Years ago I worked at a company that was trialling an experimental drug for terminal lung cancer. The drug was vastly expensive and not particularly effective – less than 50 per cent of patients responded, and even among responders it extended life only by a few months. Even so, patients who had exhausted all their options – or rather, their families – were pounding at our doors to get hold of it.
In the internet age nothing stays secret for long and soon families whose relatives were dying of cancers other than those of the lung also started calling us, desperate for this drug. There was no legal way we could give them the medication but some family members persisted and would ring to harangue us on a daily basis.
One particular man struck a nerve. His wife was dying of breast cancer and had only weeks to live – a tragedy for their young family. But during one of his calls the husband revealed an even greater tragedy. This deeply religious woman’s cancer had been diagnosed early, when it was treatable and potentially curable, but she had refused surgery and chemotherapy and instead decided to rely on the ”power of prayer” to cure herself.
Prayer alone did not cure her. By the time her family decided to embrace modern medicine, it was too late.
My colleagues and I were sympathetic, but couldn’t help feeling that this woman’s decision was misguided, almost arrogant. Christianity has been around for 2000 years and devout Christians have been dying of cancer and other diseases for just as long. So why did this woman think her prayers would be answered, when those of others clearly hadn’t been? We can’t ask her to explain because she died.
What brought this to mind was the revelation in Walter Isaacson’s recent biography Steve Jobs that the late co-founder of Apple delayed having surgery for his slow-growing and potentially curable pancreatic cancer for nine months, electing to rely on spiritual healing and alternative therapies to rid him of the disease. He’s reported to have later regretted this decision, seeming to acknowledge that it may have cost him years, if not his life.
Jobs may have consulted a different deity to the Christian woman, but his ”treatment” methods seem equally misguided.
It struck me as curious that a man who was a major driver of technological progress in the world, when faced with his own health challenges, rejected the advances of modern medicine in favour of herbal remedies and Eastern mysticism, which from where I sit haven’t been wholly successful at ridding the world of cancer. He was obviously a man of prodigious intellect and immense self-belief. Did that self-belief ultimately prove destructive, as he succumbed to the magical thinking that he could purge his body of cancer simply through the power of the mind?