You’ve Got to Believe in Something

My mom had a deep faith in modern medicine. Not only was she a biologist, but also her life’s work was in discovery of new drugs. When she was diagnosed with cancer she consulted the best minds in the field and each new regimen offered her hope. My mom’s optimism reminded me of the way some other cancer patients and their families describe finding courage and solace in prayer, spirituality or stories of miraculous recoveries.

With two scientist-parents, I grew up in a home where the empirical findings were king and anecdotal evidence was scorned. We shook our heads at the credulous masses that believed that someone’s miracle was anything more than coincidence. In our house examples of “correlation does not equal causation” were suitable dinner-time chat. The last can be blamed mostly on my dad, a man who loves logical reasoning.

All of this explains why I approach alternative medicine with considerable reservations. Testimonials of astounding healing and broad happy claims put me right into skeptic mode, sneering at the logical fallacies. I tell myself that just because a treatment hasn’t been proven doesn’t make it ineffective. Perhaps science just needs time to examine the ancient practices to see their merit. And yet, lying on the table with the earnest Reiki healer’s hands a few inches above my body, I can’t fully relax and trust that she is manipulating my chi. It just seems preposterous.

Why, you might ask, would such a cynic even walk into such an office? Answer: I have lost faith in modern medicine. I try alternative therapies because traditional ones have failed. I don’t mean that my mom died and I became an unbeliever. My disillusionment started long, long before.

From the time I was pretty little, I’ve suffered from all kinds of chronic problems: asthma, allergies, joint inflammation, headaches, and TMJ. My mom brought me to specialists and over the years every new try gave me a surge of hope that this doctor or this pill or this regimen was going to fix me. But each time, I felt no better. Sometimes doctors gave up with an apologetic shrug or sometimes they got rid of me by recommending a treatment just too horrible to contemplate (surgery, in-patient i.v. drip of a drug, a new cocktail of medications) with no assurance other than this procedure might have some effect.

I always held that my attitude had nothing to do with the outcome, but I read an article in the July/August issue of Atlantic that has made me wonder if my doubt itself has made the treatments fail. The article, considering alternative medicine’s role inside and outside traditional medicine, concludes that our current medical system relies heavily on the placebo effect. Sure, in order to reach the market, pharmaceuticals have to be proven to work better than a placebo. They just don’t have to work much better than a sugar pill. (Antidepressants in particular were singled out as drugs that worked only a tiny bit better than placebo and only for a small percentage of patients.)

The writer suggests that people go to doctors hoping for some remedy that will make them feel better, and often the patient’s trust in the doctor and the therapy will have positive physical effects, whether the medicine itself is effective or not. The ritual is more important than the drug.

Likewise, alternative practitioners can be more effective than traditional doctors in treating certain chronic conditions by creating a healing ritual, taking time to listen and giving patients advice for healthier lifestyle. It matters not if the actual procedures are effective.

That means the placebo effect could be a side effect-free treatment in a whole range of conditions. I only need to figure out how to fool myself into believing.

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