Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Medicine is Not a Pure Science

"I am always doing what I can't do yet in order to learn how to do it."
~ Vincent Van Gogh

Nor is it a perfect art.

Because I don't want to write about ruptured ovarian cysts or appendicitis, or the fact that modern medicine still doesn't have ALL the answers, I'm going to offer this, which has been posted to the Great Internet for you to view through your super-smart, hi-tech phone or gaming device or laptop or maybe even your TV or some other souped-up thingamajig:

Vincent van Gogh - Saint Rémy, June-July 1889. Oil on canvas.

We live in two worlds now. The touch, see, feel real world, and the virtual world of floating ephemera.

Isn't it incredible that in today's far far advanced and highly invested world of technology—a world built of tangible hardware, computers, routers, towers, cables, satellites, and a vast and not so tangible infrastructure of protocols, signals, foreign languages, nodes, interconnected networks and other things that I will never understand—where at the touch of a small screen one is easily transported to a world wide web enabling access to nearly anything the heart desires, that such a world, a magical world, can exist while scientists around the real world still have not found a cure for cancer or other persistent disease and illness?

How is this possible? How is it that medicine has advanced as it has in the past half century or so, but we are still unable to fully understand the human body? Why don't we know why we have an appendix? We know it has no discernable function. We know it looks like a witch's mangy finger. But what's it doing in the human body? And why can no diagnostic instrument see mine? Why can't we walk into a box, have the body scanned, and walk out with a full diagnosis and remedy for the ailment? Is it funding? Where does all the money go? Is there more money invested in the tech industry rather than life science and research? Are people getting tired of donating to life science and cancer research, seeing little return on their investment?

It's infuriating. It's not all true though, at least not based on what I found here, reprinted from Nature Biotechnology. So medicine doesn't move as quickly as the virtual world (though I bet it moves quicker than my bowels). This, I understand. But medicine has made giant leaps as technology has advanced, so what I don't understand is how we can all talk to each other like this, how we can connect and maneuver and solve problems in this virtual world, while scientific and cancer research seems to make little headway.

And in the case of  women, medical advancement seems much slower. (Every time I have that annual mammogram I think, If I were a man there'd be an easierless painfulway than this.)

But I'm no expert. I'll tell you where I put my money (the little I have), though: medical research. And if I had to give up the internet in order for us to find a cure for cancer and other ghastly illnesses of the world, then I'd do it. Hell, I'd cut off my left ear.

I miss my dad. And Rich.

(All right, well, I guess I wrote just a little about the things I didn't want to write aboutMy apologies if this post seems a bit disjointed—I'm on a teensy-weensy bit of painkiller medication. Nothing serious, just the damn cyst. Or appendicitis. Who knows?)


  1. Quite an interesting point of view. I've never thought of it like that, and never compared the two things. You are undoubtedly correct though in my opinion. Why is there such an awe-inspiring creation such as the internet, but no cure for cancer? Is it that people don't care as much about the latter? Perhaps. It might take on the same idea as getting up early in the morning (sorry for such a lowly comparison). One always has trouble waking up early to do things one really doesn't care about. But when it comes to getting up for something enjoyable, it isn't quite so horrible. Who knows, maybe because not everyone is affected by cancer an such it isn't so important to them, while almost everyone wants or has access to the internet and social networking. Sorry for such a lengthy comment, but I really enjoyed reading this post. Well written.

  2. I agree Jayne. It’s so hard to fathom why we haven’t discovered a cure for cancer, or a treatment that doesn’t poison you and make you wish you would die.
    I lost my mother and many friends to cancer. I just hate it. I’ll match your ear and raise you a hand.
    Perhaps in our lifetime…

  3. Science is making steady progress, but will never have ALL answers. For instance, science will never be able to prove the existence or non-existence of God. That's religion.

    Cool picture. I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam some ten years ago. Recommended >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. I was going to cure cancer. I was going to save Mom and Poppy, and maybe a few others, but I got distracted by Facebook and Blogger. Clearly, my prioroties are in question.

  5. I get mad at all the money spent on trying to cure cancer with drugs -- which we have no real reason to think we will ever be able to do -- versus the amount spent preventing it by identifying and removing its causes, which we have every reason to believe we could do. Cancer (like Diabetes) doesn't appear in populations until "civilization" impinges on them. But we still, after all this time, don't know what the exact set of things we introduce into the equation is, that has such disastrous effects.

    I don't think we'll ever cure cancer, because there are so many different kinds that operate in so many different ways. It's not a disease like smallpox: it's a zillion different things that go wrong with cell replication. I do think that eventually we may learn to avoid it -- but only if we spend serious money on it.

    Anyway -- hugs and I hope your trouble, whatever it is, clears up rapidly and completely! xoxo

  6. It is much easier to understand and manipulate those things that are man made vs. those things that are not.

    I'm sorry about your pain and I hope you feel better soon.

  7. Jayne, your post is coming very close to hitting the proverbial nail on the head.

    In short, money. Which scientific projects are funded and where the money actually goes and where the profits are.

    I have had a post in draft that I have not finished yet, because I perceive (I might be wrong) that there is no interest.

    It is tremendously frustrating that profits supersede human health.

  8. you know why they call it a medical practice, right? because they are practicing all the time. but the difference between advances in medical care and advances in technology are two totally different beasts. we can make advances easily on stuff we invent because we had to understand it before we could build it. we have not invented bodies or life and all it's complexities, we don't, and may never, fully understand life and the body and how it functions or even how it came to be. to say that the appendix or the tonsils have no function is ridiculous. it's just an example of what we don't know, can't know possibly know maybe. though they are starting to understand that the tonsils do have a function and that it might be connected to allergies and the immune system. the fact that the appendix can rupture and that we can live without it does not mean that it has no function.

    and if a mistake is made in technology, nobody dies. not so with life. and you cannot discount the nature of life which is disintegration. as soon as the body reaches maturity, it starts to decline, thus we age. you could even say that it starts at birth. possibly cancer is just the end result of living too long. the cells just can't maintain their integrity. through our science, we have doubled our life spans. it may not be curable. I'm not saying don't try but better to enjoy every day on our march to the inevitable than rail against the machine.

  9. Karson- I'm sure the interest is there in the medical field. Who wouldn't love to find the cure? Who wouldn't want to be recognized for advancing medicine? I do think though, as you point out, that our priorities are twisted and that government plays a role in stalling research.
    Certainly, there are many other factors that I didn't cover--too daunting right now. It takes a long time to see the return on our investment in medicine, but it's worth it.
    Glad to see you here. Hope you're enjoying the summer break. ;-)

  10. Leah- Dear Leah, boy we could keep upping the ante 'til we're nothing but a stump and I fear it still wouldn't be enough. It would be crazy to see the miracle in our lifetime. Just crazy. So many people...
    My dad, too, and my sweet, heart-of-gold brother-in-law--both much too young. We have to keep giving and advocating. It's all we can do. xo

  11. Cold- I don't think religion could prove the existence of God either! Yes, we make progress. Small steps at a time. Sometimes a leap. It's never soon enough.

    How I would love to see the van Gogh museum. I was in St. Remy, though, and visited St. Paul's Hospital. To sit beneath those olive trees was transformative. A real Zen moment. Saw lots of his work around France. Just remarkable.

  12. Nessa- See what I mean? Dang girl, please get back on track. No more distractions. ;)

  13. Dale- Imagine what we may have to expunge from our environment, from civilization as a cancer prophylactic? Wow. It's like oil. You almost can't go back.

    I'm afraid you may be right about never finding a cure. At least not for all cancers. There'll always be new crops. But yes, serious money would certainly help. Serious government to fund serious research.

    Thanks for the hugs--makes me feel much better. :-)

  14. Leonora- Thank you! I can tell you I've never before driven myself so fast to the ER. Actually, there were two trips, and my husband was around, thankfully, the first time.
    It's still a mystery as the appendicitis. I could have atypical symptoms. Or not. (We know for sure that there was an ovarian cyst rupture--which can be very painful) Or... All I know is that no one is cutting me up until I have some answers! Another test tomorrow...
    Thanks for the wishes. :)

  15. Antares- I'd love to see you get that post out. Believe me, there's lots of interest!

    It's always money, isn't it? Money and bureaucracy. Meh.

  16. Lin Ann- Isn't Dale great? Go visit him at Mole!. You will relax. And smile. :-)

  17. Ellen- From what I understand, having spoken recently with a whole slew of doctors (in a teaching hospital), the question of whether the appendix serves any function is debatable. There's a lot of talk as to whether or not it's a vestigial organ--something that we may have used to breakdown roughage when we were dining on trees. But there seems to be no definitive answer. So, you're correct--it is very much an example of what we don't know!

    I don't mean to rail against the machine, here. I don't know enough about it to do that. But I do know that cancer affects folks of all ages, infants to elderly, so it's more than just that turning point of decline with age, or the end result of living too long.

    I've reached the turning point, and what lies ahead can be scary. Cards will be dealt and we'll have no choice but to play the hand as best we can. But I'm with you, Ellen--enjoy every day, my friend. Each day, all the more precious. ;)

  18. interesting reading this as i was literally just thinking about all the 'cure for cancer' stuff out there. and here's my view - we're not supposed to live forever! people die. at all ages. and it's painful for those who are here on earth dealing with it. but i don't need to see everything cured, and don't expect it to - we are not perfect, and expecting doctors to figure everything out, like we are a machine? not possible. and know what? i think that's great! i think it's great that you'll never really know someone 100% and you'll never know yourself 100% - it's an evolution, and it's the process of getting to know someone or yourself, it's the process (ie journey) that's what makes life so damn beautiful, whether it be long or short. my friend died at 43 but while it was tragic, damn if he did not LIVE those 43 years. if he'd have been 80 we would have all said 'he lived a full life'. but half the people i know who died at 80 didn't live a full life. so let's fall in love with art and all the unknown mysteries that make our lives more beautiful, you know? we all know the power of a summer's breeze, or the smell of a child's skin, or the look from a lover, or the laugh of a friend, has healing powers...let's live imperfectly, and try to be okay with it...

  19. ps - and i've got breast cancer like a scourge in my family, on both sides, and fully expect it to come my way when the time comes, not in a hypochondriac way, i just know my odds and can only take care of myself the best i know how...

  20. I'm so sorry you're having healthy problems. I hope things get better soon.

  21. Karson- we are all affected by cancer, if you are not you are lucky but unfortunately i bet you will be some day.

    And Ms. Jayne you know we are born to die, modern medicine just prolongs the trip sometimes whether we want it to or not, you might also want to ask those doctors why men have nipples?

  22. I am sorry for your pains, dear! I hope they find and fix the problem fast, defying all predictions and your own past experiences. Mine, too, for that matter.

    I'd like to see a poll. How many of us have lost loved ones to cancer? I'd guess every one of us and, very likely, more than once. And most of us who have experienced that loss make some sort of contribution of time or money...however research. But I think the waste must be enormous and, inevitably, there are corruptions, crooks and liars.

    May you be well. Know that your writing is distinctive and wonderful even when you're not.

  23. EcoGrrl- An evolution, indeed! (I love your passion here.) It is amazing how far we've come from the Industrialization age alone. Leaps and bounds.

    I'd like to think, though, that the cure for many cancers will be found. While we're not immortal, our years on this Earth should be healthier. Cancer is scary because we don't necessarily know the cause for many types. But some are clearly caused by the environment, and if we can pick away at the root cause, we may be able to eliminate some of the cancers.

    Knowing your body is so important, too. I'm guessing that you are very connected with yours and would be aware of slight changes that appear too unfamiliar, and would respond to those changes accordingly.

    What of course, as you noted, is most important, is to live our lives fully for the precious time we do have here. There is much sadness in the world, but it's really a beautiful world to live in, and I'm thankful for that.

    And I hope the cards are in your favor. Stay vigilant, though, and see your physicians often. There are preventative measures that can be taken, as I'm sure you know. I'd be pretty aggressive with that. And keep dancing, Eco! :-)

  24. Angela- Thank you, dear. I think I'm on the mend... :)

  25. Kono- I hope Karson hasn't had to deal with cancer's strain. She's very young and I'd like to think that her family will remain healthy for many years... But we all know the odds.

    Born to die, yes. That's why we all have babies, isn't it? Must keep the world moving. And who knows, one of those babies might just find the cure some day. Math and science... we need more bodies in the business.

    And the nipples--I think that's to remind men of who is really in charge. ;)

  26. Nance- Thank you! It's still a mystery but I think we're getting closer to an answer.

    And so true, once you've been exposed to cancer's wrath you don't hesitate to contribute. I agree, the waste has to be enormous. There are even those who claim conspiracy: that a cure is deliberately kept from us, for fear of it's consequences in the health care industry. How would we keep all those people employed if we suddenly could cure many cancers with a little zap?

    It's crazy. We know about the corruption, but I'd like to think a decent portion of the money gets funneled through. There are folks who are trying to do great things.

    I have more than a few holes in my heart. I know you do, too. Would be wonderful to see more progress.

  27. I hope you're feeling better very soon, Jayne. As to the questions...I think the land of ones and zeroes is easier than the alchemy of the human body. It's just easier to make computers do their thing than it is to figure out an appendix.
    But then, there are advances in medicine every's just that those of us who can easily use the internet don't know about them, have no frame of reference...we don't use medicine every day unless we are in the medical profession...but we do surf the 'net.

  28. DB- Thanks so much! Oh but it's alchemy for all that I want. Darn why is it so difficult? I know, I know, ones and zeros... much easier, we can tap into computerland and cyberspace without even understanding its language. That, to me, seems miraculous.

    If only we had the same codes for medicine, which I know is much, much more complex than the hi-tech world. It's just so damn frustrating. ;)

  29. You know what I find funny? That we can make a cell phone so complex that it's basically a miniature computer... but we still can't make a cell phone that takes calls. I don't think I've ever gone a week without a dropped call. How about working on THAT one next, eh phone wizards?

  30. Beer- That's funny! You know cell phones are inherently clumsy. Like a child growing into himself, trying to find his balance.
    Let's hope they mature soon. ;)

  31. Love that van Gogh. (Well, love most -- all? -- van Goghs.) Did you see at the MOMA site that he meant it as a sort of companion piece to Starry Night?

    In a way, the seeming contradiction between being able (sorta) to solve inanimate-object problems, but not medical ones, is the same sort of "two ways of looking" that van Gogh set up in his companion pieces. Whether technological research is commercially driven (products sell; solutions don't -- or rather, they sell only once) or not: it's all of a piece, just that we're looking selectively at one end or the other. The overall "piece" is an intellectual vs. emotional/spiritual dichotomy, and it's easy to see fear behind the lagging research into fixing people: the fear of getting it wrong; the fear of seeing oneself (or one's future) mirrored in the thing-which-needs-fixing...

    If a systems engineer gets his research wrong, he loses his funding. If a medical researcher gets it wrong, the consequences are huge. We don't reward people for "good tries" which end up killing more people than they cure. We shame those researchers; we take them to court; and every day, even if they escape without official or long-lasting social consequences, they cannot help seeing themselves in the mirror.

    I'm not saying that I don't wish medicine had been able to do something real and substantive for my father. (Oh, how I do wish that.) I'm saying boy howdy, if I were someone investigating cancer, or lupus, or eczema, or [etc.], I wouldn't care how much money you gave me -- I'd still be scared as hell to take the next step, whatever it was, and every time it seemed to work I'd be backing up, re-testing, checking for "collateral damage" elsewhere in the body...

    But then, I'm fearful by nature. :)

  32. JES- "The overall 'piece' is an intellectual vs. emotional/spiritual dichotomy..."-- yes, you've really hit on something here. There is a fear factor, and having met with oncologists--discussing trials, having had someone in the family involved in a trial--I understand the hesitation.

    We should be grateful that caution is precedent to dispensing new meds, but it's hard to reconcile when you know that some of that caution, as you mentioned, is not just fear of harming another (and with cancer treatment, collateral damage is almost guaranteed), but also, fear of litigation. That's the part that makes me crazy. We have to take risk for rewards.

    I'd err on the side of caution, too. Though I have to admit, in my case, "fear" is too often in the driver's seat.

    The art: van Gogh is one of my favorite French impressionists. I like his earlier work a lot, too. I didn't realize that this piece was a companion to Starry Night until I read the text at the MOMA site when looking for this painting. And then, it really made sense to me. Funny how things fall into place. The Olive Trees have special significance for me, too, having drunk wine and nibbled on fromage de chèvre under these very trees whilst honeymooning in France some 18 years ago... ;)

  33. Pharmaceutical companies don't want to develop drugs that cure rare diseases, they want to create "Markets" of products that people have to take every day. There is no money in the one-shot cancer cure. There is money in daily consumption of Lipator, Lunesta and Cialis for Daily use!

    Add to that, as complex as our electronic/internet technology seems, it is stick and stones compared to the extremely complex bio-electrical-chemical systems in some of the benign of our human biological functions.

    What we have accomplished is truly amazing.. and yes there are advanced in cancer. Artificial heart valves were invented during MY LIFETIME... hence this comment even appearing here today!!

    Yes, I long for the "future" when Star Trek's Dr. McCoy waves a salt-shaker device over me and diagnoses my prostate cancer before it starts.

    "I'm a doctor, Jim.. not a brick layer".

  34. Ahh yes the eternal question of why things move relatively slow....I know you are not a conspiracy theorist like the person whom I spoke to the other day was "Medical research is so slow because they want us to stay sick and make money out of us by buying their fucking drugs" or some shit like that. Probably something I would have said during my more angrier years...
    No...and this is way off course, sort of, but I look at medicine, or scientific research as a whole and look at the timelines. 150 years ago cholera was seen as arising from the 'miasma' by world renowned scientists. Not long before that people were still bled because it was believed they had 'bad blood' haha. I would argue that we as humans have moved along an exponential track as far as really bad health situations go.
    But I do get your point about comparing the brilliance, or stupidity of the interwebnet...
    A I making sense here?
    Besides all the politicking and funding arguments keeping money back from researchers we are doing relatively well compared to 80-90 years ago. It is a two edged sword.
    Researchers are bound to be stringent in following the scientific method of testability, repeatabilty and predictability to ensure that what they are making or theorising about will stand up to any and all criticisms and this takes time.
    Marry that with the political expediency or whims of the stock market and we as receivers of this knowledge do unfortunately need to wait before something is proven, or becomes financially viable to bring a product that cures ailment X.
    Medicine is not a pure science, but what is?
    Damn god observation J girl, hope I made sense...;)

  35. Robert the Skeptic: "I'm a doctor, Jim.. not a brick layer"


  36. i blame the catholic church for there not being a cure for cancer. if free thought and science hadn't been held back for centuries in favor of the dogma i'm certain medicine would be much more advanced. and i'd probably have a flying saucer in my garage.

  37. Robert- You got it--big pharma (I worked at one for a while). Profit, profit.

    There will be progress, though. This we know because, cancer treatment, unfortunately, is becoming a larger market. That leads to believe that that everyone's is more pressed to develop drugs/prophylactics for these diseases. Still, too slow.

    I want that salt shaker, too. Love Doc McCoy. ;)

  38. Dan- You're back! And with good sense, my friend.

    "Miasma" is the perfect word, and I wouldn't be surprised if we could blame many, many cancers on the same. It's so damn prevalent that you have to wonder what's in the air. Plenty of poisons, I'll bet.

    We have come a long way, thank goodness. Each day, I hope we know a little bit more, find a new trail to explore and stay on it without any lulls. But so much hampers research... Politics be damned! Very discouraging.

    Keep hope. ;)

  39. BP- I thought you did have a flying saucer in your garage? ;)

    I'll talk to the Pope.

  40. well, they are making advancements in cancer treatments, i think one of the thoughts is to be able to treat it as a chronic disease, keeping the tumors from growing instead of trying to get rid of them completely. and there are lots of other ideas they are working on, but unfortunately it does take a lot of time and time is what we happen to be short on especially if we are stricken with any of these diseases. there are soooo many variables when it comes to biology, and the cancers are living things that can adapt and do unpredictable things. with technology you are dealing with math basically, something that has defined actions, it can't decide to change its course, so it's much easier to set out to do something and get it done in a relatively quick manner. but i'm not a scientist of any sort and may not have any idea what i'm talking about. :)

  41. "what I don't understand is how we can all talk to each other like this, how we can connect and maneuver and solve problems in this virtual world, while scientific and cancer research seems to make little headway."

    But are the two comparable, and what is your best as to why the one has seemingly advanced more than the other?

    I feel your distress to the extent that I live with physical pain everyday of my life without being able to understand two things. One is why better pain relief isn't available. I have a half dozen kinds of narcotics, a half dozen kinds of sleeping pills, and various other drugs, yet I still can't sleep for the pain, not even close. My second query is why the technology that might address so many seemingly simple medical problems so slow in coming?