The Risk of Suffering

We are surrounded by health risks. Each day we make choices to avoid those risks—at least the ones we know about. Doing that could turn into a fulltime job. Because time is scarce, we often use our intuition and rules of thumb. Some common strategies include following the recommendations of friends and family, health professionals, and people identified as health experts. On your own, you draw your own conclusions from reports in the media, any journals you might read, and the promotional materials for products and services.

This is a tricky business. An ocean of information exists on risks. Yet another ocean exists on what to do about those risks. How do you sift through it? Would you want to?

So I was pleased to see that researchers at the Veterans Administration created a risk chart and published it in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. It sounded like a good idea: use a consistent method to compare the risk of dying from the top dozen causes and organize them by age, sex, and smoking status. In a separate editorial, the important issue of how best to communicate this kind of science to civilians was discussed.

But it was all very disappointing. As I read the article and examined the risk chart I realized two things. First, it wasn’t about risks but about what you’re likely to die from. Second, it was about dying, not suffering.

Although it is of interest to know that, for example, if you’re a man, you’re more likely to die in an accident than from prostate cancer. It’s also of interest that dying of the flu doesn’t even register as a likely cause of death—something to keep in mind when hysteria over getting vaccinated breaks out in the fall. The big news—although it shouldn’t be news at all—is that being a smoker makes it much more likely that you’ll die of a heart attack, stroke, lung cancer, pneumonia, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis.

So stop smoking. It’s bad for you.

What I discovered as I read this research was that I didn’t want to know what I was likely to die from but how I could avoid suffering until I die of whatever I’m going to die from. On the face of it, that seems an easy thing to do, what with the current focus on prevention in health science. But the study’s risk chart casts doubt on this, too. Despite decades of spending on research and treatment, there are two things you’re most likely to die from hands down: heart attack and cancer. In large part, this failure is the result of research on treatment rather than actual prevention. But we certainly know enough to know that environmental exposures, for example, are a principle cause of both heart disease and cancer.

So don’t expose yourself to environmental pollutants. It’s bad for you.

Nevertheless, what I want to know isn’t what I’m likely to die from. I can look at what my family history and make a pretty good guess. I want to know what puts me at risk of suffering. For example, I’d like to see a risk chart that compares suffering from treatments using pharmaceuticals to treatments using nutrients or a risk chart for cancer therapy that compares the standard cut, burn, and poison strategy to non-invasive therapies. Better yet, I’d like to see a risk chart about chronic diseases that compares the risks from different ways of life—where you live and how you live.

It seems to me unlikely that such a chart will ever exist. But I think we make those kinds choices every day. Sometimes we carefully examine evidence. More often we use our intuition and some serviceable rules of thumb. I’d like to recommend one: do the simplest thing first.

“Simplest” doesn’t always mean easiest, of course. It means simplest for your body—what your body understands well. That’s why compassion and nutrients are better than pharmaceuticals at reducing your risk of suffering.