Why We Can’t Cure

IMG_2862Do you have an illness that can’t be cured? Do you have arthritis, Parkinson’s, or asthma? Diseases for which there is no cure. Do you have a cancer – and you are hoping for a ‘remission’ due to treatments of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, which even the doctors agree do not ‘cure’ cancers? Do you have a chronic headache, or any other chronic condition? Chronic diseases, by definition, cannot be cured. Why can’t we cure some illnesses?

When I researched the top 10 best selling drugs of 2011 – none of them claimed to ‘cure’ the disease.  Of the top 10 best selling drugs in 2008, none were promoted as a ‘cure’ for a disease.  I recently did a follow-up study of the top 100 best selling medicines of 2013. Of the top 70 best selling medicines in 2013, none cured the disease they were designed to treat. Of 100 medicines, only 3 actually cure the disease being treated, and only 5 attempt to cure the disease being treated. Those three medicines are all antibiotics.  Why do most medicines not cure? Why are the best selling medicines designed to ‘not cure’?

We need a clear definition of cure. Our medical systems and medical researchers sometimes play ‘fast and loose’ with the word cure, using different definitions in different situations, for different illnesses and even different treatments. According to Webster’s, cure is a noun, and a verb.

Cure (n): something (such as a drug or medical treatment) that stops a disease and makes someone healthy again

Cure (v): the act of making someone healthy again after an illness

A cure ‘cures’ the patient, making them healthy again. We don’t need a cure for cancer, we need cures for cancer patients.

According to Wiki, “Incurable” is defined thus: “A disease is said to be incurable if there is always a chance of the patient relapsing, no matter how long the patient has been in remission.

Then Wiki defines cure rate: “The proportion of people with a disease that are cured by a given treatment, called the cure fraction or cure rate, is determined by comparing disease-free survival of treated people against a matched control group that never had the disease.

Cure rate and cure fraction are actually measures of survival rate, or survival fraction. They are used mostly with cancerous diseases. Instead of counting cures, we count “disease free survival”. Cure fraction, and cure rate, are not actually ‘cures’. There are statistics for one-year cure rate, two-year cure rate, five-year cure rate, and so on, but if you search Google for ‘5 year cure rate’, you will get answers for ‘survival rate’. There is another serious problem with ‘cure rate’ as a cancer statistic, it ignores the actual deaths, and the cause of death for cancer patients. Cancer patients can die from cancer, from chemotherapy, from radiation, from surgery.  But cancer researchers and cancer statistics often ignore these numbers, focusing instead of ‘cure rate’.

From a healthicine perspective, you are cured when the illness is completely gone.  A cure only exists when the absence of disease can be verified. A cure is not necessarily complete recovery of health – many diseases and many treatments leave permanent damage.

Cause and Progression of Disease

How can we tell if someone was cured? There are two basic requirements:

1) the progression of the disease has stopped.
2) the cause of the disease has been eliminated.

And there’s the issue. Many treatments for illness, ‘incurable illnesses’, only treat the symptoms.  The aim is to remove the symptoms, in the false hope that this stops the progression of the disease.  But of course it’s possible for many diseases to progress ‘silently’ for long periods of time. We can only know that a disease is cured, when we have addressed the cause.

For many diseases, most especially cancers and chronic disease, we don’t know the cause, and we don’t attempt to find the cause. Our medical systems often treat illnesses as emergencies, where action is more important than understanding.  Thus, for many illnesses, a cure is not possible – or at the very least, very unlikely. This is a powerful reason why we can’t cure a disease – but there are many more, and numerous examples in each case.

Why we can’t cure a disease:

  • Illness is poorly defined and diagnosis is often general, not related to cause.
  • Chronic illnesses are defined as incurable so we don’t try. Medical textbooks recommend ‘treating symptoms of arthritis’ based on the assumption that a cure is impossible.
  • Poor definition of disease: some illnesses are defined by ‘chronic symptoms’, which makes them incurable by definition.
  • When an illness is gone, it can be difficult to prove what made it go away. It can even be difficult to prove it is gone.
  • Curing some illnesses can be very difficult, it’s easier to treat symptoms.
  • It’s more financially beneficial to treat symptoms.
  • Most medicines do not cure, by design – they treat symptoms.
  • For many illnesses only ‘statistical causes’ not individual causes are studied,. To cure an illness, and know that the treatment cured the illness, requires knowledge of the individual cause.
  • No-one counts cures. There are many statistics on illness, and on survival – none on cures.

Why we can’t cure a specific case of illness:

  • Sometimes there is no diagnosis, so no cure can be recommended.
  • Sometimes the illness is diagnosed incorrectly, so the recommended treatment cannot work.
  • Sometimes no effective treatment is known.
  • Sometimes it is illegal to attempt to cure a specific case of an illness, even if no effective treatment is available, because the medical recommendation is to ‘treat’, not ‘cure’.

How Medical Definitions and the medical paradigms fail to cure: 

  • There is no study of the ‘science of cures’, no philosophy of curing illness. Medicine is about diseases and treatments, not about cures.
  • Cure is not well defined. For many illnesses, it’s hard to tell if they have been cured.
  • Many illness are not well defined, making it difficult to define cures.
  • Some illnesses are only defined by symptoms, not by cause, making cures impossible ‘by definition’.
  • If the cause of an illness is simply “lack of health”, our medical systems still use words like ‘treatment of illness’ instead of ‘restoration of health’. The medical paradigms  ‘treat’ malnutrition with food, scurvy with Vitamin C, and dehydration with water. This mindset limits our understanding and our options when we encounter a disease we don’t understand – suggesting that we reach for ‘medicines’ instead of health.
  • Prevention is not well defined nor well understood. The best prevention is simply health.
  • Health is not a verb. There is little attempt to health illness or to recognize the important distinctions between treating an illness, curing an illness, and healthing an illness.

How many illnesses can be cured today? Ten, 100, 1000, more? How many new cures are discovered every year?  What do you think? In the original edition of Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy in 1899, the word cure was not defined. There were 14 references to the word ‘cure’, 10 of which are cures, 3 are sometimes cures and one is ‘failed to cure’. The cures listed are: grape cure, a diet of only grapes, milk cure: a diet of milk alternating with fasting, the rest-cure, a surgery, and a few ‘medicines’. Each of the medicines is listed with a qualifier, like ‘sometimes cure’, ‘temporary cure’. That was in 1899. How about 2014? What has changed today? How many cures are listed in the Merck today?

The 2014 Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy does not contain the word ‘cure’ in the index. MERCK also does not contain a definition of a cure.  The entry on scurvy, fr example, does not use the word cure. You might think ‘everyone knows scurvy is caused by a Vitamin C deficiency, and cured by addressing the deficiency. Why doesn’t MERCK use the word cure?

MERCK, does use the word cure in some cases. In over 2500 pages, MERCK uses the word cure just over 120 times, about once once every 20 pages. Their use of cure is not based on any single, clear definition of cure, and as a result, the text sometimes contradicts itself with regards to cure. MERCK, like many medical books uses the words cure rate a lot, in the phrases ‘cure rate’ and ‘5 year cure rate’. It also uses unclear wording that we can only assume means cure rate. Although counting ‘cures’ is problematic due to poor definition of cure, I found that the current MERCK makes 58 statements of ‘not cure’ or ‘rarely cures’, 43 references to ‘sometimes cures’ – often ‘cure rate’ which is not a cure,  and 21 statements of cures. As measured by their use of the word CURE, MERCK’s recommended treatments, actually cure in only 21 cases. Surely this is not correct?

The 2014 edition of Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment – also does not have the word ‘cure’ in the index. does not define cure, and – like the MERCK – the section on Vitamin C deficiency does not use the word ‘cure’.

The 18th edition of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine does not have ‘cure’ in the index. Neither does The Professional Guide to Diseases, an Up-To-Date Encyclopedia of Illnesses, Disorders, Injuries and Treatments, Tenth Edition.

The Merck Manual of Health and Aging does not index the ‘cure’ in the index, although ‘cure of’ does appear in the index under the section for cancer, an illness for which there are no cures. The word cure is not defined. It is often used in the text, but the use of cure is telling. Like the MERCK Manual of Diagnosis and therapy, most of the time, when the word ‘cure’ is used, there is no cure. It includes this circular bit of medical nonsense “unless the cause is a curable disorder, no treatment can cure ...

Why don’t these medical textbooks define the word cure? Why don’t they use the word cure? Why don’t they speak about cures?  I believe the answer has to do with statistics. Doctors keep statistics on illness, and statistics on treatments, but no-one keeps statistics on cures.

Cures don’t count.

If an illness is cured in a specific case, it’s an anecdote, not a statistic.  If an illness is cured in a general case – we stop paying attention. We don’t count cures, so cures don’t count.

Causes don’t count either.

There is another reason we can’t tell if a disease has been cured. We don’t research, document, and count, specific causes for any chronic illness. Arthritis is a perfect example. An incurable disease (according to the medical textbooks).  Let’s suppose that someone actually ‘cured’ their arthritis? How can we tell if it is really a cure?

The only way to be certain an illness is cured is to:

a) identify the cause
b) remove the cause
c) observe that the illness is gone.

So, let’s suppose you cure a case of ‘arthritis caused by x’.  Will your ‘cure’ work on other cases in a ‘clinical study’?  Not unless they have the same cause. The cure might work in a specific case – even in all of those specific cases, but fail dramatically in a clinical study that does not have ‘arthritis caused by x’. A cure for arthritis, can only create ‘anecdotal evidence’, but anecdotal evidence is generally considered ‘not valid’. When medical systems encounter arthritis – they don’t look for the cause, unless it is obvious. As a result, there are no cures for arthritis.

What is the best way to cure a disease?  If our medical systems can cure the disease, truly cure the disease – that’s probably the best way.  Medical science is very strong when it does find a cure. But if you have an incurable disease – your best course might be to find ‘your cause’ and treat ‘your cause’. With chronic disease, it can be possible – simply because you have got lots of time, the rest of your lifetime, to succeed. Your doctor has little time, having given you a prescription for symptoms, and moved on to the next patient.

to your health, tracy

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About Tracy Kolenchuk

Founder of Healthicine.org. Author of two books about healthicine;
Healthicine: The Arts and Sciences of Health and Healthiness
Healthicine: Introduction to Healthicine

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  • Our life is afflicted with Parkinson’s. It is assumed that there is no cure, so Meredith gets “symptom drugs.” Often we wonder if they just don’t care to find a cure, for reasons you suggest. But Mike Fox , who is afflicted is dedicated to research, has a vested interest in a cure, and has quite a bit of dough for research. On TV he recently said that they are making great progress, and that before too long they will have better control of the side effects of the palliative medications. Maybe finding cures is simply too hard. We think of P. as a malevolent being who dodges all attempts to deal with him. Maybe “god” wants these illnesses to be incurable. Thanks for this, Tracy, and for your book.