Headline: “Woman cured of throat cancer after licking Elvis stamp”
Thirty years ago, a colleague gave me a copy of an article from a tabloid. A woman with progressive swallowing and talking problems was, sadly, found to have throat cancer.
To boost her spirits, she listened to Elvis tapes and bought some of the brand new Elvis stamps. Shortly after paying some bills and using the new stamps, she noticed that she felt much better. "All of a sudden I could swallow again ... I couldn't believe it." A medical expert confirmed that her cancer had completely disappeared! He was quoted in the tabloid as saying, "Medically speaking, her sudden total recovery cannot be explained."
The patient gave credit to the King. "It was Elvis sending his love from the spirit world." It certainly was an inspiring story.
Unfortunately, these types of Elvis-related medical cures are not common. Perhaps there are some reasons for this:
Elvis stamps are out of circulation now. The stamp pictured in the article sold for 29¢, which has not been the first class postage rate since 1995.
No one licks stamps anymore. What if someone could be cured of throat cancer by licking one of the current Forever stamps? We will never know.
Apparently, the cure was possible only because the Elvis stamp got close to the cancer during the actual licking process. What if the person had cancer of a different part of the body? How would she have needed to moisten the Elvis stamp to have an effect on, say, a brain tumor or, heaven forbid, a colorectal cancer?
Dr. Sherwin Nuland, in the epilogue of his book, The Mysteries Within: A Surgeon Explores Myth, Medicine, and the Human Body, writes about two different approaches to understanding "Truth."
Empiricism, which is generally associated with “traditional” Western medicine, insists on data. In empiricism, truth changes only when enough data show that a prevalent understanding is faulty. Think of randomized controlled trials, meta-analyses, public health interventions, and peer review. Empiricism has been the basis for mainstream medicine's steadily improving outcomes over the course of my career for a wide variety of acute and chronic diseases including diabetes, cancer, heart disease and, of course, COVID-19.
Rationalism, on the other hand, fits any available data to preconceived images of what the truth is. In this view, truth is fixed. No amount of data can alter it. Many health-related theories and pronouncements fall under this approach.
Most adherents to the “Elvis stamp throat cancer cure” probably fell into the Rationalism camp.
The Elvis stamp story provides an extreme example, of course but, over the course of my surgical practice, I was frequently handed printouts and articles touting various dietary supplements and “cancer cures” that had never been empirically tested. This increased in the later years of my practice as the Internet became more accessible to people. To be honest, I was happy that people felt comfortable enough to ask for my thoughts. I doubt that my views held much sway, though.
The oddest claims often had the most unshakably loyal supporters. The discussions I had about these products fully satisfied neither the patients nor me. The patients likely suspected I was part of some giant medical-industrial cabal that profited by keeping the public sick and dependent on care. To be fair, my income did partially depend on having them undergo surgery and return for follow-up visits. That is the way our health system works.
Still, I suspected that some of the people who questioned my motives leaned into some of the conspiracy theories. Empiricism and Rationalism can be very, very far apart.
My training, experience, and convictions put me firmly in the Empiricism camp and I remain there today. I will never truly understand how my patients and I could have been so far apart at times.
Still, would it have been okay to keep a few Elvis stamps around, just in case?