DR. JENNIFER LANG, M.D.
OBGYN and Gynecologic Oncologist. Exploring the Relationship and Lines Between Traditional Wisdom and Modern Gynecology
Jessica [00:00:06] Yes. So hi everyone. Jessica here from Leiamoon again. And as you very well know by now we are on a mission to empower the womb by making vaginal steaming easily accessible to women at home. I’m so excited about today’s guest, Dr. Jennifer Lang. Jennifer is trained in gynecology and oncology is currently growing an international nonprofit, setting up cancer prevention clinics globally. She is the author of “The Whole Nine Months” and also of “Consent: A Teen’s Guide to Healthy Sexual Relationships,” and she’s founded a tech startup that addresses the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses. So very poignant, important stuff. In addition to all of this she’s also the carrier of a bold female voice, which recently smacked me in the face when I read her open letter to fellow OGYN Jen Gunter. And I should mention as well that Gunter became famous for bashing alternative healing modalities on her blogs. So Jennifer’s letter exposed her flawed perspective–if I may call it so myself–and if you’re interested in seeing that, I posted a link to it on our Facebook page here. So with all that being said, welcome Dr. Jennifer Lang. Thank you for being here with us.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:01:23] My pleasure. Thanks for reaching out. I’m really excited to have the conversation and see where it goes.
Jessica [00:01:28] Thank you. So can you just start by telling us a bit about yourself what what your path has been to where you are now and what inspired you to go this route?
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:01:39] Sure. I think I had a pretty traditional path into medicine. You know, I did the whole premed track in my undergrad. I was at Smith College, a women’s college. I actually majored in comparative literature with Spanish and English–so maybe that was a slightly different perspective to take to be premed, but you know, I just picked a track and went on it, right!? So I took the exams, got the scores I needed, and found myself in medical school. I chose Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and I was a New Yorker for eight years. And part of the reason I chose that actually was–and I was reminded of this last weekend–I had met somebody who was involved in Physicians for Social Responsibility, which is an organization that actually accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for its work on nuclear nonproliferation. You know, educational information. And the thesis was that doctors, because of our role in healing and human health, need to also be activists on the issues–larger issues that affect human health… Like nuclear war, gun safety, climate change…. So I guess I always had the understanding that my role as a physician was always going to be complementary to my role as being a change agent in society towards greater human health and happiness. So in med school I had the opportunity to work with a powerhouse woman in the field of Gynecologic Oncology. She was the first female president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and she had been past president of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology and I was kind of blown away by her… and the practice of medicine in that field–of surgical subspecialty. And I think because of my history at a women’s college I was particularly interested in women’s health. So I found myself wanting to go into Gynecologic Oncology and the path there is through OBGYN. So [I did] residency in New York, then came out to L.A. for fellowship and and additional and absurdly long number of years of training; and found myself in Los Angeles as a board certified OBGYN–a fellowship trained gynecologic oncologist going into practice. In this big city! Which is a very interesting city. There’s a lot going on here…. And you know, Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop are just down the road and so I’m surrounded by communities of people that are kind of looking at health and wellness in in new ways, interesting ways. I don’t know I could talk about all these things so I’ll let you lead the conversation. That’s that’s my brief background.
Jessica [00:04:52] It’s really interesting to hear about the activist aspect of being a doctor–and in a sense challenging the forward way of thinking, while at the same time being rooted in the history of medicine and understanding what has come before you to kind of have that as a stomping ground. And I think that’s a tricky balance I think for a lot of health care providers to manage. And because I found you in this open letter to this other gynecologist, Jen Gunter, who’s kind of been known for having this like fierce voice as a gynecologist, but as you point out may be carrying a lot of the patriarchal… way of speaking to the population at large that sort of is counterintuitive to the message sometimes, and I know that’s sort of what triggered you.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:05:49] Well it really did because the way I find she communicates is… as a bully. You know I think she’s I think she’s a bully! I hate to say it, but that that’s how bullies talk. You know… They demean and diminish the person they’re speaking to. They use words like “stupid,” “uneducated,” you know, “crazy.” And ironically, that is how the patriarchy has spoken to women for a very long time. And so I find it very unfortunate when other women–particularly women who claim or even believe themselves to be coming from a feminist perspective–which I believe she does, use that that tone, those words, and that message to essentially talk down to women and to devalue their experience. So that’s my visceral reaction. Because I have to say, like the history of medicine, if it’s been consistent in anything, it’s using that power position (which I don’t believe we should have one), but it’s using that power position to do exactly those things: demean and diminish and disempower. Unfortunately.
Jessica [00:07:15] With a patient, for example: if [the patient] is seen as the “lower than” or “less than” and that’s really the person that we’re learning from to understand what their needs are and how to heal together… That already is setting you, the doctor and the patient, up at a point where you’re not learning anything from each other. And then as a patient not feeling empowered to really take care of yourself and your own body, which is what we want everyone to be able to do more autonomously anyway.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:07:48] In my clinical practice–which I did you know close five years ago we could get into lots of reasons why–I always felt and saw myself as in service to the needs of my patients…. I know some home birth midwives who don’t use the word “patient”–they say “client.” Because even changing that language is altering this understanding of a power imbalance in the relationship. And I believe our role as physicians should be to be of service to the highest needs of our clients or patients.
Jessica [00:08:31] I guess under that same mode of thinking, as a doctor trained in Western medicine, do you think it’s important to remain open to learning from other doctors or other healers that might be from totally different traditions in terms of how they treat their clients or their communities?
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:08:51] Well honestly it seems absurd to NOT remain open! I mean, I personally went into medicine because I’m an intellectually curious person who wanted to understand about how the body works. But there is not just one understanding of how the body works. There are many different understandings, and it would be one thing if we really did have all the answers and everything we did works perfectly with no side effects and no bad outcomes. That is far from the case. So who are we to claim superiority in cases where you know, many times, we DON’T know! We don’t have explanations. [Sometimes] our treatments are not effective, or they are so disturbing or toxic that they cause side effects that are unacceptable to the people we’re trying to serve. So I think humility [is key]. That’s another thing that moved me viscerally with that letter–just have some humility please! We have so much to learn. We’re at the very beginning. I remember sitting in med school and one professor saying 80 percent or 90 percent of what you learn during these four years you’re going to find, within your career, is wrong or false! So that was the right perspective to have–like, this is our understanding now, but it is going to grow and change and emerge. And so of course we should stay open.
Jessica [00:10:29] Were there any incidents in your practice that were you saw that? Like how you treated someone at the beginning of your career as a clinical gynecologist shifted? Or some treatment that you had you realized was actually no longer valid or healthy?
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:10:47] Sure. I mean I couldn’t even begin to tell you the long list of drugs that we routinely prescribed which have subsequently been shown to be unsafe in pregnancy. And that’s just in a 15 year period. So imagine in another 20 years 30 years 50 years when we’re going to look back on the things that we did with full confidenc–you know, like “This is the standard of care! This is the gold standard practice!” You know? And like, oh my god… we gave somebody a drug that, you know, causes heart defects… or skeletal malformations or… tendon ruptures. It really is remarkable. So yes, humility with a capital H please. And if there are alternative or complementary therapies that are out there that the patients/clients claim that have helped them and the risks of those things are minuscule, like, let it be! You know, our goal should be to help people feel their best, right? And if they’re finding their best self, their best health, in the care of a vaginal steaming, then great! You know, that’s better than a major pelvic surgery with iatrogenic, hospital acquired infections…. Anyway I feel a little bit passionate about this, can you tell!?
Jessica [00:12:31] Yes. I’m so glad you’re here for that exact reason for sure! And I love that of course you segueD into vaginal steaming knowing that that is really what we at Leiamoon are all about. Over here we’re working on developing an innovative vaginal steaming seat, but in our process of getting this product out in the world we’ve heard so many objections time and time again to the practice. They also seemed to come from more of a fear-based mentality that it’s almost threatening to the field of gynecology–that something so simple.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:13:02] Very threatening, yes!
Jessica [00:13:04] And it’s something very simple something very non-invasive, and part of several different traditions around the globe for thousands of years. So that’s interesting to me too that there’s all these different areas in the world that have adopted some form of this practice themselves…without having the communication span that we do now. To know that they were all sort of intuitively onto a similar practice is also interesting
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:13:30] Yes. I just want to kind of insert my little perspective here: Just because something’s been practiced for thousands of years doesn’t necessarily make it right or good. You know, like female genital mutilation is also practiced widely. You know, horrible things have been done and positive changes can happen we can move forward. However, you know just because something isn’t part of the western medicine’s kind of toolbox doesn’t immediately rule it out as not having any benefit or efficacy or value either. So I think we need to keep an open mind. Look at the risks. Look at the benefits. Listen to women, and you know, make a decision of what feels right for us, right?
Jessica [00:14:16] For sure, I definitely agree! That’s a very good point. You know we’re always learning and it’s important to remain in critical as well, and to check in with ourselves: Like, “Is this right for me or for the people around me?” What sort of feedback or questions have you gotten from the people around you about vaginal steaming?
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:14:41] Yeah. So I’m really lucky. And maybe it’s…you know… Living in L.A. or just who I happen to attract into my life. But I have a truly extraordinary friend group of healers, and particularly women’s health practitioners… and wommen’s sexual health. I was invited years ago to speak on a panel about my non-profit at UCLA. And it was in this for this organization called Sex Positive World. I met so many extraordinary people in that community. And we’ve gone on to refer patients to each other. My friend Raha Chen has a practice called Sexual Somatic Wholeness. And for several years I have been on his “council of feminine wisdom.” You know, he’s brought together some you know women healers and practitioners from different modalities, and we meet seasonally to kind of give him our thoughts and insight and guidance in his practice..because he recognizes–you know, he’s a man–and he’s an example of somebody who is a certified [vaginal steam practitioner]. And so, talking about his experience with clients who have been through every mainstream gynecologic treatment therapy that you would ever want to be a part of… Including radical surgeries, radiation… I’ve consulted for him on patients that have had advanced cancers and really like gone completely numb because of the treatments. Now, as an oncologist, I would never say they should not have had those treatments. Those treatments are probably the reason they’re alive, but living with complete parineal and clitoral numbness and vaginal numbness for rest of your life is is not good. No fun. And he has… Through the gentle application of steam and herbs, herbal blends, you know he’s described to me women just like sobbing tears… “I feel something. I feel something for the first time in years!” After 20 minutes sitting on the chair, you know?! So I listen to these things, and my God… like if the risks are low and the benefits are that high I say YES! DO IT! DO IT! Why not?
Jessica [00:17:26] Right. Very much so. And in terms of risks, are there any that you see–I mean there’s obvious ones that are always talked about in the media, like you could burn yourself, but of course you could burn yourself lighting a match.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:17:41] Yeah in my letter I said, like “look to the epidemic of spilled coffee!” Yeah, and like anything… Like cooking, like boiling water for pasta on your stove… You need to observe basic safety [precautions]. Right. So, you know, whether it’s bringing the water to a certain temperature and then letting it sit for X number of minutes; making sure that that the bottom of the chair is adequate distance from the liquids; you know, making sure the chair doesn’t break and you don’t fall down into its… Like basic common sense safety precautions. But, oh my God, in terms of risky things that we do in our lives… there are far more things–including, you know taking a Tylenol, you know that I think are riskier and actually lead to far more damage on a societal or national level than vaginal steaming.
Jessica [00:18:46] And then another risk I hear about too is regarding the bacterial microbiome of the vagina and that steam, or introducing heat or herbs could affect the microbiome. But my thoughts on that are that pretty much everything we do is affecting that biome every day. And even you know tampons or something really basic that people are putting near their vagina in their vagina all the time….
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:19:13] How about going swimming? How about taking a bath? How about going to the spa down the road and getting into their mugwort tea soak. You know, like, all of it affects us. We are these kind of porous organisms that are constantly meeting things in our environment, taking them in, pushing them out…like that’s just how we live our lives. You know. I mean honestly I’m not aware of any study that shows that the steam that comes actually enters the uterus… I don’t know. I don’t know how it works. You please explain to me! But, you know what, you don’t even have to! Because here’s the thing, I trust that you with your intention to be helpful with this practice with your genuine care and tenderness, listening to women… You know, what’s bothering them… What is the tool that you have developed to offer? Like, I trust that. Right? So I don’t need with my mechanistic reductionist brain that’s been drilled into me–like do we need to understand like is the steam actually entering the uterine cavity? Or is it the herbal properties from the… I don’t know…But I know that it’s it’s not going to be dangerous.
Jessica [00:20:39] You know. I think something we could say on a physiological level is even just bringing heat to that part of our body as a mucous membrane can help cleanse or remove excess matter. I mean this is something we talk about in the practice a lot that that of course our vaginas are self-cleaning and do this on their own. But if you’re feeling stuck especially energetically I do feel like there is a link there. If you’re feeling constricted–even in your throat, you know we have these sphincter is that contract–that heat, or especially aromatic steam, can really help release and relax those parts of our bodies. And there may be physical things that are releasing and relaxing but also the energetic parts of ourselves. Like even this woman that you’re mentioning who had this treatments on that part of her body… it could have just been that having that [opportunity] to treat that part of her body with such reverence and tenderness and care [with a vaginal steam] could be the very thing that she needed. I mean it is still very mysterious on some level but you’re right, if ultimately it’s helping people feel comfortable and open–which is like the most feminine you can be in your own body–then I think absolutely we should embrace it!
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:21:55] Yeah and you know, the mouth and the vagina have a lot in common actually like they’re both slightly acidic–they should be…. Just think about sipping a warm cup of herbal tea… you know and the soothing of that act: the smells, and the way you feel the steam on your face, and the way you hold it in your hands, and the ritual, and the relaxation… And, you know, I see them as somewhat similar practices.
Jessica [00:22:27] That makes a lot of sense too.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:22:29] You know we don’t talk about like “What’s happening when the hot water hits the mucous membranes of the mouth?!” you know?!
Jessica [00:22:37] I think about that too. Or even like the pores on our face… We have so many products out there that help cleanse what is a self-cleaning tissue as well. But the vagina…. we shouldn’t treat it like it’s this “oh no no” space either. It should be a place that we have more ritual around.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:22:56] Yes now. OK. So Jen Gunter, you know, one of her beefs is abbout this industry that talks about “cleansing.” And the reason that she thinks is [bad] is it is the patriarchy twisting our minds into seeing our bodies as dirty. just disagree with that. I mean I I’m not going to say that there hasn’t been a horrible history of women being taught that they need to douche with, like, diluted bleach–because that’s a thing–you’ve heard of that, right? Like that’s a thing. And please don’t put bleach in your vagina in any way! But that is totally different from what [vaginal steam advocates] like you are talking about. And you know, when you talk about energetic cleansing I think that’s really important too. It’s not like you think that there’s like mold and slime up there that needs to be like scraped out like. No. This is this is about relaxing. Right? Am I right? Please correct me if not.
Jessica [00:24:02] Yeah!
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:24:02] But like a relaxing, and opening, and bringing intention and focus to this part of our bodies. A “dialing in” to sensation where we rush through our daily lives and we essentially just cut that part of our body off and we just don’t think about it. You know, we want our feminine hygiene products to basically make any aspect of our bodies or femininity like go away or disappear… You know, this is the OPPOSITE of that. This is bringing attention to it… In a very beautiful way I think! And yeah, cleansing, not in the sense of, like, “you are dirty without this and you need to be cleaned,” But like, this is a beautiful gift you can give yourself that might feel really good. Right? I would imagine if a woman said, “Ugh, I was so uncomfortable during that steaming, like it really was so uncomfortable. Didn’t feel good.” I bet you would say, “Doesn’t seem like this is the right thing for you.” Right?
Jessica [00:25:05] Easy answer! In terms of the mentality of bringing attention to this part of our body: Do you feel that in your practice, or in the field of gynecology generally, that there’s space for that concept? Or is that part of the rhetoric now that–that bringing attention to this part of our body versus bringing, you know, certain drugs that mask that part of our body or what its natural functions are–that there is some sort of movement towards towards these more “energetic” concepts?
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:25:42] Yeah, well I think in the last couple of sentences you said, you’ve identified the basic essential difference between a Western approach and more of an Eastern approach to looking at health, healing, and body. Right. So, when you talk about taking a drug or doing a surgery to mask that, that’s really what we’re doing, right? We are treating symptoms. Sometimes we’re getting to one understanding of the root cause of disease. So, say, you know the “germ theory” of disease, right? We say, oh, there’s this germ–this bacteria, virus, or fungus–that has invaded our bodies and we need to kill that in order to restore normality. But even Western medicine is beginning to open up its concept to the incredibly rich interplay of the hundreds of trillions of organisms that make up the entity that I call myself. That we are an ecosystem–that we are, things that we think of as self are actually a plural: we. And starting to look at medicine that looks at the microbiome as the forest that either nurtures health or nurtures disease. And so we support the forest to keep the ecosystem healthy. So we are starting very, very slowly to shift that mentality. But, I’m strained because I could go on and on about this. I just wish that more Western medical doctors could understand what Western medicine does very well and what it does not do well at all. And you know we’re very good at acute medicine for physical trauma…you know, car accidents, crushed bones… Those kinds of things. You know we’re even pretty good at cutting out things like cancer. What we’re not good at is preventing the cancer from growing in the first place. And what we’re not good at is supporting the holistic health of the organism to prevent the onset of disease.
[00:28:09] That’s just not been our our focus.
Jessica [00:28:11] So in your current work where you are setting up these clinics around the world, are you finding different people that come to volunteer there have different ways of understanding cancer?
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:28:22] So I so I co-founded this organization with a radiation oncologist colleague of mine. We were working at the cancer center together. Our first clinic was in 2013, and I subsequently have passed on the leadership. So it is out there growing and thriving while I moved to writing the books and now my tech start up. So I have not been to Kenya or Ethiopia or Haiti recently. You know in the past two years. BUT, I can tell you that yes. I mean, we’re setting up these clinics in parts of the world where, in general, women’s health has not been a priority of governments or healthcare systems, or infrastructure. And that’s exactly why cervical cancer is so rampant– because it is a completely preventable disease if proper care and attention is given to women’s bodies. So there is local wisdom. But there’s also a lot of women suffering unnecessarily, and so with these very simple tools–you know, we did “train the trainer” model, so we’re empowering local community health workers doctors and nurses with the skills for how to recognize previous cervical cancer lesions and treat them with a single visit… with a 90 percent cure rate at preventing cancer. So it’s a remarkable model that we’ve packaged in a way that it has grown rapidly. And there are over 90 clinics in nine countries now globally. So it’s doing wonderful things that I’m not directly involved with anymore.
Jessica [00:30:19] What an awesome thing to have started! And especially too from this voice of activism that you pair with your training. I think it’s it’s awesome to see all the projects that are like cannon balling out of–out of you. So, thank you for the work that you’re doing in the world. And even though you describe your education as being a more linear path where you’ve chosen to study this thing and there are these goals you have to go through, I think it’s really important to sort of allow that organic unfolding of how you can share your thoughts in the world and them not just being put in the box of like now she’s “Doctor.” I think that’s helpful even for what I’m working on in this vaginal steaming realm: to know that there are trained doctors out there that have the capacity to get kind of outside of that space, to be able to have these cross-way-of-thinking dialogues together. And share those with the greater audience which is what we’re doing here today.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:31:16] Yes. And I I really resonate with that. And you know it took me a while to kind of get to this understanding myself–that when I closed my practice, I did not stop being a doctor at all, at all. In fact, I just shifted one way of passing on the healing to other ways. And in fact I kind of moved from a “treat the symptom treat the disease” based approach to more of a preventative [model]. So that’s what my the entire nonprofit is essentially saying: Look, women never need to get cervical cancer in the first place! Like, what are the simple things that anybody can do? By the way, and that’s an important point. And actually I was on a podcast last week talking about this. I have a wonderful brilliant friend here,Pamela Samuelson. She has a practice called Embodywork L.A. and she runs these workshops called “Take Back the Speculum.” It is so brilliant. OK so she gets groups of women together in a yoga studio or living room or whatever, and everybody gets their own speculum and they have a light source and they have a mirror. And they are taught to insert the speculum and find their own cervix–visualise their own cervix. And to me that was such a… well first of all I had never seen my own cervix! That blew my mind. But I’ve seen thousands of cervixes…. But what blew my mind even more than seeing my own cervix was seeing women who had never held a speculum before… Competently, delicately gently, comfortably, and expertly finding their own cervix within minutes of being taught how to do it. You know, so the idea that this tool or this knowledge you know can exist only in the hands of people with an M.D. after their name is just ridiculous. And women really benefit from understanding their own bodies, their own anatomoies. And and what feels right… what feels right to them.
Jessica [00:33:43] Sam I totally agree with that and I need to see my own cervix! I just gave birth to my daughter two months ago at home. And just seeing video that, I could really understand what an incredible part of our body this is. But having a regular visual connection to that–or a regular practice around that would also be really helpful. Especially for prevention of disease when you can really spot and understand when something’s off or wrong.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:34:16] Yeah, tt’s very easy to do. I’ll talk you through it one day… We could even do a Zoom conference.
Jessica [00:34:22] Perfect. That will be the next interview. No more faces, legs open! So Jennifer, thank you for letting me pick your brain during this chat. I really appreciate your time and expertise and intelligence… And bold, diverse voice in the world. It’s really awesome to be connected and to be able to share more of what you’re up to, and hear all of your thoughts on vaginal steaming of course too.
Dr. Jennifer Lang [00:34:47] Sure, my pleasure. Thanks so much for reaching out.
Jessica [00:34:50] Sure! I’ll leave links for your books and any other information you want to share with me after this chat for our audience to click around into. Thanks again for everything and we’ll talk again soon.