I wrote recently about healing, in theological terms, being about acceptance of reality, preparation for the future, liberation, rather than about medical cure. Heal = salve = save. Here are some more phrases: healing as coming to terms with, at-one-ment. I’ve been provoked to think more about this as a result of discovering that the Burzynski Clinic in the US is attempting to silence a 17 yr old young man for having the temerity to point out to the world on his blog that the clinic’s claims of offering a cure for cancer are not founded on robust scientific evidence. The young man has gone so far as to call Stanislaw Burzynski ‘a quack and a fraud’.
Why do we invest so much in doctors and drug companies? Why are they paid so much? At least part of the reason is that people can’t come to terms with the fact that life is a terminal condition. We imagine that the next new drug, or treatment, or whatever, will allow us to live for ever—or at least, for that bit longer. Now, let’s imagine you’re expecting to kick the bucket any day, then a new drug unexpectedly becomes available and you are told you have an extra month. What will you do in that extra month? Will you travel to where you’d always wanted to go? Will you write your life story? Will you watch more TV? Will you make sure that the people you think are eejits know your opinion of them? (That’s a very tempting option.) Perhaps you will try to make peace with people you know you’ve offended or hurt. You might even try to let people who’ve hurt you know that you bear them no ill will. You would then, in your last days, have a lighter heart, carry fewer burdens, and die more serenely. You—we—can start this now, by living each day as ‘twere our last. Because it might be. Life—to repeat—is terminal, and we never know when the game’s up. Wiping out this disease today means we die of something else tomorrow.
This takes me back decades to when I was a medical student and junior hospital doctor in south London. I ministered to dying babies, children and adults, and to their to parents and families. I began to wonder about the distinction between medicine as easing suffering, medicine as restoration, and medicine as prolonging a life of suffering or even unconsciousness. I witnessed the switching off of life-support systems for people who had effectively ‘died’ months earlier. I witnessed ‘treatments’ that were little short of medical experiments dressed up as false hope.
Research in medicine has enabled us to move on from surgery as practised in mediaeval times—see the illustration at the top. Most medical research is of the highest ethical standards, but some is driven by the need for researchers to climb the greasy pole of career advancement. Peer-reviewed assessment can result in the stifling of innovative thought because it challenges accepted wisdom, threatening to diminish the reputations of reviewers. Research funded by drug companies should always be most closely scrutinized in case commercial concerns have distorted methods and/or findings (see or read Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener). And of course, medical research is always at the mercy of charlatans. When people are at their lowest, they are at their most vulnerable. That is why quacks and frauds must be exposed for what they are.
You are perhaps beginning to see that I was never cut out to be a researcher.