Sunday, February 29, 2004

Facing Facts, or Not

Health Day News reports the findings of Australian cancer researcher Penelope Schofield in an article titled "Optimism Doesn't Prolong Lung Cancer Patients' Survival". The study found that lung cancer patients died at about the same rates within about the same periods regardless of their rating on a test of attitude and level of optimism. In fact, the research suggests that placing too high an importance on the patient's optimism may add to their overall emotional burden.

While I find these results of interest, what comes next in the article struck me as a glaring example of how much most people resist factual evidence when it contradicts their hopes and beliefs. The researcher "is quick to add" that her study focused only on lung cancer, a notoriously deadly disease, and that patients with other more treatable cancers might well benefit from a more positive attitude.

Following that comes this sentence:

What's more, the findings shouldn't prompt lung cancer patients to give up hope, American cancer experts say, because keeping faith often enhances a patient's quality of life.

To me, this statement directly contradicts the results of the study. I think the article included the sentence because somebody, the author or the editors or management at HealthDay, felt a need to soften the facts of the study with some totally unwarranted optimism of their own.

In ancient Greece, hope dwelled in Pandora's box of evils and remained behind when all the other evils escaped. Many view this with a Westerner's conception of hope, as something that gives strength and enables triumph. That hope remained in the box meant that we can as humans use it to triumph over the evils at large in the world. The Greeks, by contrast, considered hope the ultimate evil, because it blinds us to the reality of our situations and prevents us from taking the steps necessary to meet the demands life puts on us.

I admit that I find this interpretation of hope quite appealing. Having helped two of my dearest family members through the process of dying from lung cancer, I feel somewhat qualified to assess the effects of pressure for optimism on the patient's mental state. I found my loved ones most peaceful and lucid when they felt most free to express their comprehension of impending death. In each case, we came to a moment when they said in effect, "I know I will die soon and I accept it." In that moment, we all, patient and family alike, found a comfort that hope could never provide.

It seems to me that those who believe in an afterlife fear death most intensely. I always wonder--if heaven promises so much, why resist the necessary step through the door? On the other hand, people who have found no reason to assume that anything survives death seem to have the easiest time letting go. In my experience.

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