In the last few weeks, I’ve come across two cases where the thoughts of doctors made patients in their charge measurably worse.
After developing a swollen gland under her armpit, a girlfriend of mine went to see her doctor. He took cursory look at her, then pronounced: “I have some bad news. It very well could be lymphoma.”
This was on Friday. Since her blood and other tests would not be carried out until Monday, Deborah had the weekend to digest the fact that she might or might not have cancer.
Then, a woman I’ll call Sandra attending a workshop of mine a week ago was distraught. After suffering numbness and a persistent feeling of pins and needles in her legs, she’d been to the doctor, who’d told her he was convinced that it was multiple sclerosis. Once again, this woman had weeks to consider the possibility that she might be developing a progressive degenerative disease before being given any tests. All her thoughts now, she said, were filled with an image of herself sitting in a wheelchair.
As it turned out, my friend Deborah’s tests came back negative. She had a simple case of swollen glands and in another week, the swelling subsided.
In the case of Sandra, after speaking with her for five minutes, I learned that she had a mouth fill of silver fillings and had recently had one removed.
The kinds of symptoms she experienced often result from simple mercury poisoning and resolve themselves when the fillings are removed. But her symptoms could also result from a B12 deficiency. Who knows until the patient is consulted in depth.
These days it’s fashionable for doctors to level with patients about what they have. But in both cases, what did the instant diagnosis serve? In too many instances, attaching a label to an illness only serves to worsen the disease. It implants the thought, and the thought itself is enough to makes things worse.
Diagnosis – a modern form of cursing
Larry Dossey has called this a hex diagnosis – the medical equivalent of a curse.
One British man in his mid-fifties had highly benign form of leukaemia. He had never been told the true nature of his condition, and a number of years remained well, periodically visiting his local hospital for steroids.
One day he never showed up for his check up. It turned out that he’d looked over his doctor’s shoulder at his case notes and seen the word ‘leukaemia’. After that day he’d gone rapidly downhill. Three weeks later he was dead, even though no one could find any biological cause for his rapid decline.
Saved by her doctor’s thoughts
A doctor’s thoughts and words have everything to do with saving a patient’s life. Some years ago, when my then 78-year-old mother-in-law, Edie, was diagnosed by her local doctor as having end-stage breast cancer. She was told she had three months to live.
As soon as she was given this gloomy prognosis, she began going rapidly downhill —vomiting up her food, collapsing in town.
Fortunately, because of our work we knew of Patrick Kingsley, a medical pioneer in Leicestershire who’d had many cancer survivors.
I was in the room with her when he examined her, and he didn’t flinch when he saw her breast, which at the time looked like raw meat. ‘We can handle that,’ he said with offhand confidence.
His regime was simple — a diet and supplement programme combined intravenous vitamin C.
Several months later, the cancer, which supposedly was beyond hope or treatment, had completely disappeared.
I believe Edie’s cure mostly had to do with the thoughts surrounding her: her certainty that Patrick would cure her and Patrick’s steadfast refusal to make a judgement call about ‘how long’ the illness would linger or how long she would live.
Patients are not a diagnosis and symptoms do not necessarily equal a disease. Every illness is utterly individual — a complex brew of dietary, environmental, mental and emotional challenges. Very few doctors have the humility to realize that no one, no matter how learned, can predict how a given patient will respond to the challenge of illness and healing, or say with certainty who will live and who will die.
Six ways to avoid a hex diagnoses
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