Do you read things even though you know they’ll make you angry? I do sometimes, and apparently I’m not alone; a word has recently been coined for the phenomenon: “hate-reading”. The other day, I saw an article entitled Calling an Ordinary Health Problem a Disease Leads to Bigger Problems, and decided to do a little hate-reading. I’ve written about how life-changing it was for me as a teenager to learn that my strange digestive problems had a name – IBS — and, with it, support groups, and a certain understanding among medical professionals. The article I’d come upon seemed like it was going to push the opposite opinion, saying, as others have, that conditions like mine aren’t important. As I started reading, things only got worse: Aaron E. Carroll, the article’s author, appeared to be attacking the importance of infant gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which my son, like 50% of his baby brethren, suffers from.
But surprisingly enough, I finished the article with my hate-reading thirst completely unquenched. It turns out Carroll isn’t ridiculing “new” diseases, the way Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen did in a piece I covered a few months ago. Instead, he explains how a legitimate, albeit common and non-lethal health issue like infant GERD can tend to be blown out of proportion by medical professionals – and, consequently, by worried parents.
What this leads to is attention, funding, and other resources being diverted from far more serious health conditions. On top of that, Carroll reports, the treatments that have been developed for “non-diseases” like infant GERD can in some cases be more dangerous than the conditions themselves. So, okay, I didn’t finish the article as enraged as I’d expected – not at all, in fact. But there is something I wish I could say to Carroll, even so. Not only do I understand the parents who want to cure their babies’ GERD; I believe trying to alleviate any kind of suffering is a worthy goal. Regardless of how serious a condition might be, if a person is in pain, why shouldn’t steps be taken to stop that? I wouldn’t do anything extreme to relieve my son’s GERD, and of course I don’t think it should be the first on the list of diseases we need to cure, but his father and I do use homeopathic and home remedies, as well as a light digestion aid, in the hope that he’ll at least feel a little better.
On a very different level, a friend of mine was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. The symptom that sent him to the doctor was intense pain in his arm – due, it turned out, to a tumor leaning on one of his nerves. While he’s grateful for everything that’s been done to analyze and fight his cancer, he’s angry that no one seemed to worry much about the pain he was experiencing. It was only by insisting that he was given medication to help manage it. In terms of saving his life, getting rid of the pain was secondary to shrinking his tumors, of course, but shouldn’t both have been considered important? I agree with Carroll that we shouldn’t over-treat non-serious health issues, and that medical research and funding should be focused on conditions we desperately need to find cures for. But I also think it’s important for him – and for all of us — to remember that one of the goals of medicine is to bring relief to those who are suffering. Hopefully the medical community will find a more balanced approach to achieving this goal. What’s better: a world with no cancer, or a world no cancer or GERD? What kind of world would you want to live in: a world with no diseases, or a world with no diseases or suffering?