LOS ALTOS, CA, August 12, 2013 — Towards the end of the nineteenth century, religion reformer and health care pioneer, Mary Baker Eddy, realized something that the medical faculty has been affirming ever since: When it comes to treating disease, doctors should be careful what they say to their patients.
“Doctors should not implant disease in the thoughts of their patients, as they so frequently do, by declaring disease to be a fixed fact, even before they go to work to eradicate the disease through the material faith which they inspire,” Eddy said. “Instead of furnishing thought with fear, they should try to correct this turbulent element of mortal mind by the influence of divine Love which casteth out fear.”
A report published last month by a working group of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) came to essentially the same conclusion, albeit without the theological overlay. The mere mention of the word “cancer” in a doctor’s diagnosis, they said, could very well increase the patient’s fear, causing them to seek out what many experts consider to be unnecessary and potentially harmful treatment. The solution, they said, is to eliminate this word from some diagnoses.
“The word ‘cancer’ often invokes the specter of an inexorably lethal process,” the group wrote in their report, “however, cancers are heterogeneous and can follow multiple paths, not all of which progress to metastases and death, and include indolent disease that causes no harm during the patient’s lifetime.”
What can cause harm, however, is the treatment – or overtreatment, as some call it – that any overdiagnosed or misdiagnosed disease might set in motion.
“By 1990, many doctors were recommending hormone replacement therapy to healthy middle-aged women and P.S.A. screening for prostate cancer to older men,” wrote Dartmouth professor of medicine, H. Gilbert Welch, in a New York Times editorial last year. “But in 2002, a randomized trial showed that preventive hormone replacement caused more problems (more heart disease and breast cancer) than it solved (fewer hip fractures and colon cancer). Then, in 2009, trials showed that P.S.A. screening led to many unnecessary surgeries and had a dubious effect on prostate cancer deaths.”
According to a 2005 Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal survey, over half of all U.S. adults choose to forego their doctor’s recommended treatment plan as a way to protect themselves against such overtreatment. Others never have their prescription filled or skip diagnostic screenings altogether.
Still others opt for a more proactive approach, one that is less about avoidance and more about a mental engagement with some variation of the aforementioned “influence of divine Love” – a frame of mind that many have found reduces fear and contributes to the cure of disease. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, as of 2007 this applies to just under half the adult population, a considerable increase from the roughly 14% who were so engaged in 1999.
Does this mean that by simply renaming certain conditions or by tapping into a perhaps unknown or unacknowledged divine influence we’ll be able to rid the world of cancer? Maybe not. That said, if the NCI report is to be believed – not to mention the natural inclination of nearly half the adult population – it is a fear-reducing, health-inducing step in the right direction.
Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.
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