Too much information

Thursday, November 4, 2004

Growing up in "Swampeast Missouri," I had just assumed that mosquitoes were a necessary nuisance. Lately, I have been forced to see them as terrorist killers from the West Nile. SARS makes me think twice about getting on an airplane with strangers and this looming, unprotected flu season has me tempted to copy Michael Jackson's face-gear fashion statement.

I always thought the more information the merrier. But I'm starting to wonder.

In last week's column I explored the issue of genetic testing as one way of assessing our disease risk. I figured most of my peers would agree that it is a good thing. But they didn't.

A poll of my friends, neighbors and readers found that, although 52 percent claimed they would definitely get a genetic test if it could tell them what killer genes were hiding out in their bodies, a surprising 48 percent were negative in various degrees on the subject.

I was shocked that so many in our famously informed society would not thirst for whatever tidbit of knowledge they could get their greedy little hands on in order to defy Mother Nature's inevitable morbid plan for us.

One gal pal dismissed the whole subject with this: "Who needs a gene test anyway? I already know I am dying from my jeans being too tight. Doesn't that count?"

My oldest friend, John, echoed many when he told me: "You and I are 57. By this time, barring a spectacular death with a bus load of retired folk on their happy way to some casino, we have a good idea of how we will die, probably in some cancerous or pulmonary or cardiac event. We already have lots of predictive medical tests, which I favor and support for preventative reasons. But if your gene test is for curiosity purposes only, then I don't think I will take it, favoring instead to be surprised by whatever proverbial bridge abutment awaits my arrival."

Perhaps these folks are like Woody Allen: not afraid to die, they just don't want to be there when it happens.

The majority of my correspondents did enthusiastically endorse genetic testing as a way of gaining more control over their healthspan. Many also said that the better information would help them and their families make more informed choices and better prepare for the future. Yet, even though I am in a profession that uses information to both heal and inform, I have my questions about whether or not we are actually benefitting from "too much information."

Those high-tech, full-body scans are a good example.

I got one of these "virtual physicals" and although it showed me to be in good cardiovascular shape, it did reveal a suspicious tumor-like shadow on my kidney. My doctor, who wasn't all that crazy about me getting one of these tests to begin with, was then put into the position of having to send me off for a more specific CT scan. Over $4,000 and many anxious moments later, I gratefully received a disconfirmation of my worst fears. The offensive stain on my body scan turned out to be scar tissue from an operation I had when I was 13.

We live in an era of increasingly powerful information. But are we purchasing more fear than usable information?

I am sure, however, that I might have thought differently about the emotional and financial costs of these tests if it had turned out to be a cancerous mass and the early detection could have saved my life.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@ semissourian.com.

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