Headline: “Woman cured of throat cancer after licking Elvis stamp”
|Many years ago, a colleague gave me a copy of an article from a tabloid. A woman with progressive swallowing and talking problems was, sadly, found to have throat cancer.
To boost her spirits, she listened to Elvis tapes and bought some of the brand new Elvis stamps. Shortly after paying some bills and using the new stamps, she noticed that she felt much better. "All of a sudden I could swallow again ... I couldn't believe it." A medical expert confirmed that her cancer had completely disappeared! He was quoted in the tabloid as saying, "Medically speaking, her sudden total recovery cannot be explained."
The patient gave credit to the King. "It was Elvis sending his love from the spirit world."
It certainly was an inspiring story.
Unfortunately, these types of Elvis-related medical cures are not common. Perhaps, there are some reasons for this:
- Elvis stamps are all but out of circulation now. The stamp pictured in the article sold for 29¢, which has not been the first class postage rate since 1995.
- No one licks stamps anymore. What if someone could be cured of throat cancer by licking one of the current 41¢ self-adhesive Liberty Bell stamps? We would never know.
- Possibly, the cure was possible only because the Elvis stamp got close to the cancer during the actual licking process. What if the person had cancer of a different part of the body? How would she have needed to moisten the Elvis stamp to have an effect on, say, a brain tumor?
Dr. Sherwin Nuland, in the epilogue of his book, The Mysteries Within, writes about two different approaches to understanding the “Truth.” Empiricism, which is embraced by “traditional” Western medicine, insists on data. In Empiricism, Truth can change when enough data show that a prevalent understanding is faulty. Rationalism, on the other hand, fits any available data to a preconceived image of what the Truth is. In this view, Truth is fixed and no amount of data can alter it. I suspect that most adherents to the “Elvis stamps can cure throat cancer theory” would tend to fall into the Rationalism camp.
The Elvis stamp story provides an extreme example, of course, but frequently I am handed printouts on various dietary supplements and “cancer cures” that have never been empirically tested yet have unshakably loyal supporters. The discussions I have had about these products satisfies no one. Sometimes, it appears that Empiricism and Rationalism are very, very far apart.
My training and convictions put me firmly in the Empiricism camp. Still, would it be okay to keep a few Elvis stamps around, just in case?
The following is feedback received for this blog:
Excellent post. Elvis has been credited with many wondrous things, but I have not heard of this throat cancer cure.
I think some of this comes down to the idea of "belief." We all believe things that are not scientifically shown. When we say "I believe the Colts will win the Super Bowl" (or perhaps the Packers, in your case), that is meant more as just "I feel that they will." This woman can very well believe that the stamp did it and not be irrational if she accepts other possibilities. The problem comes when people believe this stuff despite contrary data or other more plausible explanations. They believe the facts to be scientific, when in fact they are nothing more than opinion.
Magical thinking is common, especially for those with diseases that have no known cure. It is understandable that patients do not want to accept their diagnosis and instead build false hopes on implausible "cures." I might also do this if I were terminally ill. However, it is dishonest to feed false hope, and it opens the door to snake oil and its salesmen. Some physicians feel that it's kinder not to disabuse people of their magic cures (that there is a psychological benefit to having hope in a placebo) - and I can respect that. However, if the patient is spending money (perhaps their life savings) on snake oil - or putting off getting their affairs in order or taking trips - all for a treatment that has no possible benefit - I would want to have a frank discussion with them. Many times we can talk through the feelings that are driving the patient towards Elvis stamps - and that discussion has more therapeutic value (in my opinion) than the stamps ever will.
- Val Jones