Toward the end of the 19th century, religious reformer and health-care pioneer Mary Baker Eddy realized something that medical experts have affirmed 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 (the) mortal mind by the influence of divine Love which casteth out fear.”
A report recently published by a working group of the National Cancer Institute 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 patients’ fear, causing them to seek out what many experts consider to be unnecessary and potentially harmful treatments. The solution, they said, is to eliminate the word from some diagnoses.
“The word ‘cancer’ often invokes the specter of an inexorably lethal process,” the group wrote in their report.
What can cause harm is the treatment – or overtreatment, some would say – 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 University 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, more than half of all U.S. adults choose to forego their doctors’ recommended treatment as a way to protect against such overtreatment. Many never fill their prescriptions, or they skip diagnostic screenings altogether.
Others opt for a more proactive approach, one 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 of the adult population, a considerable increase from the roughly 14 percent so engaged in 1999.
Does this mean that by simply renaming certain conditions or by tapping into a perhaps unknown or unacknowledged divine influence that we’ll be able to rid the world of cancer? Maybe not. But if the NCI report is to be believed – not to mention the natural inclination of nearly half of the adult population – it is a fear-reducing, health-inducing step in the right direction.
Eric Nelson, a Los Altos resident, serves as media and legislative spokesman for Christian Science in Northern California. The First Church of Christ Scientist is located at 401 University Ave., Los Altos, and the public Reading Room at 60 Main St. For more information, visit cschurchlosaltos.