A Flicker of Hope

It’s interesting what catches our attention when we surf the apps on our smartphones nowadays. Some of the more provocative articles have dubious sources, of course, but with a little digging the original study can often be found and the claims checked. The problem, however, is that even these results need to be reproducible in case either the methodology or the results were unreliable –and also the conclusions drawn from them. That’s why it’s often unwise to believe everything you see reported –or, on the other side, to report everything you want to believe… Fear and Hope are wonderful incentives, and so the issues in the study need to be thoroughly researched and vetted for bias and innuendo and references to the original study need to be included.

Perhaps because I am now retired, any article about time-related changes catches my eye more easily. So I find myself particularly interested in studies that suggest progress is being made -not with respect to age itself, but more the evolving process of aging: the gerund. It was with considerable interest that I read the BBC news on the use of flashing light therapy for Alzheimer’s http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38220670

I also attempted to read the original paper from MIT (entitled Gamma frequency entrainment attenuates amyloid load and modifies microglia) published in the December 2016  issue, of the journal Nature should you wish to struggle though it, but I have to confess that for me, even the title was difficult…

At any rate, the article suggested that flashing light in the eyes of mice that were genetically engineered to have Alzheimer’s-type damage in their brain, ‘encouraged protective cells to gobble up the harmful proteins that accumulate in the brain in this type of dementia. The perfect rate of flashes was 40 per second – a barely perceptible flicker, four times as fast as a disco strobe.’ And ‘Build-up of beta amyloid protein is one of the earliest changes seen in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease. It clumps together to form sticky plaques and is thought to cause nerve cell death and memory loss.’ Research has focused on ways to prevent this plaque formation using drugs, but with limited success so far. If a non-invasive method like a flickering light can activate the immune system to do it by itself, so much the better. ‘The researchers say the light works by recruiting the help of resident immune cells called microglia. Microglia are scavengers. They eat and clear harmful or threatening pathogens -in this instance, beta amyloid. It is hoped that clearing beta amyloid and stopping more plaques from forming could halt Alzheimer’s and its symptoms.’ Fine with me.

I did, however, initially wonder about how bothersome the flickering would be –news reports on television usually caution their audience whenever even flash photography is found in the report, presumably because of the risk of triggering epileptic seizures. But, as the article discussed: ‘For the patient, it should be entirely painless and non-invasive “We can use a very low intensity, very ambient soft light. You can hardly see the flicker itself. The set-up is not offensive at all,” they said, stressing it should be safe and would not trigger epilepsy in people who were susceptible.’ Better and better! It’s just preliminary stuff, of course, but at least it opens up new pathways and ideas for further research.

As if even reading about the concept was in itself therapeutic, the article immediately triggered what, at first blush, would seem to be a non-sequitur memory of a patient I saw many years ago. The issue as I recall was not so much about mental aberration -although the patient herself was apparently suffering from paranoid schizophrenia- but more about her speculation on the possible effects of flickering light on mental function.

I was, I think, in my first year of residency training in the gynaecology program and was doing a rotation in one of the older teaching hospitals in the city. In those days, things were very busy on the wards and so our tasks were apportioned according to our seniority, the senior residents doing the lion’s share of new consultations, while we juniors were given those jobs that, while important, required less experience -pap smears, usually.

My senior’s name was Sara, I remember, and she decided I should be the one to go to the psychiatric ward to do a pap smear on one of their more ‘unusual patients’ as she said to tease me.

“What do you mean ‘unusual’?” I asked. Sara didn’t like to go onto that ward, for some reason, so she usually made some excuse.

She stared at me for a moment before answering, I remember. “Oh, you know, she has paranoid delusions and hallucinates, or something…” But it was clear that Sara really had no idea why our department had been asked to do the pap, nor had she any intention of doing it herself.

I was beginning to suspect this was merely another sluff. Sara fancied herself a consultant now and able to delegate things she didn’t want to do. “But if she’s paranoid and hallucinates, wouldn’t it be better if the doctor doing the pap smear was female?”

Her expression turned angry at that point, and I recall her almost attacking me with her eyes. “Oh for god’s sake, there’ll be a nurse there with you the whole time… Or maybe they said two…” she added, uncertainty softening her glare, but not her resolve to send me to that ward.

I showed up at the psychiatric area and was allowed in only after identifying myself via the phone just outside the door. Then I was led to the brightly lit nursing station, and a rather large matronly nurse handed me the chart of the woman needing the pap.

“She hasn’t had a pap smear in years,” the nurse said in a soft voice, so it couldn’t be heard in the corridor outside of the station. “And her voices told her she has cervix cancer…”

“Her voices?” I should have been more professional, but I was already feeling a bit apprehensive about being inside a locked ward. “I mean, shouldn’t we wait until she’s feeling a bit better before we…”

“We can’t seem to find any good medication for her yet,” the nurse interrupted. “The doctor thought that we could at least calm her by checking her cervix.”

Greta –I still remember her name- was already in the examination room, sitting in her gown on a little table that had a set of rickety old metal stirrups at one end. They’d apparently had to borrow everything from another ward for the job. As soon as I entered with the nurse, Greta examined me from top to bottom with suspicious eyes.

“You’re a man,” she said before we were even introduced.

The nurse, whose name I forget, walked over to Greta and held her hand. “You remember we talked about this, Greta,” she said in the same soft voice she’d used before. “And you said it was okay…”

Greta nodded, smiled and lay back to put her feet in the stirrups. “They said I should show you my cervix,” she said, the italics staring at me between her knees. “Not the one with cancer, though…  I’m supposed to keep that one hidden.”

“Her voices,” the nurse quickly whispered in my ear as I sat on a little stool they’d also borrowed for the occasion along with a light on a long, flexible metal pole. It looked as old as the stirrups.

I got the speculum and the pap smear paraphernalia ready as the nurse readied the light. The bulb kept flickering, though. I fiddled with the bulb to see if it was loose, but it seemed tight enough. And it was obviously plugged into the wall. On, off, on, off… the light was beginning to annoy me. I snapped the switch a few times, but still, it insisted on flickering. On, off, on, off…

“I’ve got a flashlight,” the nurse said, but when she turned it on, it was so weak, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see cervix high up in the vagina with it.

“Well, maybe I can do the pap smear with the flickering light,” I said and shrugged.

Suddenly Greta raised her head and stared at me again. “Sometimes the prongs don’t make good contact in the wall. Everything’s so old in this place,” she added, shaking her head. “Take the plug out and squeeze the prongs.”

By this time I had the speculum in my hand, so I nodded to the nurse to try Greta’s suggestion. Sure enough, squeezing the prongs stopped the flickering.

Greta was still staring at me through her legs. “I may be crazy, doctor, but I’m not stupid…”

I put the speculum down on the medical tray I had on my lap. I sensed Greta wanted to explain something. “It’s a signal, you know.” I didn’t think I should reply. “The light’s always trying to tell you something –sometimes it’s angry, but more often it’s just trying to help…” Her feet still in the stirrups, she raised herself onto one elbow and continued. “It gets right into the brain to help, you know. It doesn’t stay there long enough, though, and that’s why it has to keep going in and out, in and out… And each time it tries, it flickers…” Then she stopped talking for a moment and stared at the nurse with an amazed expression on her face. “That’s what the doctors should be trying –not all those horrible pills…”

Maybe that incident stands out because it was the first pap smear I’d ever done. I don’t remember the result in Greta’s case –I was near the end of my rotation in that hospital- but I do remember Sara asking me what I’d done with that patient.

“Why?” I asked, afraid Greta had accused me of doing something improper.

“The ward told me that your patient seemed much calmer after you left and she apparently kept telling everybody you’d come up with a new treatment, or something…” And then I remember Sara smiling condescendingly at me, as if to say that junior residents could never do anything of the sort.















The Problem of Puberty

Puberty is alchemy, don’t you think? Like the chrysalis of a butterfly, the girl emerges from the pupal case of her childhood into an adolescent -an almost-woman- with hormones ablaze. It is a magic time of change, both in growth and physiology, but also in cognitive development. It is a time of evolving expectations, but more slowly developing judgement –the brain, too, is undergoing renovations. Hence our oft-aggrandized memories of the time –not deceptions, exactly, but distortions. To paraphrase Napoleon: history is the version of past events that I have decided to agree upon.

Many of the manifestations we see of puberty are the confusion of autonomies –the challenges to the boundaries that society imposes. I think Wikipedia has summarized the issues quite succinctly: ‘Psychologists have identified three main types of autonomy: emotional independence, behavioral autonomy, and cognitive autonomy. Emotional autonomy is defined in terms of an adolescent’s relationships with others, and often includes the development of more mature emotional connections with adults and peers. Behavioral autonomy encompasses an adolescent’s developing ability to regulate his or her own behavior, to act on personal decisions, and to self-govern. Cultural differences are especially visible in this category because it concerns issues of dating, social time with peers, and time-management decisions. Cognitive autonomy describes the capacity for an adolescent to partake in processes of independent reasoning and decision-making without excessive reliance on social validation.’ It is obviously a special and bewildering, albeit a magical  time. A time for planting the crop that is to come…

Because there are so many physiological processes involved, the actual start of puberty has always been approximate. Genes no doubt play a major role in its onset, but nutrition and general health are obviously involved as well because puberty is changing –it’s starting earlier. As an article from BBC news reports: The age of puberty is changing around the world. In the UK it is currently starting about one month earlier every decade. In China it is more than four months earlier every decade. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-33168864

Of course, we have an almost obsessive need to analyze every change –to match every nuance with some overly reductionist, albeit plausible, explanation. Meat, for example. Yes, I’m serious: http://www.bbc.com/news/10287358  Although it’s an older study, and Vegan-unreferenced, I have to wonder if they could have equally successfully used milk consumption, or perhaps eggs, or even Starbucks coffee… 

But whatever the causes of earlier puberty, that very change may have unexpected –and perhaps unwanted- ramifications as the MRC Epidemiology Unit  at the University of Cambridge recently published using the data of almost half a million people from the UK Biobank: http://www.nature.com/srep/2015/150618/srep11208/full/srep11208.html

Doesn’t it seem strange that improving health and nutrition could have untoward, unintended consequences, although somewhat removed in time and maturity? Perhaps targetable with preventive interventions to be sure, as the authors point out in their abstract, but nonetheless ironic –the Red Queen needing to run faster and faster to stay in the same spot…

The most convincing evidence of the effect of an earlier puberty, apparently, is in its association with higher risks for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in women. A simple reasoned path to the type 2 diabetes (and its well known association with obesity) might be that: ‘early childhood rapid growth and overweight precede early puberty timing in both sexes, but in turn early puberty timing leads to subsequent rapid gains in weight and adiposity during adolescence and early adulthood’, but this may be an over-simplification of one of many factors that may be contributing –longer exposure to hormones, say, or life-style decisions altered by earlier maturation than peers: ‘environmental stressors may precede early puberty, but in turn early puberty leads to more risk taking behaviours and poor school performance.’ Intriguing, but speculative to say the least.

And on the more optimistic side of changing pubertal age? Well… there is a trend towards a lower risk for breast cancer in those with a later onset of puberty –although in fairness, this is likely related to a decreased time of exposure to hormones, so I’m not sure if it isn’t just a bit of trade-off… And anyway, trend is often what you call something that is not statistically significant (and yet perhaps lends credence to your hypothesis?).

But are we simply treading water in storm-tossed seas?  At risk of drowning in the details of semi-focused data swirling around us –most of which, at least in this case, was dependent on self reported medical histories and events that happened years before? Admittedly, the age of the first period is probably recalled with fair accuracy by most women –it is an event like few others- but aren’t researchers as seduced by this form of reasoning as the rest of us: the development of diabetes just begging for a scapegoat? So, choose the goat, widen the parameters, and voila…

An illustrative example of how easy it is to be led astray: many years ago, before we knew very much about the causal agent for cancer of the cervix (it is now known to be the human papilloma virus) but had pretty well decided it was something infectious –something sexually transmitted at any rate- the herpes virus came under scrutiny. It was infectious; many women exhibiting it also had abnormal pap smears suggesting precursor lesions for cervix cancer; and it was obvious –women who developed herpes were almost always aware of it. Herpes was easy to blame, because it was fairly straightforward to date the pap smear problem to some time after the event of acquisition. Everything fit –except it was not the cause. Not only did people who had never experienced herpes also develop abnormal pap smears, but similarly, not all people with herpes developed pap smear changes. The recall was an easy data point -something to blame- it’s just that it was the wrong thing.

My point is, it can be misleading to attribute cause merely based on recallable events. We all require explanations -something to blame. But, Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Well, the Latin may sound authoritative but not in Medicine. It is a logical fallacy…

This is all unfair to the study I know; I don’t mean to cast aspersions on either the researchers or their methodology, and yet I can’t help but worry about reports of this kind. Huge data bases are tempting geologies for data mining. But association is not necessarily causation.

As the humorist James Thurber once wrote: ‘Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?’ –just in case, I guess…

Stereotypes in Medicine

I suppose we are all, at times, seduced by stereotypes. They are, after all, a simplified way of processing the other world –underlining how they are different from us. Even the etymology of the word, derived from Greek, seems as if it would be helpful: stereos –firm, or solid; typos –impression. But unfortunately it has wandered from its first use in the printing field as something that would reliably duplicate what was engraved on the master plate, to its use in 1922 in a book entitled Public Opinion that suggested a ‘preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group’.  It has grown and metastasized, cancer-like, from there. Now, any attribution is suspect. Any observation, coloured. What was once felt to be useful is now recognized as impossibly simplistic. Naïve.

We are far too complex to fit into labelled baskets that purport to describe our essence or predict our opinions. Indeed, to stereotype a group is to consider it different –perhaps not unreasonable as an observation, but also dangerously close to slipping into an us/them perspective with its risk of discrimination and prejudice. As Wikipedia (sorry!) summarizes it: ‘Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination are understood as related but different concepts. Stereotypes are regarded as the most cognitive component and often occurs without conscious awareness, whereas prejudice is the affective component of stereotyping and discrimination is one of the behavioral components of prejudicial reactions. In this tripartite view of intergroup attitudes, stereotypes reflect expectations and beliefs about the characteristics of members of groups perceived as different from one’s own, prejudice represents the emotional response, and discrimination refers to actions.’

So, the stereotyping of an individual, or worse, the group to which she presumably belongs, can have consequences well beyond the initial encounter –‘unintended consequences’, as we are so fond of saying in retrospect- and yet we still seem genuinely surprised that things would turn out like that. I am always heartened, therefore, when I read about those who are able to pierce the curtain and see what lives outside the window: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-34359936

I like to tell myself that all my years in practice have dissolved the last dregs of stereotypes from my psyche, and yet my guilt, my terror of succumbing, is still alive and well –if tucked away. But, if stereotyping can occur without conscious awareness, the very act of trying to avoid it suggests that there is something there in the first place…

Manipulation always reminds me of the danger. Not my manipulation, you understand (and besides, I don’t call it that); no, my patients’ attempts at beguiling me. My mother was a masterful manipulator and I’ve always noticed similar attempts by others. Perhaps the very labelling of their actions as manipulations is itself a stereotype, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I still remember a time, several years ago now, when I was discussing the pros and cons of vaccination against HPV, the sexually transmitted virus responsible for cancer of the uterine cervix. The woman, a well-educated software engineer at a local start-up company, had asked me what I thought of her daughter being vaccinated in school.

“She’s only in grade six, doctor -11 years old! She hasn’t even thought about…” Loretta hesitated briefly as she sorted through her vocabulary. Clearly, even the thought of her daughter as a sexually active individual was uncomfortable for her. “…being intimate.” She immediately blushed at the word.

It’s a delicate topic for parents and I nodded sympathetically. “Not intimate yet, I’m sure,” I said and smiled to diffuse her embarrassment. “But when she gets older, it would be nice to know she will be protected against the virus, don’t you think?”

Loretta’s face hardened at the thought –or maybe at the fact that I needed to bring it to her attention. Her expression was adamant: her daughter was not like that. She studied my face for a moment, her eyes made short angry excursions onto it, then, finding nowhere to roost, hurried back to safety. “I think I will decide when she is older and more able to understand.”

I tried to disguise a sigh. “Sometimes our children understand a lot more than we suspect, Loretta…”

I could see her stiffen in her chair. “I know my daughter. You may be a parent…” She paused to run her eyes up and down what she could see of me from where she sat, obviously trying to decide whether even that was possible. “But you are not a woman, doctor; you couldn’t possibly understand the mother/daughter bond!”

My only possible response was a smile, so I parried with the best one I could muster under attack. “You did ask for my opinion, Loretta,” I managed to reply in an even voice.

She unleashed her eyes on my face again, this time as birds of prey, and as they circled for the kill, she managed to answer in a polite monotone. “You health practitioners are all the same, aren’t you? You think you have all the answers. You, my GP, the school doctor –even the school nurse- prattling on about anticipated behaviours and how you want to deal with them as if you were all decanting untasted wine from the same expensive bottle.”

My smile broadened at her use of the simile but my reaction only seemed to fluster her more. I shook my head slowly. “Most of us certainly don’t think we have all the answers, Loretta.” Her eyelids fluttered as if I were a politician trying to convince a wary population. “But I suppose we do try to prevent problems when we see them coming. Cancer of the cervix used to be a major problem until we recognized it was caused by a common sexually transmitted virus. The obvious next step was to see if we could develop a vaccine to protect against it like we did with small pox –or polio…” I shrugged as if I had just made an irrefutable point.

She stared out the window for a moment, undecided, and then I could see her body language change. Soften. Her eyes were sparrows again –finches, maybe: curious, but playful. “I just stereotyped you didn’t I?” I hadn’t thought of it that way, I have to admit; the accusation usually comes from the opposite direction. I nodded in pleasant agreement. “But it’s a two way street isn’t it?” she added with an impish smile, obviously unwilling to let me off unscathed. “I saw you rolling your eyes at the mother-daughter bond thing.” She could hardly talk for her smile. “Over-protective mother meets omniscient doctor, right?” She settled back more comfortably in her chair. “Both of us using our unique and non-reciprocable roles to pull rank. To manipulate each other –ad hominem stuff…” she added and then chuckled.

Suddenly she became serious and I could sense she needed an answer. “Tell me, doctor,” she said, carefully choosing her words, “If I were your daughter, would you advise me to have your granddaughter vaccinated?”

A serious question; a personal question -and I didn’t hesitate to respond. I nodded my head immediately.

She relaxed again. “Then I have my answer, don’t I?” she said and started to put on her coat. She stopped at the door and turned to me with a little smile waving for attention on her face. “Did I just get swept up in another stereotype?”

I had to shrug. I’m just not sure anymore.

What’s in a Word?

Alexithymia. Ever heard of it? Me neither. It sounds like one of those words you’d get in a national spelling bee when they’re trying to off you. Fortunately it has a rather pedestrian etymology: ‘a’ meaning ‘without’; ‘lexis’ –speech, or words; and ‘thymos’ – soul, or emotions. In other words: no words for feelings. Hmm… Who would have thought it was a condition? Mind you, since there’s one called anhedonia, the gloves are off.

I’m fairly certain that its shadow would never have darkened my office door, had not a patient pulled it deliberately from her purse while reaching for her phone. Pandora comes immediately to mind, but this lady’s name was Alexis – or, rather, Alexisse as she quickly corrected me- with the accent on the last syllable would you believe? She seemed innocent enough sitting in the waiting room, but in retrospect, she was more a pier in the currents of a hectic room than a middle aged lady. The usual waves of noise and confusion seemed to break over and around her with as little effect as a storm on a breakwater. Throughout the maelstrom, she maintained a smile on her face, but she later admitted to me that it was a well-practiced artifice –a mask that she would always carry with her to help her to blend in.

Her clothes certainly helped as well –a grey skirt worn just below the knees, white blouse buttoned tight around her neck, but loose at the wrist, and black shoes with just a hint of a raised heel. Her light brown hair was short and tidy and her nails long and uncoloured. An average height, she would have melted into any crowd without a trace. Indeed, she followed behind me to my office like a shadow.

I’m describing her like this in the full light of retrospect, however. We always tend to remember things in ways that make sense to us I suspect, although at the time, only the word stood out. She presented as a model patient, and was not at all upset that I was running behind time and was almost an hour late before I was able to see her. “These things happen,” she said with the same smile she’d worn through the whirlwind out front. “I carried a book with me, just in case.”

I brought up her file on the computer as she sat contentedly across the desk inspecting the art work on the walls. I’d not seen her before, but the only thing the family doctor had sent me was the result of a pap smear she’d done recently. Alexisse was a new patient for her as well, and apparently had not had a pap done for over ten years. But worse, the smear was read as showing some malignant cells.

“Did you find the pap smear results?” she suddenly asked, the smile still on her face.

I nodded and looked at her for a moment before speaking. She didn’t seem at all upset so I assumed her GP hadn’t discussed the results with her. Of course the diagnosis was unlikely to be firm until a biopsy of her cervix had been done, so perhaps she had decided to wait until I did that before discussing it with Alexisse.

“Dr. Mandel said you’d be able to confirm the diagnosis with a biopsy.”

The smile never left her face but I was drawn instead to her eyes –they were totally neutral. Cool, if anything. “What did Dr. Mandel say about the pap smear?”

Alexisse shrugged. “Well, for a start, she tried to downplay everything. She said that pap smears are only screening tests and so sometimes they are mistaken…” She stopped for a moment and stared at me with an unchanged expression. “But even when somebody goes to great lengths to paint a black paper white, you know it still ends up looking grey.” Her eyes sought mine to see if I understood.

I approached the topic carefully. “So… What do you think she was trying to tell you?”

Another shrug. “That I have cancer of the cervix.” She said it as if I had asked her about her last period.

I was speechless for a moment. There was no sign that she was upset. No tears. No tightening of her facial muscles. Just the smile –the mask. “You don’t seem very upset. Your family doctor must have done a good job of discussing it with you.”

Alexisse shook her head. “She seemed a little confused about what to say. She asked me if I had any questions, and when I didn’t, said she’d send me to see you.” She stared at me for a while and when she saw that I looked puzzled as well, sat back in her chair.

“I have alexithymia,” she said as she reached nonchalantly into her purse to turn off a phone that was ringing. I must have cocked my head, because her expression intensified. “It’s a condition that makes it difficult to feel emotions –even identify them as such. I’ve learned to put a smile on my face along with my makeup in the morning.”

I started to ask if it was a type of autism, but she saw the word forming in my mouth and waved it away. “Only half of us with the condition are autistic, if that’s what you’re going to ask…” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m sure it’s a spectrum disorder –worse in some, less in others.” The smile appeared again. “And the next question you’re going to ask is about my name. Isn’t it a little suspicious that my name is almost the same as the condition? I mean I can almost see everybody thinking it. Go online and you’ll see the community calls its members ‘Alexes’. It’s why I’ve started pronouncing my first name differently…” She sighed briefly. “I don’t think the condition is even accepted by mainstream psychiatrists yet. It wasn’t in the DSM IV at any rate… But I have to admit I haven’t looked lately.”


She crossed her arms and stared out the window. “I’ve always wondered about why everybody except me seemed to get excited about things. I can’t remember ever being angry, or crying at a movie. People thought I was weird.” She shifted her position on the chair. “Anyway, I looked up the etymology of Alexis –which is how my parents spelled the name- and realized it came from the Greek for ‘without speech’. It didn’t take Dr. Google very long after that to introduce me to alexithymia.

“And no, I haven’t had a formal diagnosis. Dr. Mandel asked me about that.”

I sat back slightly on my chair to get the computer screen out of the way. “Well, frankly I’m more concerned with doing a biopsy as soon as possible than with any personality disorder you might have…” I wanted her to know that the most important thing to think about at that moment was her health. I meant well, but her facial expression changed immediately. She looked almost angry –hurt, at the very least.

“Personality disorder? And that I might have?” Her whole body tensed at the perceived insult. “I think you’re being entirely too insensitive, doctor!” She shook her head slowly. “Just like my family doctor. Now you see why I don’t go to doctors very often.” She started to get up from her seat. “Your secretary can let me know when you’re going to do the biopsy,” she said, still shaking her head in disbelief. “You all seem to ignore who I am for what I have…” She fixed me with a glare that almost pinned me to my seat then left the room with a toss of her head… Anger?

She never showed up for any of the biopsy appointments despite multiple phone calls from both our office and her family doctor’s. I can only hope she sought help from someone who listened to her pleas for understanding. I don’t know whether she actually had alexithymia or some other mental issue such as schizophrenia, but it clearly seemed to interfere with her ability to process information appropriately. I’ve since learned that alexithymia is often associated with other psychiatric disorders, so perhaps she had decided to fixate on a more acceptable but obscure variation. Maybe she’d been wearing another mask -one that even she had not suspected. Or one that she found too difficult to acknowledge…

I also Googled the word and discovered that the BBC had an article on it that was dated a month or so prior to her visit: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150818-what-is-it-like-to-have-never-felt-an-emotion I remain open to convincing, but I keep remembering what Iago said in Shakespeare’s Othello: ‘I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at. I am not what I am.

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.


Cancer of the uterine cervix is a sexually transmitted disease; it is the second most common cancer of women in the world and it is spread sexually. Who would have guessed? The clues were there all along, of course: it was more common in sex workers, and women who had become sexually active at an early age; it was rare in nuns… But it took a while to connect the dots -and for technology to catch up with suspicions: viruses couldn’t even be visualized until the invention of the electron microscope, although their existence was suspected much earlier using filters with holes too small for bacteria to pass through. And then their DNA had to be identified in cervical cancer cells… and classified. It was a long journey all right.

But sexual transmission? The jump from abnormal Pap smear to the bedroom was -and is- a hard sell.  The fact that more than 80% of sexually active humans have been exposed to the virus was hard enough, but add to that the knowledge that the vast majority of teenage infections will clear on their own because of the vigorous immune response at that age, and you have a recipe for confusion. Or complacency.

Cancer of the cervix is rare before the age of 25 -the virus has a long prodromal developmental period- so after telling women how important Pap smears were in preventing, or at least detecting, this infectious cancer, raising the age of the initial Pap smear from the time of first sexual activity to age 21 in North America, did little to foster understanding. And then playing with the frequency and mode of surveillance for the rest of the age groups… Well, it was almost a breach of trust; changing the rules after years of teaching was just not on.

I mention this only to put the contemporary problems of counselling young women into some perspective. Especially now that vaccination against some of the more common and troublesome varieties of Human Papilloma Virus is possible. Vaccination has always had its opponents, and HPV is no different. But for my practice, there seem to be two major questions that arise: the need for continuing screening after vaccination, and the need for vaccination if a woman has already had a pre-cancerous condition treated.

These are confusing, if not vexing questions. There are at least 15 types of HPV that cause cancer but only two major varieties that account for the vast majority of cases in the community: types 16 and 18 (they’re numbered, rather than given cutesy names). These are the strains that are incorporated into the current vaccines. So if a woman has already had dysplasia -the pre-cancerous condition caused by the virus- it will have been caused by only one of those types and she is still vulnerable to the other. And therefore she still needs to be vaccinated. I get asked this every day, I think. Fortunately the schools in my province have incorporated the HPV vaccination into the early grades at school -hopefully before sexual exposure- so the question may well be an anachronism in the foreseeable future.

But the need for continuing screening in a vaccinated population is more difficult to understand in an era brought up on the concept of herd immunity: the idea that the more people who are vaccinated, the less prevalent the virus, and hence the less chance of being exposed to it. What tends to get forgotten, however, is that there is never a completely protected group: we are a heterogeneous society with new, unprotected people entering it from outside; immunity may wane; less common strains or perhaps novel viruses might gain prevalence and not be incorporated into the contemporary vaccine products. No, there are many reasons not to let down the guard of vigilant surveillance.

But a problem still persists: HPV doesn’t behave at all like a sexually transmitted infection in the minds of most people. We have come to expect cause and effect to be temporally accountable: the unprotected sexual encounter last week results in identifiable symptoms this week. Blame is assignable; lessons are learned. But with HPV, cause and effect are often separated by uncharted and imponderable years of time. There are seldom symptoms, seldom acquired wisdom. No one -or everyone- seems culpable: a difficult take-home message indeed. As I have already suggested, the voyage from Pap to Prevention is a stormy one.

But maybe this is just a generational thing: what we find difficult to assimilate today, will be greeted with a knowledgeable shrug tomorrow. We are creatures of more than structural evolution; more than linear accrual. As Shakespeare says: We know what we are, but know not what we may be. Or even better: Lord, what fools these mortals be!