Two doctors meet in the hospital cafeteria. John is an old hand. Crusty and a bit intolerant of silliness. Jan is a new intern, just out of school. They’ve paired up together for work, and for lunches. As they sit down, Jan feels the glow of excitement of becoming a doctor.
“I can hardly wait to start curing people,” Jan gushes.
“Cure? What do you mean by ‘cure’?” asks John.
“You know, to help them get rid of their diseases. To free people from disease.” Jan is speaking rapidly, enthusiastically.
“Maybe you should check your dictionary.” John replies curtly.
“Well, if you check your dictionary, you might be surprised at the meaning of ‘cure’.”
Jan fumbles with her phone for a moment and then reads from the screen, triumphantly: “‘the act of making someone healthy again after an illness‘ according to Webster.”
“Curing happens after the illness is gone?”, John challenged, ” I thought that was healing? Doesn’t curing happen when the patient is sick? Are you sure that’s what Webster says?”
“Hmm.. It seems they show the definition from the learners dictionary first”. Jan fumbled a bit more, scrolling down.
“So we give learners the wrong definition for cure, and then correct it later.” John smiled. “We don’t heal patients here, we treat them for serious conditions, and then send them home, so their bodies can heal.”
“Here,” replied Jan, attempting to move the discussion in a positive direction, “it says…. well, it’s really complicated..”
John provides a bit of support, “well, there are lots of different meanings for the word cure, in different situations. But you want to get busy ‘curing people’. Is there a definition like that?”
“It says ‘something (such as a drug or medical treatment) that stops a disease and makes someone healthy again‘, that’s what I meant.” She smiled, but she added, shaking her head, “but then it says, again ‘the act of making someone healthy again after an illness‘”.
“So curing someone is stopping their disease. That makes some sense. But ‘makes someone healthy again’ – seems a bit strange? If it stops the disease, but doesn’t make them healthy, is it a cure?”
“You’re just getting technical, just being overly pedantic.” Jan smiled.
“We could look pedantic up too, but let’s stick to cure. One definition is simply wrong – healing after an illness is not curing the illness. Healing happens before, during and after illness. Whereas the other definition is relatively accurate, except for the medicine restriction. ”
“Restriction?” Jan was puzzled.
“It is, of course, possible to cure a disease, without a ‘drug or medical treatment’. “. John tapped his knife on the tray for emphasis.
“Like, give me an example!” Jan challenged.
“How do you cure simple dehydration? ” John asked, smiling.
“hmm… Technically, dehydration is cured with water – I guess that’s not a medicine, nor a medical treatment.. except, when you are dehydrated, then it’s a medical treatment!”
“Well, that’s nonsense. What if you are only partly dehydrated – is it a medicine? What if you self diagnose and self-treat, is it a medicine? Is it a medicine if a doctor prescribes it, or if some medical person recommends it, but otherwise not? Is a bottle of water a medicine if the label says “can be used to prevent, treat, or cure dehydration’, but not if it only says ‘pure, healthy, spring water‘. There are actually lots of diseases that are best cured without medicines. Some are cured by the presence of something, not a medicine, and some are cured by the absence, or removal of something causing the disease. Obesity, arsenic poisoning, and water intoxication are not cured by medicines, they are not cured by ‘something’, they are cured by ‘not’ something. They are cured by health.”
He continued, “Of course dehydration is not usually a disease – it’s usually a symptom of some other problem, and giving water as a medicine doesn’t really address the cause. Dehydration caused by lack of water is quite rare, because our bodies tell us when we need to drink water.”
“Diseases cured by health?”, Jan looks surprised.
“By something that makes you healthy. Lots of things are essential to health. If you don’t get them, or don’t get enough, you get sick – and if you get too much, you get sick.” John replied, and added, “Maybe we need a better dictionary.”
“I’ll check Oxford,” Jan replied. She thumbed her phone and then said, “The Oxford Dictionary for English Learners says ‘to make a person or an animal healthy again after an illness’, duh – almost exactly the same as Webster’s. Why do dictionaries think curing happens ‘after’ the illness? ”
“Dictionaries don’t create language – they attempt to tell us how language is used. Of course it’s more difficult when you speak the language, to explain it properly to a beginner. What does the full definition say?”, John asked.
“I’m reading it, but I’m not liking it,” Jan replied, “It says ‘relieve (a person or animal) of the symptoms of a disease or condition‘. But, surely cure is about disease, not symptoms?”
“There’s often confusion between the symptoms of an illness, and the actual illness. It’s a common mistake. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell illness from symptoms.”
Jan interrupted, “Then it says ”Eliminate (a disease or condition) with medical treatment‘. So Oxford also ignores that fact that many illnesses are cured, but not by medicines. Is there no logical, scientific definition of cure?”
“Well, lunch is almost over – why don’t you check some medical books and find a better definition. We can discuss this more tomorrow.” John picked up his empty dishes and put them on the tray.
But before they left the cafeteria, John had to ask “What do you think ‘cure’ means now?”
“I think cure means to stop the disease,” Jan replied.
“That’s a good start.” is John’s response, “We’ll see what tomorrow brings. Back to work.” Jan joined him on his rounds.
How can we cure diseases if cure is not defined? Or is cure defined, but just not in the dictionaries? Stay tuned, follow John and Jan as they explore the science of cure.
This post is the first of a series of explorations of the word ‘cure’. The second post is about “Medical Definitions of Cure”
to your health, tracy
Tracy is the author of two books about healthicine: