, in fact, completed either.
"I did study," Martin, who has more than 120,000 Instagram followers, later clarified to The Daily Telegraph. "However, due to being at the lowest point of my (chronic fatigue syndrome) in my early twenties, I unfortunately wasn't able to complete and attain my certificate."
Instead, Martin has one "mid-year certificate" from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, an online "holistic health school" that counts My Kitchen Rules' Pete Evans and Jessica Ainscough - a wellness blogger who passed away from epithelioid sarcoma aged 30 in 2015 after rejecting conventional cancer treatments - as two of its alumni.
Still, Martin believes what the online course offers students will revolutionise healthcare.
"I truly believe health coaches will change the world and love watching many successful coaches around the world who often have had their own health struggles, continue to inspire and change peoples lives," the 25-year-old wrote on Instagram.
Despite Martin reportedly asking for $300 per 50-minute appointment, health coaching is not recognised under the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency - and for good reason, the AMA's Dr Kidd said.
"They've got about as much standing as an iridologist. It's again, concerning, because the average Australian possibly doesn't understand the standards that are in place or the protections that are in place," he said.
"We often come across bogus people who claim to have these qualifications that are nothing like the qualifications and standards that have to be met to be under AHPRA."
Martin did not respond to requests for comment from news.com.au, so it remains unclear what areas of health the model considers herself an expert in. What we do know is Stevenson laid out a 90-second disclaimer at the beginning of her 16-minute video.
"I'm not a medical professional, I'm not a doctor," Stevenson told viewers. "All I'm doing is sitting here and telling you my story and what I did."
In her email to news.com.au, Stevenson further elaborated, "I encourage girls to listen to their bodies, seek medical advice and do what is right for them. I have never demonised doctors or researchers trained in western medicine, nor have I explicitly explained the message to my followers that my advice and experience is somehow superior and therefore should be followed over that of qualified medical professionals."
Only that is insufficient, said Dr McKay, who reiterates that spreading medical misinformation to the masses is inexcusable, disclaimer or not. Referring to Sarah Stevenson, Dr McKay said suggesting CIN3 can be triggered by wellness, with the research available, was unethical.
"I'm glad to hear that her high grade cervical lesion is now a low grade lesion, but it's dangerous to recommend others follow a 'CIN3 routine' based on her anecdotal experience," Dr McKay said.
While health professionals would want people to lead healthier lives, they are very clear there is a difference between sharing an image of a healthy salad, and branding yourself as a portal of information about specific illness.
People who work on Instagram full-time are often referred to as "influencers". Their ability to influence their audience behaviour directly affects their pay.
If a percentage of that audience is facing a particular health issue, there's a danger they will take unqualified advice over that of their doctor.
"At the end of the day the thing that is very cruel about this, is misinformation of this kind targets people with cancer that is very treatable, but are very vulnerable because they don't understand the evidence," Dr Kidd said.
Somewhere, Instagram wellness warriors have conflated popularity with credentials; personal experience with expertise.
And while their hearts might be in the right place, their actions are steering their most vulnerable followers down a path they might only get to walk once.
News.com.au contacted the Cancer Council, who reiterated they would like to remind women it was critical to not take risks with your health.
"The most important thing women can do is participate in the National Cervical Screening Program from the age of 25 and undergo five-yearly testing, and if ever diagnosed with cervical abnormalities such as CIN, referral to a gynaecologist is required for either definitive treatment or a surveillance plan," the organisation said in a statement.