A pill may help stave off death. It doesn’t teach you how to live

We see illness as a technical problem with a technical solution

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Science gives us headlines. Wisdom does not. So the news that aspirin could reduce the incidence of cancer was bound to make the front pages this week. Who is not concerned about cancer? Who would not want to hear about a cheap and easy way to avoid it?

But to read this story is to appreciate the extent to which we have adopted a mindset that keeps us alienated from our bodies, abjectly reliant on healthcare professionals, and always anxiously attentive to news of some unlikely panacea.

Actually, it wasn’t news. There was already plenty of fuss in 2012 over the idea that an aspirin a day might keep the tumour away. The study published last month in Annals of Oncology and presented this week at a press briefing by Professor Jack Cuzick of Queen Mary, University of London, involved no new research at all but was a review of previous studies.

Who cares, you ask, so long as the results are reliable? But are they? For the layman the article in Annals of Oncology is daunting, but a useful summary on the NHS website will spare you the effort. It concluded that “while the findings on aspirin and cancer show promise, it is not clear that the results are reliable from the methods reportedly used to compile this review”.

It’s perplexing. Aspirin was initially identified in willow bark which has been used as a herbal cure for inflammation and pain control for at least 2,500 years. It’s been around pretty much as long as civilisation. It’s also been known that on the downside it causes stomach pain and internal bleeding. So why now do we have to get into hugely complex speculative statistics – 50 per cent fewer deaths from oesophageal cancer as against a 70 per cent increase in deaths from peptic ulcer if the entire population between 50 and 65 takes an aspirin a day – especially if each article with its optimistic headlines then ends with the warning to consult our GPs before taking any decision?

Yes, those same GPs who, as another report told us this week, are prescribing more and more antibiotics for banal ailments like the common cold, because they can’t resist the pressure of patients who believe their problem can be solved only with a serious drug. So all that expensive medical research and melodramatic rhetoric ends in a battle of wills at the GP’s surgery and a decision based on unreliable information.

Is it just sloppy journalism? No. We are all involved. Let’s leave aside the question of whether the science is credible and ask instead: what really is the function of reports like this? What happens in our heads as a result? What needs are satisfied?

First, we are reminded of death and disease. Some 130,000 fewer deaths with daily aspirin! Imaginary cadavers are piled and unpiled – 30 per cent here, 50 per cent there. Knowledge as statistics. Still, we don’t turn away. We read on. In a way, we love to be anxious. We love to do complicated sums around our own decease. It gives us an illusion of control.

Then the body is divided up into the parts that can betray you: colorectal cancer, oesophageal cancer, stomach cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, heart attack, peptic ulcer, stroke. Along with this dismembering comes the technical vocabulary, the words we would never use when talking about ourselves: colorectal, oesophageal. Your body is a complex thing that experts understand better than you ever will.

Next we get the reassurance: this sophisticated biological machine is the object of ceaseless ongoing study by skilled scientists who some time in the future will overcome these threats to your existence. Meanwhile, they have put together what information they can to help you to make an informed decision. You can intervene to change your destiny. Aspirin or no aspirin? Dilemma! What better way to while away an hour or two than worrying whether I should be taking aspirin or not?

Essentially, fear and hope are stimulated in equal doses. We’re wired up. No mention is ever made of the body’s slow maturing and ageing, its gathering and shrugging off of ailments, its growing awareness of being involved in a process that all flesh must go through. No mention is ever made that your body is you. It’s a model that is bound to medicalise society. We talk about our bodies like cars, giving them whatever the experts tell us will improve performance. If we could trade this one in for a new one, we would.

Some years ago, faced with a worsening array of abdominal pains and urinary problems, I had the opportunity to experience the positive and negative extremes of modern medicine. Needless to say, I wanted a quick fix so as to get back to business as usual. My body was essentially a support system for me, Tim Parks, my career. That’s how we live. The doctors were ready to oblige. Their job is to fix things and they have wonderfully sophisticated diagnostic tools, surgical instruments, refined pharmaceuticals. Enlarged prostate, they announced confidently. Bound to be. But the scans and X-ray videos showed no such thing. Frustrated, the doctors insisted. They had put me in this category and that was that.

Very soon I was being pushed towards a choice between prostate surgery or a lifetime of adrenalin blockers; the quick or the slow fix for a problem I didn’t have. Although life was becoming impossible – at this point I could barely sit down for the pain – I decided against both “solutions” and walked out on the doctors.

It is a strange feeling when you abandon the mindset that sees illness as a technical problem with a technical solution. Like leaving a family, or changing country, you feel you are alone in a scary space. You realise how attached you were to that way of life, how much those news stories about illness and cure reassured you. What now?

I was lucky. After much reading and trawling the internet, I concluded that it was most likely that my problems had to do with an increasing rigidity of the pelvic floor, a cup-shaped muscle that holds all the messy bits together at the bottom of the pelvis. It was a new approach. Quite probably, I had got into this sorry state by sitting at a computer tense and worried for 20 years, and generally living an ordinarily stressful, wired-up modern life. Solutions suggested were anal massage (in California) or deep relaxation. Wonder why I took the latter…

But it was exactly the opposite of the quick fix. When the first results came, I realised that until then I had had no real knowledge of what it meant for the body, or rather for me, to be relaxed. I had confused sedentary pleasures – televison, reading, sunbathing – with relaxation. The methods of breathing and mental body‑scanning I agreed to follow – fortunately not described as mindfulness or meditation or I would instinctively have rejected them – required an emotional discipline I wasn’t used to. Basically, the mind’s verbal soundtrack, all that constant talking ourselves through things that we do, had to be replaced for the space of an hour with a silent awareness of every inch of the physical body in the present moment. In short, to relax, or so they told me, the mind had to inhabit the body, the body to mesh with the mind. It took time, but over about 18 months, doing this every day, the pains slowly receded and can now be kept at bay by continuing in this way.

 

That was five years ago. But the practice, which in the end I was bound to admit was a form of meditation, did more than solve my chronic pain problems. The forced awareness of identity with the body – an experience, eventually, of the oneness of mind and flesh – began to alter my thinking about health and medicine and hence my response to all the stories that tell us this or that cure is round the corner, as if a point might finally come where there was nothing left to die of.

It is not that one would ever want to deny the achievements of medical science, let alone miss out on the solutions it offers when there are solutions, but this constant mental projection of future suffering, empty, jargon-ridden conjecture and positing of impossible dilemmas simply adds to the tensions that make us ill. This way of thinking about our lives is actually part of the problem: a collective fever that seems to know no aspirin.

The more one steps back from the fizz of hypochondriac speculation to focus in silence with oneself on the simple fact of being here, the more a new awareness will tell us that this or that habit, emotion or part of our diet is detrimental. The smoke, the alcohol, the anger; you can feel them on your skin. Likewise the positive emotions (rarer, alas). You begin to understand why people once talked of bile and phlegm. And you find it a little easier to adjust your behaviour accordingly.

This is no discovery of mine. It’s not new and it’s certainly not news. But it is a whole lot more interesting, and more useful, than another dose of aspirin fever.

Tim Parks’s books include ‘Teach Us to Sit Still – A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing’, published by Vintage. His most recent novel is ‘Painting Death’, published by Harvill Secker

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