Neurological diseases are a matter of science. They are measured and they are measurable, recipes so nuanced that had they been capable of being reproduced by gifted chefs, it is easy to imagine that Julia Child might have retired much sooner had she bungled early attempts to recreate them at Le Cordon Bleu.
Multiple Sclerosis, for example, involves a complex batter of CNS inflammation, brain and spine lesions, axonal degeneration, a certain number of oligoclonal bands, various clinical anomalies, fatigue, phantom pain, optic neuritis. The recipe is not exclusive; other diseases share some of these ingredients. Lyme disease, PML, Transient Ischemic Attacks, Diabetes, bone and blood cancers, atherosclerosis, migraines, Fibromyalgia, thyroid diseases, herpes zoster varicella, Parkinson’s. Think of how many recipes use eggs, milk, flour and butter. The light-weight chef might easily set out to make a perfect cheese soufflé and wind up with cheese bread. The dish might look and taste like a soufflé, but only the sophisticated palate of Jacques Pepin could vet this concoction and advise the staff as to whether today’s special is soufflé de fromage or pan de fromage.
The palate of a gifted neurologist can usually vet a cluster of neurological symptoms, evaluate the location and shape of lesions, count the oligoclonal bands in the spinal fluid and compare them to those in the blood serum, review the patient’s history of probable flares. The criteria for an MS diagnosis are quantitative as well as qualitative: four o-bands, three lesions, two flares. The degree of disability is measured by numbers on the EDSS, the number of new lesions and their sizes are measured, the number of flares is measured, and the speed of electrical impulses from the eye to the brain is measured. It is science and it is measurable, which suggests that, after a diagnosis is confirmed, it continues to be measurable. And if it is measurable, we assume that the measuring will continue to yield new epiphanies. We assume that these epiphanies will support the narratives we speak to ourselves about how to live.
One narrative is that taking medication will help us live better. The neurologist whose palate identified the sour taste of MS recommends a sweet and protective dressing of disease-modifying therapies. These recipes, too, are science. They are measurable. Their mechanisms have been studied and the dosages have been tested in FDA trials. Interferons, glatiramer acetate, natalizumab, fingolimod. Each has its way of preventing T-cells from damaging myelin. Clinical trials show a 30 percent reduction in relapses compared to placebo. The narrative we tell ourselves is that if we take these drugs then we will have 30 percent fewer relapses. The narrative bespeaks a slowdown in disease progression over our lifetimes. We assume that our improvement will be measurable and that these outcomes will support the narratives we tell each other about how to live well with MS. We do not need to have faith, we have science.
But this is not true.
The more we learn about the therapies, the more gray areas we encounter. Clinical trials, for example, showed a 30 percent reduction in relapses compared to placebo. But this means that the 600 people who took the drug had 30 percent fewer relapses than the control group of 600 people who took a sugar pill. The trial subjects all had a history of at least one flare per year. Their histories of frequent relapses made their outcomes easier to measure.
In real life, we all relapse at various intervals. Our relapse rate on any of the disease-modifying therapies will not reflect that of the trials. If we have a history of relapses that occurred every four or five years, we will have no way of knowing whether the drug is working until many years have passed. We know that relapses follow no particular pattern. The attacks are random. We have no way to measure the number of relapses that might have been had we not taken the therapy. The drug maker asserts no claim that the therapy will actually work at all. If there is a faith narrative within the research community conducting a trial, it is part of the method, the hypothesis that must be tested and then quickly abandoned if the measuring fails to support it.
Science extends no faith narrative to the patient community. Not faith, but rather, hope. We eagerly pick up on the hope narrative. Hope for a cure, new hope for experimental therapy, renewed hope for a cure. We hope that our new therapy will slow the progression and buy us time until there is a cure. HOPE 4 MS is the most common name for MS support groups. Hope can distract us from the breakdown of other narratives. Taking my medications will make my life better. The more compliant and knowledgeable I become, the better I will be, both physically and emotionally. I’m feeling worse than ever, but I have hope that a better therapy will come along.
Belief in a higher power offers both hope and faith. Religious narratives are useful and comforting. If I remain faithful to God, I will be rewarded. I pray to God and he hears me. Doing good will put me in favor with God. I prayed that God would restore my vision and after four years of blindness, he blessed me by restoring my eyesight. The most pious among us acknowledge no gray areas. Your prayers will be answered. If you give yourself to Jesus you will be saved. Tragedies happen for a reason; God wants us to learn something important from them. Evil is always punished; good is always rewarded.
The positive thinking narrative works similarly. It is the single loudest narrative in American culture. If I think good thoughts then good things will happen. Stay positive. A happy person is a healthy person. If I believe strongly enough that my cancer will be cured, then it will. The premise of positive thinking is denial. I’m going to beat my Stage IV cancer, I don’t care what the statistics say. Depression can be avoided if people would just get a positive attitude. I never get sick because I don’t believe in disease. It’s mind over matter.
When we speak these narratives to each other and to ourselves, in what, exactly, do we have faith? When our faith breaks down, what is it that makes us fall apart?
The core of our faith is in the belief that our narratives are true. Ten million people can’t be wrong. We lose our minds when we fear that something we’ve heard and repeated so many times was only wishful thinking.
The responses to this breakdown are many. Depression, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide. But the majority of us respond with denial. For most of us it is a necessary choice. The devout Christian doesn’t abandon her belief in Jesus for very long. Religion is useful and comforting and loopholes abound. God works in mysterious ways. Yes, of course, she says to herself, there is so much I don’t understand. She begins to feel better, her terror all but forgotten. Many of us can abandon the untrue narrative and embrace a new one, something that might be true. Copaxone wasn’t working after all, I’m going to stop. But Gilenya has a better relapse rate, this might be the one.
The bravest souls among us are also the boldest. Not only do they abandon the narratives they find false through a crisis, they regularly analyze their narratives and willfully cast out those they feel no longer serve them. They search for no substitutes. They are not unhappy people, only brutally honest. They can live in the moment and say what they observe, knowing that everything could change the moment they finish a sentence. They need no god or hope or platitudes to feel secure. Security itself is a false narrative.
Multiple Sclerosis constantly challenges our life narratives. Disease happens to other people, not to me. I’m going to be one of that 33 percent of MS patients who will never need a wheelchair. I’m not having a flare, just a bad day. I’ve had MS for twenty years and never had optic neuritis, so I’ll never have optic neuritis. I’ve taken Avonex for nine years, so this new problem with seizures must have been caused by something else.
The patient with chronic disease waits for science to catch up to the hope. Whether we embrace, abandon, or modify our narratives is a matter of coping and it is very personal. Our relationship with science is circular; through our life narratives, we maintain our faith that science will triumph, and this brings us hope. Science feeds our hope. The more it advances, the simpler the recipe becomes. Less is more. This new cancer treatment kills only the abnormal cells.
The murmur of new MS narratives can already be heard—the rest can be easily imagined. The MS treatment of the future will be individualized; we’ll know the person’s bio-markers, her blueprint, if you will, deliver two or three designer molecules to the right spot and presto, she’ll run around the block again. It’s so simple. Why didn’t we see it before?