From his college readings to legislation in Congress, the Vermont Senator has had unusual views on health
On the day of his crushing victory in the New Hampshire primary, 74-year-old Bernie Sanders shot hoops with his grandkids. He has a good mid-range shot. Boom. Boom. Boom. He sank it every time. “I have been blessed with good endurance and good health,” Sanders says, pointing to his athletic prowess.
As Sanders’ medical records make clear, he’s kept his good health through regular visits to the doctor for treatment of minor ailments. But he also has a long history of interest in alternative medicine, including a few ideas that are far outside the mainstream.
From linking sexual abstinence to cancer to blaming disease on the “ails of society,” Sanders has sometimes professed opinions on health as alternative as his political ideas. He penned essays in his twenties arguing that sexual repression causes cancer in women, and suggested through his late forties that the disease has psychosomatic causes.
Those ideas are nowhere to be found in Sanders’ current campaign proposals, but he has boosted them in the past, including in some freelance columns in alternative newspapers.
After he arrived in Congress in 1991, he backed legislation supporting acupuncture and other naturopathic remedies and held conferences on alternative health.
“No one denies the important roles that surgery and drugs play in treating disease, but people are now looking at different therapies in addition,” Sanders said at an alternative health conference in Burlington in 1996, one of several such forums he has sponsored.
The Vermont Senator’s free-thinking approach to medicine—which has ranged from the accepted to the unusual—is reflected in part by his home state and by his politics. The Green Mountain’s granola culture and 1960s expatriate population adheres to the alternative in everything, including medicine.
“I would classify [Bernie] as a huge supporter of alternative therapies and natural medicine,” said Michael Stadtmauer, a naturopathic doctor in Montpelier who attended an alternative health conference with Sanders in 2010. “In Vermont we have a general friendliness toward [alternative medicine] that doesn’t exist in other states.”
Sanders’ views on health appear to have changed over the years, but they began with some radical ideas.
After moving to Vermont in the late 1960s to work as a carpenter and a young activist, Sanders wrote freelance articles that claimed cancer was a physical expression of mental distress. “When the human spirit is broken, when the life force is squashed, cancer becomes a possibility,” the 28-year-old Sanders wrote in the Vermont Freeman, an alternative newspaper, in December 1969.
Sanders believed that cultural forces were driving Americans to illness and that sexual repression caused cancer. “The manner in which you bring up your daughter with regard to sexual attitudes may very well determine whether or not she will develope (sic) breast cancer, among other things,” Sanders wrote.
Sanders, who declined through a spokesman to comment for this article, has since distanced himself from the essays he wrote at the time. “These articles were written more than 40 years ago,” Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said in an email to Mother Jones last year. “Like most people, Bernie’s views on many issues have changed over time.”
But Sanders continued to express similar views over the years. Later recounting his college days to the Vanguard Press, Sanders said in 1981 that in his college days he developed a theory that “disease to a large degree is caused by the way we live in society.”
Seven years later, as the 46-year-old mayor of Burlington in 1988, he participated in a local “media bash.” Sanders, echoing with remarkable similarity the language he uses today, delivered a 22-minute screed about network television news and newspapers, saying the news focuses on trivial issues and pushes a corporate agenda. “Don Rokaw, Tom Brokaw, whatever his name is!” Sanders said, drawing laughter.
At the event, he went on to suggest that cancer is caused by mental distress, echoing his views from the 1960s. He pointed to Nora Astorga, a Sandanista politician who visited Burlington in 1987 and later died of cervical cancer. Sanders proposed that Astorga’s cancer was caused by grief from her experiences in the war in Nicaragua.
“I have my own feelings about what causes cancer and the psychosomatic aspects of cancer,” Sanders said. “One wonders if the war did not claim another victim of another person who couldn’t deal with her tremendous grief and suffering that’s going on in her own country.”
Sanders’ ideas on medicine may have been outside the mainstream at times, but they fit in some ways with his left-leaning politics. Some of Sanders’ biggest supporters also suggest disease is linked to societal ills, including National Nurses United, a union and super PAC that is backing his presidential campaign. “Ultimately, all the ails of society present themselves in illness,” RoseAnn DeMoro, the union’s executive director, volunteered to TIME recently. “Everything has a physical or emotional or psychological component.”
Other members of the nurses’ union uses similar language about psychosomatic causes of disease. “The mind is a powerful thing: when they cannot afford to pay for their kids college, when they cannot afford to pay for their rent, when they think they’re going to lose their job,” said Michelle Vo, a nurse who has canvassed for Sanders, in an unrelated discussion with a TIME reporter. “They get depression, anxiety, symptoms of stroke, symptoms of heart attack.”
Sanders’ interest in mental health began during his college years, when he was a gangly student and civil rights activist in Chicago. Holed up in the University of Chicago stacks in the early 1960s, Sanders read Wilhelm Reich, a quirky disciple of Freud who preached sexual liberation and Marxism. Reich, active until the 1950s, drew a link between mass political hysteria like fascism and sexual repression. Also important for Sanders was Reich’s link between sex and cancer. Reich argued that cancer “is the most significant somatic expression of biophysiological effect of sexual stasis.” In other words, not having enough sex could cause you to get sick.
In his second year of college, Sanders even decided that he wanted to become a psychiatrist. “I became very interested in psychiatry and the relationship between mental illness and society,” Sanders reflected twenty years later in an interview with the Vanguard Press.
Sanders has relied on unspecified alternative therapies himself, he told a Vermont reporter in 1996. And his medical views have made it into his agenda in a watered-down form. He’s sponsored several on alternative health themes in Vermont, including one in 1996 and another in 2010.
“More and more people are not simply content to go to a doctor’s office, get a diagnosis and take a pill,” Sanders said in prepared remarks at an alternative medicine conference in Vermont in 2010, according to his Senate website. “They want to know what the cause of their medical problem is and how, when possible, it can be best alleviated through natural, non-invasive or non-pharmaceutical means.”
He has supported legislation that would expand alternative medicine. Sanders co-sponsored a bill in 2001 that would have allowed federal employees to access and be reimbursed for services from a massage therapist or an acupuncturist.
Sanders also sponsored a bill in the Senate in 2013 that would have increased access for veterans to alternative medicine by increasing funding for alternative medicine research and allow veterans’ health care to cover alternative forms of healthcare.
As a presidential candidate, Sanders has not specifically repudiated his old views on sexual repression and cancer. But in a recent interview about an essay from the same period that touched on sexual assault, he dismissed his old views. “I think I could make a good president, but I write fiction pretty poorly.”
At other times, Sanders has argued that alternative medicine may not be so alternative any more.
Introducing a Veterans Affairs official in Burlington last May, shortly after he launched his campaign, Sanders noted that the agency’s health care facilities are more progressive than in years past.
“You go to facilities, whether it is in White River Junction or facilities around the country,” Sanders said, “and now as an essential part of their overall health care delivery, you have yoga. You have meditation. You have a strong emphasis on disease prevention and nutrition. You have a whole lot of therapies which 30 or 40 years ago would have been considered very, very radical.”