Cancer diagnosis: the bone of death or symbolic effectiveness

Annette LEXA, PhD Toxicology (Eurotox)

Expert Regulatory Toxicologist-Environmental Health Risk Assessor

22 February 2016

In today’s health care system, a cancer diagnosis can be the most traumatic announcement that a patient will ever experience. And for some people, the announcement will be even more deadly than the cancer itself or its treatment. This is what a cohort study published in 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine has masterfully demonstrated. The follow-up of this historical cohort of 6 million Swedes between 1991 and 2006, examined the link between cancer diagnosis and the immediate risk of suicide or death from a cardiovascular accident. In the first week after the announcement, the relative risk of committing suicide was 12.6 and the relative risk of dying from a cardiac accident was 5.6 compared to the control group without a cancer diagnosis. This indisputable result is observed equally in men and women.

According to the authors, a negative attitude from the healthcare professional, his or her beliefs around a diagnosis, will cause a deep distress to the patient, especially for cancers with a poor prognosis, leading to death within a week of diagnosis.

The major public health campaigns, the health system and the health professionals themselves, who are part of this dreaded particular colloquium, should be better consider this syndrome in their decision-making process based on the benefit-risk analysis, this potentially fatal psycho-physiological stress induced by the diagnosis itself.

Marcel Mauss and the death bone 

This study, which followed the standards of Evidence Based Medicine, confirms what ethnologists such as Claude Levy-Strauss in 1946 or Marcel Mauss in 1926 had already studied in the 20th century. This fatal syndrome is better known as “bone-pointing syndrome”. This ancestral practice has been described among the first peoples of Australia, New Zealand and Polynesia. It consists in condemning a person to die after pointing towards to him a few meters away, a thin bone (often a kangaroo or emu femur of about 45 cm). This ritual is still at use today in Australia where health professionals are trained to face these fearsome situations, where the strength of beliefs prevails to the point of making the victim die from panic fear that disrupts the instinct of conservation, life itself. It is not a death of starvation where the individual would have let himself die of hunger and thirst, no, it is a panic fear that leads to a very rapid death that is not a deliberate choice of the individual or a death due to pre-existing psychological disorders, which the researchers verified in the Swedish study.

Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) wrote the following in 1926: “The Australians consider to be natural only those deaths that we call violent . (…) All the other deaths have a magical or religious origin (…). Mr. Mac Alpine employed a young Kurnai in 1856-57. This young boy was very healthy. One day, he fell ill. He explained that he had done what he shouldn’t have done. He had stolen a female opossum before having permission to eat it. The old men had found out about it. He knew that he would not grow any more. He went to bed, practically under the effect of this belief; he never stood up again and died within three weeks. 

(…) Two recent observers, one of whom is a doctor, tell how people die from the death bone among the Wonkanguru: they are very scared. If this bone is found, the bewitched one gets better; if not, he gets worse. European medicine does not inspire confidence. It can do nothing (…) “

Mauss quotes Sir Barry Tuke, a physician who attests to having known “a healthy individual with a Herculean constitution”. He died of this “melancholy” in less than three days. Another, “in excellent appearance, and certainly without any lesions of the thoracic viscera, was grieved by life: he said he was going to die and died in 10 days”. In most of the cases studied by the doctor, the period was two or three days.

Marcel Mauss reminds us that sociology, like psychology, is only part of biology. Ideas that haunt the social body (death by cancer) have an immense capacity for development and persistence in individual consciousness. It is at the level of biology, of the psychophysiology of the individual that the collective suggestion crystallizes; the consciousness is entirely invaded by ideas and feelings that associate cancer and inevitable death and that are entirely of collective origin. Individuals die “by enchantment”. Our human societies are animal societies, highly evolved indeed, but animal societies above all. And man is only a symbolic social mammal for whom language and symbols are powers that sustain his impulse of life and death.

Claude Lévy-Strauss and symbolic effectiveness

Claude Levy Strauss (1908-2009) later formulated the concept of symbolic effectiveness, based on the work of the American physiologist Waler Bradford Cannon (1871-1935). Cannon theorized the famous principle of the fight-or-flight response. In the face of a threat, if fighting or fleeing is no longer possible, physiological stress puts the organism in danger (illness, death). “An individual conscious of being the object of an evil spell is intimately persuaded, by the most solemn traditions of his group, that he is condemned: parents and friends share this certainty. From then on, the community retracts: one moves away from the cursed one, one behaves towards him as if he were not only already dead, but a source of danger for all those around him…“.

Of course, there has to be a belief in “magic”. This symbolic power implies a macabre ballet of three: the sorcerer, the victim and the group, all must share the same belief, the same trust and the same requirement. The fundamental problem is the relationship of a certain type of individual that we might qualify as easily influenced by certain requirements and beliefs of the group (cancer is an inexorably deadly and horrible disease that threatens and terrorizes us all).

Announcement consultation or “the pink bone”.

The passive patient-victim and the active doctor-shaman then engage in this macabre dance orchestrated by the health care system around the panic fear of cancer: the doctor must at all costs fight this modern-day plague that threatens the entire community. His feverishness in making appointments for further tests and treatments reinforces the idea of imminent death. Some patients are convinced that they are already, in a way, banished from the world of the living. Society as a whole is threatened by cancer (how else to explain this collective obsession to “fight against cancer”?) and each new diagnosis is threatened with expulsion from the social body (work, family, insurance, bank…). Her stress is such that some of them can lose control of their lives, all choice. Their metabolic, psychophysiological and even vital functions are in danger. The victim succumbs without having been able to fight or flee: they die of a heart attack if their constitution allows it, otherwise they commit suicide under the effect of the dramatic collapse of their neurotransmitter balance.

The obsession with breast cancer screening, with its lot of over-diagnoses, stems from this hysterized macabre dance, linking women, doctors and the social body: terrified at the idea of being socially banished, how many pre-cancerous or cancerous women have already been victims of this disastrous fate by the collapse of their vital defenses? Nobody knows it and nobody wants to know it, the important thing is to fight cancer at all costs, isn’t it? Without going as far as to the death, the announcement of the presence of a cancerous tumor can trigger in some women the collapse of their psycho-neuro-immunological defenses, making even more difficult the medical fight to be carried out during heavy treatments sometimes engaged in excess (surgery, radio- and chemotherapy) and accepted because they seem to be the price to pay to continue to keep its place among the living.

The society tries to exonerate itself and save face by multiplying “empathic” campaigns aiming to give “tips and tricks” on how to “live well with cancer while remaining feminine and keeping one’s morale, energy and smile”, but some victims, once they have received the ACR4 mark, are not as fortunate as others to have a mind of steel when faced with the symbolic effectiveness of the pink bone.


Cannon W.C., Voodoo death, American anthropologist, 1942, 44(2), 169-181.

Gaudard P.Y.,  Suggestion of the idea of death in Marcel Mauss, acute fatal catatonia, phobia and symbolic modalities, Journal français de psychiatrie, 2010/4 (n°39)

Marcel Mauss, Definition of the collective suggestion of the idea of death. In Sociology and Anthropology, 313-320

Suicide and Cardiovascular Death after a Cancer Diagnosis, Fang Fang et al, N Engl J Med 2012;366:1310-8.

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