Friday, August 27, 2010

Know your Body

Back when I was a kid, the American Cancer Society would run regular spots that would enumerate signs that might indicate the presence of cancer. These would always end with the same punch-line, "Fight cancer with a checkup and a check" (as in a donation to the American Cancer Society). For as long as I have been on my own, I have tried to be conscientious about having regular physical examinations; and I am now at an age when "regular" means "annual." Nevertheless, I find it interesting that our popular media are no longer used to cultivate an awareness of health risk factors on a regular basis.

Thus, while I have been pretty hard on the British press recently for their level of arts coverage, I was glad to see that there is a British university still interested in cancer risk factors and that BBC News felt that their results are newsworthy. Following the best standards of good journalism, the BBC has provided everything you need to know in the opening paragraphs of the story posted on their Web site (along with a bullet list further down the page):

The eight unexplained symptoms most closely linked to cancer have been highlighted by researchers.

The Keele University team also points to the age at which patients should be most concerned by the symptoms, which include blood in urine and anaemia.

The other symptoms are: rectal blood, coughing up blood, breast lump or mass, difficulty swallowing, post-menopausal bleeding and abnormal prostate tests.

Now that the mass media seem to feel less responsible for providing public service, my guess is that we shall not be exposed to this list regularly through spots on our favorite channels. Of course there is no substitute for being aware of your body's normative state and tracking any departure from that state, and this is a principle that has been reinforced by several of my primary care providers. However, having an easily managed list of warning signs shifts that sense of awareness from the general to the specific; and, as a rule, we tend to be better with specificities than with generalities.

The corollary to this message is clearly that, when you become aware that something is different and may indicate risk of a more serious problem, you need to let a physician know. Supposedly, one of the objectives of health care reform was to make this process more available to more people. Needless to say, it is questionable whether or not the resulting legislation has achieved this goal; and, if that objective was undermined, then the recent New York Review report by Jonathan Oberlander and Theodore Marmor ("The Health Bill Explained at Last") provides one of the most explicit accounts of the institutions responsible for the undermining and their motives for doing so. In the perspective of that report, it is more understandable why informing the public of health risks is not a priority of our media businesses. Like it or not, we are victims of a ruling class that want us to be good consumers, whether or not we are healthy ones.

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