PTSD: Pointing the Bone at Cancer Patients

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New research confirms your doctors -- and your beliefs about them -- have incredible power over your health destiny (if you let them).  

Awareness of the inextricable connection between body, mind, and emotions is an aspect of good health that is still foreign to many individuals.

The reality that a person’s thoughts affect their health outcomes is unlikely to be discussed with patients by mainstream doctors, despite an increasingly massive body of scientific research showing the power of the placebo effect. Once considered a sign of medical failure, the placebo effect occurs when a patient's belief in the power of an intervention to heal them is what produces the healing effect, not the medical intervention itself. Today, the value of a patient’s positive attitude towards their course of treatment is more widely accepted as beneficial to healing. Placebo’s negative counterpart, the nocebo effect, is still largely unstudied by medical science.

The Nocebo effect occurs when negative expectations of the patient regarding a treatment lead to the treatment having a more negative effect than it would otherwise have. This includes the mere suggestion by the trusted health authority, e.g. medical doctor, that something negative may occur. 

What the placebo and nocebo effects teach us is that while drugs clearly have physiological actions on the body, perception of benefit, as well as lack of perceived benefit, are primary determinants of the outcome of any course of treatment. Unfortunately, modern medical science has few tools in its kit to measure the pervasiveness of this effect. What cannot be measured is often ignored, but as medical science advances, signs of the intrinsic connectedness of mind and body continue to appear.

When The Diagnosis of Cancer Constitutes A New Trauma  

In a new study from the American Cancer Society[1] conducted jointly in Malaysia and Boston, USA, researchers assessed the mental health of recently-diagnosed cancer patients, looking for signs that mental health may influence long-term health outcomes. Nearly five-hundred adult patients, all within 1-month of their initial cancer diagnosis, were given a standardized mental health assessment then followed closely for a period of four years. Individuals exhibiting high levels of stress and/or depression at initial diagnosis were screened for PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients diagnosed with PTSD were provided with subsequent mental health assessments over the course of the study. All patients completed a structured mental health assessment at the 4-year follow-up, regardless of mental state at the time of diagnosis.

Final analysis determined that one-fifth of patients diagnosed with cancer developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their diagnosis. While overall rates of PTSD decreased over time, more than one-third of patients with PTSD had persistent or worsening PTSD symptoms 4-years later, despite having undergone successful cancer treatment.

The power of attention is clearly demonstrated in this study. Breast cancer patients who had access to emotional support counseling during initial stages of treatment were nearly four times less likely to develop PTSD at 6-months, illustrating the need for psychospiritual interventions during cancer treatment. Surprisingly, this positive distinction disappeared at the 4-year follow-up point, with breast cancer survivors’ rates of PTSD matching those of patients who had received no emotional support counseling. This presents significant evidence for the need to provide longer-term emotional health interventions in the wake of a stressful health incident.

Emotional wounds such as those suffered via a cancer diagnosis, require the same attention to healing as does the strictly physical body (in truth, you can not separate the two without doing harm). And yet, traditional medicine’s lack of awareness as to the inseparability of mind-body-emotions creates a system that is ill-equipped to meet a patient’s mental health needs. 

Aboriginal Shaman "Pointing Bone"

Modern Medicine's Bone To Pick

For all our modern sophistication, we still don't understand the psychic roots of the rituals and group-think processes that still subtend the language and symbolism of modern day clinical medical pratices. This latest study's finding of the traumatizing nocebic effects of modern cancer diagnosis is reminiscient of certain Aboriginal cultures of Australia and their ancient practice of “bone-pointing.” These tribes sometimes had a ritual executioner or 'bone pointer' known as a Kurdaitcha. Using a human bone (often a femur) that has been dried and honed like a needle, a Kurdaitcha will “point the bone” at a person who has been condemned to death. The bone is a type of psychic weapon; no physical contact is required to affect the lethal outcome. Individuals on the receiving end of this curse literally scare themselves to death! A “boned man” will refuse food and water, soon becoming listless and apathetic. Many will experience seizures or disabling fits, often succumbing to the effects of the death sentence within months or even days. This ancient ritual is played out in doctor’s offices the world-over, with the doctor assuming a priest-like role over the body and it’s fate.

In a striking correlation, a 2012 study concluded that a cancer diagnosis may be as fatal as the cancer itself. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the research analyzed six million Swedes via public health records, including more than half-a-million people who were diagnosed with cancer between 1991-2006.[2] Results indicated that individuals who were told by a doctor that they have cancer were 16 times more likely to commit suicide, and 27 times more likely to die of a heart-related death in the following week, versus people who were deemed cancer-free.

This raises alarming questions about the potential for harm in cases of misdiagnosis. A concerning study published in the Annals of Family Medicine explored this risk as it relates to a major and little-known harm of mammograms: the trauma associated with a false-positive diagnosis of breast cancer.[3] Results showed that women with false-positive diagnoses of breast cancer "consistently reported greater negative psychosocial consequences” even three years after being declared cancer-free, as compared to women who were never given a cancer diagnosis. Some of the psychosocial and existential parameters that women felt were negatively affected by their diagnosis include anxiety, feelings of attractiveness, soundness of sleep, social network, and personal values. Women with false-positive findings reported changes in existential values and inner calmness as significant as those reported by women with cancer. 2011 research shows that 50% of women undergoing 10 years of mammograms experience the risk of a false-positive screening.[4] Such diagnostic bone-pointing could negatively affect the health of millions of women each year.

Cancer is perhaps the most traumatic diagnosis a person can experience in their lifetime. It’s no wonder many cancer patients live in fear that their cancer may not really be gone, or that it could return at any time. Like someone who surreptitiously “dodged a bullet” and can’t quite believe their luck, the physical body recovers but wounds remain in the psyche. The time has come for a radical transformation in the way that we understand, screen for, prevent, and treat cancer. We must step away from fear-based medicine and embrace the powerful healing possibilities latent in our bodies and minds. Studies like these prove there is a need for both the patient and the health professional to realize the preemptive power of the mind and emotions to affect -- and in some cases determine -- one's health destiny. 


[2] Fang Fang, M.D., Ph.D., Katja Fall, et al.Suicide and Cardiovascular Death after a Cancer Diagnosis. April 5, 2012
N Engl J Med 2012; 366:1310-1318. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1110307

[3] John Brodersen, Volkert Dirk Siersma. Long-term psychosocial consequences of false-positive screening mammography. Ann Fam Med. 2013 Mar-Apr;11(2):106-15. PMID: 23508596

[4] Rebecca A Hubbard, Karla Kerlikowske, Chris I Flowers, Bonnie C Yankaskas, Weiwei Zhu, Diana L Miglioretti. Cumulative probability of false-positive recall or biopsy recommendation after 10 years of screening mammography: a cohort study. Ann Intern Med. 2011 Oct 18 ;155(8):481-92. PMID: 22007042

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GreenMedInfo or its staff.
Sayer Ji
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