Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Only Balance

It's been a few days now since the headline-generating news about mammograms. (Another, similar, study on tests for cervical cancer went relatively unnoticed.) In a nutshell, the new study suggests that women have been misled (most likely with the best of intentions) about the efficacy of frequent mammography (radioactive photographs of the breast) and - perhaps most shocking - the self-examination that has been drummed into them for decades like a mantra. Predictably, Letters to the Editor, and interviews with professionals and advocates for women's health issues have responded angrily. The study advises less frequent screening, for a variety of reasons backed up by years of data. The angry individuals assert that screening can save lives, with minimal cost or bother. (Few people, I noticed, mention the radiation involved in frequent screening - regardless of its efficacy.)
I cannot be the only woman who reads both sides of this contentious issue and asks herself whom to believe? Even with my science training, I find it a huge muddle of pros and cons to weed through. No wonder there is so much disrespect for scientists in the general public!
I had not intention of trying to come to a conclusion here. I want to bring this up because it reminds me of one of the human mind's great weaknesses: the inability to achieve balance. It is far easier to dwell in one ideological extreme or the other than to strike a happy medium. We can all think of an example of someone who didn't just convert to a noble cause, but became an insufferable zealot. And I have met many people who either really love something or really hate it - no in between.
The Buddhists understood this tendency well. They advise the Middle Way. Neither abject poverty and hair-shirt self-deprivation, nor distracting self-indulgence should be your goal (differing quite signifcantly from many religions). Similarly, you should avoid either plunging into despair or soaring into exultation: both wreak havoc on the spirit. Simple lifestyle, serene demeanor ... how easy to prescribe and how difficult to attain in this modern world!
As for the conflicting schools of risk assessment: to our inherent human frailty, we have medical technology, statistics, and politics to add to the mix. How do we choose the right point on the spectrum from fear to reassurance?

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