What’s in a name?

This blog title is from the famous line in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:  “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Shakespeare also wrote in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  The following guest post from my colleague, Rich Evans in Arizona, focuses on the discovery that a medical diagnosis — being labeled with a name — can affect our thinking and in turn our health.  Here’s Rich…

Names are powerful.  Lincoln, Mount Everest, the Yankees, bring forth strong associations for each of us, depending upon what we have learned and accepted from the opinions of others and from our own experiences.  On July 29th, in The New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reported on a rather courageous research report by medical scientists recommending changes in the approach to detection and treatment of cancer, including “eliminating the word cancer entirely from some common diagnoses”.  A significant point in the report was that too often the “cancer” label led the patient to an assumptive conclusion: if the word cancer was mentioned in the patient’s diagnosis, then the probability of death was assumed.  As a result, often more drastic procedures were undergone than were necessary.

A telling statement in the article was, “The advent of highly sensitive screening technology in recent years has increased the likelihood of…findings detected during medical scans that most likely would never cause a problem”.  However, once doctors and patients find an early symptom they feel compelled to conduct a biopsy, and treat and remove it, “often at great physical and psychological pain and risk to the patient…The issue is often referred to as overdiagnosis, and the resulting unnecessary procedures to which patients are subjected are called overtreatment.”

While much of humanity would find there are useful medical interventions that save the health of patients or, at least, forestall more severe consequences, this report explains how a name of a disease, fraught with terminal overtones, can create exaggerated fear and lead to wrong actions and, perhaps, actually foster more severe illness and harmful procedures.

This doesn’t surprise me.  After college I served in the US Peace Corps in a rural part of the southwestern Philippines.  We volunteers had been told about the possibility of malaria in ways that made that “name” fairly alarming.  It was as if someone had planted a terminal seed.  Within a few months I became ill and was extremely dizzy and incoherent at times.

I had always relied on prayer for my well-being, prayer that is the conscious affirmation of man’s, my, divinely natural health, as Christ Jesus taught and proved.  Healing in this way soon came about and I was free of this condition in a couple of weeks.

The Peace Corps physician was required to conduct a physical examination of me and the diagnosis was blackwater fever, an acute and often fatal form of malaria, which had regressed and become non-threatening.  I don’t think knowing those names beforehand would have been helpful to my healing, as they would have implanted greater fear and more obstacles to overcome.  Patterns of consequences would have been predicted by my physician friend out of concern for my survival, inadvertently germinating and watering the seed of fear.  Instead, without the labeling, I was less burdened in my spiritual work and able to return to my normal life and move on.  There has never been a recurrence of any symptoms.  For me, that name holds no power.

The lesson here is that the name of a disease is not the truth about anyone.  It is a point of view, the accuracy and consequences of which can vary considerably.  It is bold for this report to break from historical labeling patterns.  The direction of the report is encouraging in the elimination of unnecessary fear and treatment and in its acknowledgement that perhaps mitigation of disease starts by avoiding names that alarm, for what we hold in consciousness about disease may play a large role in outcomes.

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