The Tail and the Dog: Cause and Effect in Medicine

Does the tail ever wag the dog? Is an issue ever so compelling that cause and effect are reversed? Or at least suspended..? Sorry, I wonder about such things.

I remember reading a book many years ago by the British philospher A.J. Ayer called The Problem of Knowledge. In it he discusses a religious sect that believed its members were either born to go to heaven or born to go to hell. They spend their lives assuming and acting as if they were in the Heaven group, no doubt hoping to influence how they were born -the future influencing the past when you think about it. Effect influencing Cause. The very idea intrigued my teenage brain but I was unable to replicate the switch no matter how I tried. No matter the subterfuge, no matter the wording of the premise, I still ended up with a faulty syllogism.

But my misgivings have decreased in the intervening years and although I’ve never met a member of that sect, I believe I have encountered situations with eerie similarities. Disturbing parallels.


“I don’t think you’re really listening to me, doctor,” said the thin, immaculately coifed woman sitting across the desk from me. She’d been talking without interruption for five minutes or so. Sixty-five, and well into her menopause, she had short, greying hair, and a severe, noticeably-wrinkled face. She stared at me as if I had just insulted her and I could see her pale bony hands forming fists and silently massaging her lap as she spoke.

I’d just met her and was trying to understand why she’d been referred to me. “I’m sorry,” I said with a smile. “I was just trying to get a more complete history…”

“I’ve told you the relevent history doctor,” she interrupted impatiently. “You have to learn to listen!” I could tell she was deliberately italicizing words. The sigh that I tried to disguise did not go unnoticed, however, and her eyes sharpened like knife blades and attacked my face. “My doctor assured me you would listen to me.” She sounded almost petulant.

“Well perhaps I was too focussed on background details,” I said to mollify her, then sat back in my chair to indicate that I was, indeed, listening now.

“I have cancer, doctor. Nobody can find it, but I know its there as surely as I know this desk is hard.”

I kept my expression neutral and nodded for her to go on and explain things yet again.

“My sister died from squamous cancer of the cervix and my mother died of adenocarcinoma of the stomach,” she said, the terms obviously well-rehearsed. “And my uncle had some other kind of cancer that nobody could find until he died…”

That was certainly a lot of cancers I had to admit, but I couldn’t think of any obvious connecting factors. Stomach and skin derive from different tissues embryologically but the cervix cancer was almost certainly related to HPV –a sexually transmitted virus. And she didn’t know what type of cancer had killed her uncle.

Apparently satisfied that she had made her point, she straightened up in her chair and folded her arms tightly across her chest.

I nodded my head to encourage her to continue, but she merely slashed at me with her eyes, the skin of her face now tied so tightly I wondered if it would tear. I could see she was challenging me to contradict her. I managed a little smile but I didn’t really feel like it. “What makes you so certain you have cancer, Emily?” I thought maybe using her name might soften her face. “Is it the family history of so many cancers, or some symptoms you are experiencing?”

That seemed to catch her off guard and she unlocked her arms so her hands could wander back onto her lap. “It’s more of a feeling, doctor; it’s hard to explain.”

I sighed audibly and studied her face. It had gradually lost its anger and the skin seemed looser, older. She looked fragile now. Frightened. “Let me see what tests your doctor has done so far…”

“They’re all normal,” she said softly before I could even look at the referral letter. “I’ve been pestering my doctor for several years about my concern…” Emily looked almost embarrassed. “She did both abdominal and pelvic ultrasounds because I told her I was having pain. Then she did a whole bunch of blood tests to check my liver and kidney function but nothing showed up.” She stared at her hands for a moment. “I even convinced her to do a CAT scan of my head…” She looked up at me with a shy little smile hovering about her lips. “Headaches,” she said to ward off a question she could tell I was about to ask. And then she buried her eyes in her lap again. I could almost see her trying to think of something to convince me to keep searching.

“I’m tired all the time and I’ve been losing weight…” But even she didn’t seem convinced. Sad, burrowing eyes peeked out at me from behind deep ridges of skin that had come out of hiding as her anger dissolved. She chuckled half-heartedly. “I’m becoming so neurotic about this that sometimes I wonder if I’m creating a lot of these things out of whole cloth…” Her face brightened at the idiom.

Then she shook her head slowly. “You know, my cancer is almost like a religion: you have to take some of the tenets on faith alone. They don’t make sense, and you’d rather just ignore them, but something makes you go on. You still believe, because there’s something to it, something you suspect is true, even if you don’t understand why.”

I’d never thought of undiagnosed illness like that. I looked through the test results I’d been sent, but found nothing suspicious. No clues. Nothing that even suggested a direction for further investigations. Her pap smears were up to date and all normal; she’d  had a colonoscopy and had somehow convinced a gastroenterologist to investigate her stomach and esophagus. And a dermatologist had done some biopsies a couple of years ago because she had a few moles on her arms and legs. “Would you mind if I examined you?” I thought I’d better ask.

She shrugged and shifted in her chair. “You won’t find anything, but yes. You’re my last hope.”

Given the history, I have to say she had no more hope than I did of finding something. Anything. But I did a thorough examination –I took her blood pressure, I listened to her chest and checked her breasts for lumps. I palpated her abdomen for masses and pain. Lymph nodes filter out infections, but sometimes also tumor cells in the process of spreading, so I even felt for the lymph nodes in her groin to see if they were enlarged. People who run frequently have the occasional small lumps in their groins from incidental cuts on their toes, but she had some that were really quite large and painless, and on one side only.

Curious, I asked if she did a lot of running, or if she’d injured her foot or leg recently. She shook her head. “Do I look like a runner, doctor?” She had a point.

I was puzzled by the lumps, so I redoubled my search for an explanation. What had caused them? The only thing I could find, after doing the usual gynaecological examination, was a multicoloured, dark mole hidden in a labial fold near her vagina. It was on the same side as the lumps.

I finished my examination and asked her to come into the other room when she’d dressed.

“Did anybody mention they’d seen a mole near your vagina?” I asked, when she returned.

She shook her head. “I have moles everywhere,” she said, rolling a sleeve of her sweater past her elbow and showing me her arm. “I think everybody has been more focussed on my cervix because of my sister.” She couldn’t help smiling. “Even my GP just whips a speculum in whenever she’s in the area.”

“What about the dermatologist you saw?”

She chuckled. “He wouldn’t go anywhere near there.” Suddenly she stopped talking and looked at me. “Why? Is there a problem? The other moles were just benign nevi…” She had obviously been reading about her diagnoses.

“It’s an unusual place for a mole,” I said, somewhat hesitantly. “I think it should be removed.”

She studied me for a moment, nodded her head slowly, purposely, while the skin on her face tightened and then relaxed. Her eyes softened and she reached across the desk to grasp my hand.

“Thank you, doctor.”

I must have looked puzzled, because the smile on her face broadened in response.

“All these years…” she said, slowly, softly, and almost to herself. “I knew there was something; I just didn’t know where.”

“But…” I hadn’t even mentioned my concern about malignancy in the mole. If anything, I hoped I’d underplayed it so she wouldn’t panic.

She squeezed my hand. “I’d rather be on a path –any path- than wander around, lost.” She sat back in her chair, almost satisfied at the turn of events. “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to Heaven.”

Wow: All’s Well That Ends Well. I wonder if she’d memorized that for just such an occasion. Perhaps she felt that discovery was tantamount to remedy for her… Vindication. Validation. I also wonder if Ayer would have understood.

Nudging Childhood Obesity

When I was a kid, obesity was not the norm. Admittedly, this was a long time ago, and no doubt I only remember brief and highly selective snippets of the time –modified, no doubt, to serve whatever demands are required in the present. But in these unexpurgated, sketches, I have memories of labeling the occasional child in the playground as ‘fat’. Whoever it was stood out from the rest –ex gregis in the true etymological sense of the word ‘egregious’- and so through the insouciance of childhood, were forever condemned to wear the epithet like a poorly fitting sweater.

Maybe we just didn’t have enough to eat in those halcyon days of early Winnipeg; maybe the winters were too severe and the necessary clothes too heavy to allow the accumulation of excessive girth. But let’s face it, normal is what we see around us. It is parochial. It is the statistics of one box. And yet, isn’t that how we judge: by what we know? If I am obese, and my child is too, then what’s the problem? And if all his friends, and all my friends are large, then how am I to adjudicate another norm? Thin is aberrant, not fat.

I came across an interesting article in Forbes magazine reporting about a study –several studies, in fact- demonstrating the inability of parents to judge whether or not their child was overweight:

This is worrisome, to say the least -unless of course you change the definition of what weight is normal… But no matter the norm, health risks for diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease generally increase with increasing BMI (Body Mass Index -which is the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters: kg/m2).

And it is difficult to rationalize the increasing prevalence of corpulence in the population as an evolutionary process. It’s hard to understand how plumpness would be of any survival benefit, or why it would be selected for in a gene pool. There exist islands of controversy in this, of course:  But I think most analyses would suggest that obesity (BMI >30 -at least in North American population studies) adversely influences health and life span. So it would make sense to attempt to correct the issue as early as possible.

As an obstetrician, I am drawn to the idea that management of pregnancy and birth weight are important. I was intrigued by a prediction model I saw reported in the BBC from 2012 suggesting the risks for subsequent obesity of a child could be predicted at birth with about 80% accuracy:  I haven’t seen much about this recently, so I don’t know how well it has stood the test of scientific scrutiny, but at least it was an interesting thesis. A start.

Recently, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health published an update on childhood obesity guidelines:  It contains the usual admonitions against junk food and physical inactivity, of course, but advocates some innovative strategies, I think. For example, because the circadian rhythms of teenagers have been found to differ from the adults who are teaching them, it recommended starting classes later in the morning and suggested breaks in each class. And walking to school, where feasible, as part of the exercise regime… Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s ‘White Coat, Black Art’ program, while agreeing with the guidelines, detected some downsides to the recommendations however:

The contributing factors to obesity –let alone childhood obesity- are legion: genetics, dietary habits, social milieu, parental influences, environmental conditions, Media, socioeconomic status, and peer group expectations, to name a few. None are solely responsible, but unless there are some counteracting forces –incentives- all are important. Behaviour, habits, and expectations are learned phenomena and it may be something as simple as imitation of parents or friends that starts it off and then sustains it.

When faced with uncountable opponents and overwhelming odds, how can Society possibly succeed in changing things? Well, simplistically, it needs to change attitudes. Change what the majority considers acceptable. Change the mythos. It is slowly changing the acceptability of smoking as a norm; even the legitimacy of drinking and driving is under scrutiny –not only in the courts but also in the minds of drinkers. Some things are just not seen as cool nowadays.

But, given the importance of preventing childhood obesity for the health and well-being of future generations and given the relative lack of success so far, I think we need a new (old?) approach. There is a freshly-named, although age-old practice, termed ‘Nudge Theory’. It is a euphemism that my mother would have simply called manipulation because, although cleverly disguised, that’s really what it is. Wikipedia has succinct explanation: Nudge theory (or Nudge) is a concept in behavioral science, political theory and economics which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals, at least as effectively – if not more effectively – than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement. Here are two introductions –take your choice: or

Education, and early identification and treatment of those at risk of becoming obese are obviously important and desirable, but I think we need something more. Something with a proven track record, albeit in different fields. Maybe ad campaigns and directed manipulation –sorry, nudging– would be valuable adjuncts. We are media savvy nowadays, and used as a tool for change, it seems ideal. As long as we are certain of our goals, and the science is correct, I think it is an ethically acceptable approach, and one with great potential.

I did, though, run across a light-hearted, but nonetheless cautionary article about nudging in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

However, we have to take advantage of all the tools at our disposal. My mother’s manipulation was unsubtle and in my face; nudging is not. If we are going to be successful in stopping the steadily increasing tide of obesity, we need to revise expectations, and change what we accept as normal. We have to alter folkways and mores –in other words the rules that society uses to guide behavior. Nudge them, I suppose…

We need the courage to try novel approaches. There is a quote by Erasmus that is germane: A nail is driven out by another nail. Habit is overcome by habit. Okay, so let’s change them. Nudge them. No! I hate the verbal evasion. Let’s mold them.

Menstruation and Sports

Okay, time to cross the line again. I’ve written about this before (see Menstrual Taboos ) but the issue keeps popping up. In the recent 2015 Australian Open, the top ranking female tennis player in Britain, Heather Watson, suffered a first round defeat. In the subsequent interview, as she was being grilled about what might have gone wrong, she reluctantly and perhaps somewhat timidly admitted that it could have been ‘girl things’. I didn’t get the impression that she was blaming them for her defeat, as much as conceding that her period may have been a contributing factor.

But it seemed to have opened the old societal wound: the ‘She’s blaming it on her period. I knew she would!’ The age old reason for excluding women from activities that require stamina and perseverence –or at least considering them inferior as a group to men. The time-worn excuse for domination vindicated once again.

My first  instinct is to stand on a street corner and yell ‘Grow up, guys!’ If it weren’t for the physiology of menstruation none of us would even be here! The uterus has a lining of cells that cyclically prepares itself to receive and grow a fertilized egg, but if no egg arrives, it needs to cast off that old lining and renew itself for another try. Another egg. Another cycle…

There are many reasons why the very topic of menses, let alone its existential reality has engendered such discomfort in polite conversation and I have covered some of them in my previous essay. But what I am concerned about here is how menstruation may be misunderstood, mislabelled as an impediment, or assigned properties and attributes it doesn’t usually deserve. Not all periods are disruptive; not all periods –even in the same woman- are alike. Nor, unless she has developed an untreated iron deficiency anemia because of heavy menstrual loss, will the fact of periods necessarily interfere with performance.

And yes, they are surrounded by myth and euphemisms –just read Karen Houppert’s The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo, Menstruation. There’s precious little good research addressing menstruation and sport except about ways to attempt to prevent menses altogether and to concede that there might  be an increased chance of injury because estrogen, for example, may render tendons and ligaments more lax. Pretty soft science, to say the least.

Now let’s be clear –I’m a male, and despite my training as a gyaecologist, I can never quite enter that other world. Some would go so far as to say that I can never even hope to understand it; that genes and physiology imprison me and afford only a poor approximation of what it would be like to be a woman; that there is an opaque curtain separating us, obscuring important details.

This argument reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the Cave –you know, where prisoners are chained inside a cave so they can only see shadows cast on the opposite wall from a fire burning behind them. It’s all they’ve ever known; they think they are seeing reality; that the shadows are all there is to it. Then one prisoner escapes and enters the sunlight outside and finally sees the real world and not just shadows. The Truth. Things as they actually are.

So, are we all just looking at shadows? All of us Homo Sapiens? Because if that’s the case, then both sexes are prisoners of the same misapprehensions. The same inability to judge the other… We’re both handicapped. We’re both deceived.

I cannot accept that; I will not. I may not know what its like to experience having a baby, for example, and yet I can understand the joy and suffering attending it. And I can experience, although once removed, the frustration and fatigue I see in my patients in the second stage of labour. Believe me, it is palpable anywhere in the delivery room. It is a human thing. Knowing another entails a melding of shadows. Seeing the same thing differently and yet comparibly. Empathetically.

No, I can never have menstrual periods; I can never truly experience what it must be like. But I do remember an incident in the office many years ago. A colleague from another hospital was away and I had agreed to see some of her patients for her. One of the patients had come in because of heavy and painful periods. All of the investigations –blood tests, ultrasounds, and even a D&C coupled with a laparoscopy to look directly into her abdomen under anaesthesia- were normal. She was not anemic, despite her heavy menses and was reluctant to take the birth control pill for fear of side effects. But she was desparate to talk to somebody about her periods.

I listened to her for a while before she stopped talking and stared at me. I looked sad, she said and reached out to touch my hand across the desk. I remember smiling, but even the smile looked pained, she said.

I suppose I was caught off guard, and responded with something lame like that her periods seemed awfully heavy and that it must be hard for her. I really did think she must be suffering.

Her face brightened and I could see her mood change right in front of me. “You know,” she said, hardly able to contain her enthusiasm, “I never felt I could go to a male doctor and talk about this sort of thing. I mean, how could you ever understand?”

I must have looked puzzled, because she added, “My other doctor didn’t seem to want to talk about it. When all of the investigations came back normal, and I expressed reservations about the options she’d offered, she just shrugged -as much as told me to suck it up. Deal with it.

“And yet, you listened, tried to hear what I was going through. Obviously you don’t have to be a woman to empathize.”  She shook her head slowly and carefully, as if she had just figured something out. Then, as I recall, she sighed rather theatrically. “Who says men will never understand women..?”

I don’t think Ms Watson was necessarily blaming her loss on her period, any more than a man would attempt to blame his poor performance on, for example, a headache. Once the initial shock of mentioning the unmentionable has worn off, I imagine there will be nobody that will believe that she was using a normal and incontrovertibly organic event as an excuse. But, even if she were, so what? Things happen. And anyway, I suspect that she may have helped to remove yet one more shadow –if only an edge- from the reality that we are, all of us, members of the genus Homo –human- and of the species sapiens –knowing. Intelligent. Wise. And both sexes share far more physiology than separate us. Lets face it, we need each other. And, except for a tiny Y chromosome, we are each other.

The ramparts are coming down.