My own first experience with the phenomenon had a comical flavour. My late grandmother, a dedicated hypochondriac, studied her every ache with great gravity and suddenly complained of chest pains. Her GP examined her and prescribed three little white pills daily – privately confiding to my mum that they were ‘just peppermint’ – a placebo, no less. Sure enough, gran’s pains vanished whenever she took her regular dose and reappeared when she missed a day.
In a more serious case, a deeply religious lady, Mrs Bay, was diagnosed with advanced leukaemia. Most people would have been devastated, but she took it as a sign that God was using her to prove that his love could cure all, and positively bloomed throughout the treatment, which was successful.
It seems unlikely that a positive attitude could, in itself, cure a serious condition. However, I often notice it reduces suffering and fear.
At 65, Mr Barr was diagnosed with three life-threatening conditions simultaneously – mediastinal lymphoma, an aortic aneurysm and a leaking cardiac valve, the latter two inoperable. A problem-solver by nature, he told me he never lost a moment’s sleep over this, regarding it as something ‘outside himself’ like a faulty engine, tap or television. ‘Just another problem like anything else,’ he said casually. Three years on, he’s still alive and unworried.
Whether through problem-solving, placebo, faith or whatever mechanism, PMA seems something nurses could usefully study and teach.
Lesley McHarg is a second-year nursing student in Scotland