Health screening programmes are becoming increasingly popular since early intervention has a better chance of success than when trying to cure a chronic condition. Many people in the UK who have nothing wrong with them are offered free health screening.
Two examples are a test for bowel cancer and one for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The first assessment involves people gathering and posting off samples of faeces and the second attending a clinic for an ultrasound test. Large aneurysms are rare but can be very serious as they might burst.
Some individuals are reluctant to spend time complying with screening if there is nothing wrong with them especially if follow-up testing promises to be time-consuming and not without any financial penalty. Some people fear screening might reveal something physically unusual or abnormal which they consider may not be significant in terms of well-being and functioning. A particular screening test might be known to be liable to false alarms. Some might be put off the tests because of subsequent treatments – such as chemotherapy or surgery – having known negative side effects, as serious as incontinence or impotence.
However, given the care taken, by the public authorities who offer screening, to first examine all the medical considerations, there is a question that arises. Are those people, with doubts about screening, being negatively swayed by their deeper beliefs and attitudes regarding life and death? Perhaps it is difficult to disentangle the affects of religion, culture and personal bias on personal choice. Here are 6 attitudes which seem to be relevant.
Screening will trigger anxiety about dangerous disease
Some people won’t mention the word ‘cancer’ which for them is a taboo word. Pain, and death seem such awful things that they feel that “when you have no symptoms of any problem, advertised screening tests can make you anxious when you really didn’t need to be.”
Rather than use avoidance I would say a more rational approach is to honestly face anything bad and then you can have a hope of dealing with it. My own spiritual belief is that we can face the possibility of bad news with equanimity knowing that we can only cope with what we can cope with and the rest is in God’s hands. Furthermore I feel I can face death relatively calmly in the light of what has been revealed regarding the spiritual world described by Emanuel Swedenborg from his own experience.
Better to retain personal autonomy than become a dependent patient
The macho male wants to cling to an image of manhood as one of power through independence. Such a man will resist the prospect of being vulnerable in illness and be anxious to avoid finding out that he will be ill or infirm. I would suggest he does rather need to swallow his male pride and realise one doesn’t have to be a hypochondriac to be concerned to do what you can to have an illness diagnosed.
Screening is unnecessary as God will cure those who pray for healing
This is the view that medical treatment is unnecessary because only God can cure disease. Is it not magical thinking if people were to pray for and expect physical healing? It is as if God were a giant genie at the beck and call of every human whim. An alternative religious view is that God provides for our eternal needs and works through medicine to deal when it can with our temporary ones. After all even the most devoutly religious people can end up getting sick.
Screening is useless as you can’t change your fate
Some people believe it doesn’t matter what they decide because their future is written in the stars and what will be will be. Sometimes this fatalistic attitude is accompanied with a view that medical treatment cannot help because of the law of karma since “We reap what we sow”: and so acting irresponsibly, if not in this life then in a previous one, (e.g. adopting bad diet, smoking, excessive alcohol) will result in unchangeable consequences.
The modern medical view however is whilst life-style undoubtedly is an important factor in causing disease, one’s health can be improved by appropriate treatment if needed. For mainstream Christianity, the future may be foreseen by God, but not predestined, for what is foreseen depends on our personal choices now; our inner free-will enabling us to create our own destiny.
Disease is deserved punishment from God
This is the notion that if you are ill, it is the will of God. In line with this belief, disease is seen as a punishment for immoral behaviour from a punitive God. For example we find the attitude “HIV and cervical cancer is caused by promiscuity and so one must take one’s deserved punishment for immoral conduct.”
I favour an alternative view that God is not punitive but compassionate. I would say we are allowed to suffer the consequences of our personal choices if this helps towards learning the lessons of life but a loving God punishes no one for any past misdeed.
Screening is relevant to leading life to the full
It is difficult to fault this belief. I am probably in danger of sounding sanctimonious, but I feel I should be doing all I can to live my life to the full, choosing to help the lives of my loved ones and those around me be as happy as I can. Allowing a disease to go undetected, and thus untreated, could be unnecessarily burdening a future carer. This for me is the clinching reason for making the effort to attend medical screening appointments.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems