I asked my respected physician, Dr. John Tolbert Jones, “Beyond diet, exercise and not abusing drugs, how vigilant should I be regarding my health?” His answer: “Let the river run.”
Alas, despite medical science’s progress, it may be wisest to focus on such time-honored preventives as diet and stress reduction, and when you have a health worry, to err on the side of letting time heal…or not. Let the river run.
If you run to the doctor too often, you increase the risk of the following cascade occurring. He or she orders a test(s). The results indicate that treatment is recommended. That treatment may work, fail, or have side effects that may be worse than the disease. Alas, many of us know of someone with cancer who suffered and was weakened by expensive chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery, who enjoyed too little improvement in quality of life before a recurrence and another round of difficult treatment followed by death.
And that assumes a disease’s treatment is conducted without serious error. Fact is, 210,000 to 440,000 people die unnecessarily because of medical mistakes every year! And with the Affordable Care Act providing health care to tens of millions of additional people without proportionately increasing the number of doctors, nurses, MRI machines, and hospital beds, the number of medically induced deaths and unnecessarily long recoveries will likely increase.
In light of the above, here is my approach to prevention, worrisome symptoms, and disease.
NOTE: I am not a medical doctor nor am I offering medical advice here. I’m merely explaining my philosophy of health care, which informs the conversation when my coaching clients want to discuss health issues.
Alas, no matter what you do, there are no guarantees. We all know of people who lived healthily and got some horrible disease. But mainstream advice (for example, the Mayo Clinic's) remains that the the best preventatives are the old standards: control your weight and blood pressure, do moderate exercise, don’t smoke, don’t overstress, and avoid substance abuse whether cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs. A new study by Harvard and Northwestern researchers that found that even casual use of marijuana causes brain damage should give us additional pause.
Depending on your age and health status, you may be able to skip the annual checkup. Research is calling its risk/reward into question. Here are current guidelines from the National Institutes of Health.
When You’re Worried About a Sensation
What if you’re worried about some sensation, for example, an unexplained headache or stomach pain? I again rely on my doc’s advice: “If it isn’t scary or severe pain, wait a bit. Most pains go away by themselves.” And if you don't see the doc, it's no cost, no hassle, no errors.
When You’re Diagnosed with a Serious Illness
I can’t predict how I’d respond if I actually received a serious diagnosis but here’s what I think I’d do. Yes, I’d get a second opinion but I might not ask my doctor for the referral. I might independently find someone, perhaps someone who has excellent Yelp reviews. If that second opinion confirmed the first, I’d accept treatment.
End of Life
My mom is nearing her life's end. Recently, I put her in hospice and am glad I did. Her quality of life is bad and I can’t imagine she’d want to be tortured with more invasive tests and painful treatments perhaps followed by, when she can no longer swallow, a feeding tube. My mom is still at home but her caretakers and the visiting hospice people keep her quite comfortable. Of course, every person’s situation is different.
A Philosophy of Life
It’s unwise to obsess about health but awareness of its fragility reminds us to live each day as richly as possible. For some, that means to play a lot, for others, to be very productive. For example, Isaac Asimov, who had written 450 books, was asked, “If you had six months to live, what would you do?” He replied, “Write faster.”
Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's bio is on Wikipedia.