Tuesday, February 14, 2012

It's just a toad.

I've mentioned being very behind on things.  Wait, maybe that was on my other blog.  Well, anyway, one of the things I fell behind on (among the many things) due to being sick every other week for over 3 months was my "fun" science reading in my office (not to be confused with required science reading, which can be sometimes fun and sometimes so boring that I feel like sticking needles in  my eyes).  So in an attempt to reign in the chaos of my office I've been clearing out some recycleables, aka documents and journals, a little at a time.  My desk was in pretty good shape by end of last week so today I tackled some of the reading on my table. Three categories - 1) scientific journals that I should at least scan through for articles relevant to me, 2) trade periodicals like "CAP Today" that are relevant for diagnostics industry in general (where I work), and 3) the science magazines aimed at scientists (both professional and armchair) that are pretty fun to read through.  So those last ones are the hardest to part with if I haven't gone through them, and I often have issues of Science News or The Scientist that are many many months old.

So what?  Yes, get to it. Today I stumbled on an editorial piece in The Scientist from August of this year written by Richard P. Sloan - a bigshot professor at Columbia in Behavioral Medicine.  It was entitled "Toads". I thought maybe there would be something about poisonous toads taking over Australia, or about the disappearance of amphibian species (but that would be entitled "Frogs", not "Toads" I would think).  But the subtitle is "Ascribing benefits to the experience of devastating illness or trauma is fraught with hidden dangers"

huh?  Well, here is a link to the article if you want to read it yourself, but I will summarize a little: http://the-scientist.com/2011/08/01/toads/

The highlighted quote (you know, the one that they make in really big font in a side box of a magazine article to grab your attention) was "Casting an illness as a special opportunity for growth trivializes the adversity".  Now, I do not agree with all the statements and analogies in Dr. Sloan's piece. But many of us with chronic diseases or those who survive cancer, et al. have likely experienced something akin to a) an examination of ourselves and our behaviors, including guilt, because there is an assumption of moral irresponsibility associated with many illnesses, b) maybe some personal growth and change because illness can make you appreciate the gifts of life more (but as Dr. Sloane points out, there are lots of human experiences that lead to this type of growth that don't suck as much as being really sick), and/or c) comments from people suggesting you could be worse off because (diabetes) can be controlled and you can (opt to) live with it. I haven't had cancer yet, or any of a host of other "worse" diseases,  so I'm sure this last doesn't apply for all other illnesses.  I haven't had any comments like that about my digestive woes for example, except people who ask if it's because my diabetes hasn't been well controlled.

Or maybe you've suffered a traumatic illness and none of these things apply to you. Which makes sense to me, because like the author, I seriously doubt anyone would say "oh I wouldn't trade my hideous experience for anything in the world. It's the best thing that could have happened to me." And everyone takes away something different from every experience - both good and bad. 

Well, except for Lance Armstrong I guess.

Personally, I do like to take the opportunity to do some self-examination and regard the perspective of the world when bad things happen to me. If possible - but even for an optimist it doesn't always work that way. I have had at least one or two experiences that couldn't be spun.

Anyway, the toad reference was sort of obscure for me but it had something to do with realizing that despite a toad being adorned with jewels, it is still just a toad.  Dr. Sloane references a current agenda in biomedical research that is looking at the "postraumatic growth" or "benefit finding" aspects of the human experience with illness.  Apparently some researchers used a reference to The Wizard of Oz, stating that early stage breast cancer can lead to the "Emerald City of post-traumatic growth". Which confused me because I always thought the Emerald City was about some deception  and representing something to do with capitalism or money - I don't remember exactly what now, but I do remember in the book they all had to put on special glasses with green lenses before entering the city.  I guess the movie has a different version of the Emerald city where anything is possible. A much more optimistic take on the story, admittedly.

Again, I didn't follow the reasoning of the entire editorial, but I did agree with the final sentence of his piece:

"Illness is not a special blessing. It's not a visit to an Emerald City.  It's just a toad."

(Amen, brother!)

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