Medical myths that can kill you

Dr. Nancy Snyderman is an experienced surgeon, an articulate patient advocate, and a master at communication.

As chief medical editor at NBC News, she comes across as a person who doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, especially when that nonsense is harmful to people who need medical care.

Her book, Medical Myths that Can Kill You (published in 2008),  is a clear, concise, and balanced look at seven harmful medical myths.

What I like about this book

1. It’s well organized, with a separate chapter on each of the seven myths. Interspersed throughout are 101 Truths That Will Save, Extend and Improve Your Life. Some examples:

  • Drug mistakes are a leading cause of death and ilness in this country;
  • Men get osteoporosis too;
  • Stress does not cause ulcers;
  • Colon cleansing is unnecessary and can be dangerous; and
  • My personal favorite: sex is good for your brain.

2. It is well-written with no more technical terms than necessary and skillful use of personal stories—her own and those of her patients.

3. The tone is just right, a mix of the voice of experience, advocacy for patients, and enormous empathy for people stricken with terrifying, possibly fatal diseases.

The seven medical myths

1. Annual checkups are obsolete

Dr. Snyderman is a strong advocate of the annual physical, stating that

If every person in the United States did this, more than one half of the heart disease and nearly 90 percent of many cancers in this country could be prevented or cured.

[See table of medical tests and screenings for women and men by age.]

2. Vaccinations are just for kids

This chapter gives a horrifying account of the death of college student Evan Bozof from meningococcal meningitis. It’s “…a rare but potentially fatal bacterial infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord” which strikes young adults. Dr. Snyderman points out that a simple vaccination could have spared Evan’s life and spared his parents indescribable suffering.

[See list of vaccinations and booster shots adults need.]

3. Doctors don’t play favorites

When Nancy Snyderman was a fourth-year medical student, she witnessed something unforgettable during a rotation in the emergency room. A middle-aged woman came in with vague chest discomfort and indigestion. She was questioned, and several routine tests were done. But the results were normal.

The doctor in charge suggested to the assembled medical students that perhaps the woman was hysterical—a term derived from the Latin word for womb, “which refers to a mental instability once thought to emanate from the uterus.” As Dr. Snyderman tells it,

…this woman was reassured that nothing serious was going on. She was given some antacids and an appointment to see a gastrointestinal expert the following week.

She walked out of the emergency room to her car and dropped dead in the parking lot. In that instant, the scene began to unfold in slow motion.“Even now,” says Dr. Synderman, “doctors fail to associate heart disease with women.”

She goes on to discuss other disparities in medical care which affect minority groups, people who are overweight, and the elderly. Dr. Snyderman urges patients to speak up and stand up for themselves, including becoming familiar with what she calls “doctorspeak.”

[See table of common Latin or Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes, such as cardio=heart, nephro=kidney, and hemato=blood]

4. Only old people get heart disease and stroke

Medical myths can also mean the wrong treatment or no treatment for young people. Take the case of a former Miss Arizona:

At age 26, she suffered a stroke and was taken to a hospital, where she was left lying in the hallway for six and a half hours, unattended, drifting in and out of consciousness. Because she was so young, doctors and nurses mistakenly assumed that she was either crazy or on drugs….[Her] recovery spanned six months of intensive rehabilitation, followed by another twelve months of therapy. Today [she] has no recall of her teenage years and has had to relearn math and how to drive a car.

[See discussion of common laboratory analyses, such as total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood glucose.]

5. We’re losing the war on cancer

“Cancer is not one disease, but hundreds, with just as many causes and complexities, and each malignancy has its own battle.” Describing the status of prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer, Dr. Snyderman concludes that we’re putting up a good fight against some very tough  opponents.

6. Natural means “safe”

Many patients supplement what the doctor orders with a hodge-podge of vitamins, energy drinks, dried herbs, capsules, pills, powders, gels, and the like. However, suggests the author, there’s a big problem with doing that.

Consumers … take for granted that some government agency tests all natural products to be sure that they are safe and effective and puts them through an approval process. This is not true.

[See table of common herb-drug interactions]

7. You can just snap out of mental illness

Much has changed in the last 40 years or so in our collective cultural thinking, but there’s still a sense that mental illness is a sign of weakness, that one just needs to snap out of it. And, in particular, that real men don’t experience depression or other mental illness.

Dr. Snyderman counters these myths, starting with a personal story about her own recovery from the trauma of being raped as a college student. She also describes her husband’s being stricken with a severe case of Lyme disease, “… known to disrupt the central nervous system, causing meningitis, memory loss, inability to concentrate, and depression among other afflictions.”

Dr. Snyderman emphasizes that mental disorders are illnesses and need to be treated just as any illness needs to be treated.


I highly recommend this book for its wealth of useful information, its supportive tone, and its specific suggestions about how to work with your doctor to take care of your health.

Do your have any comments, questions, or opinions about this book or the topic of medical myths which you’d like to share? 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bunge Kote 12/07/2012, 9:46 am

    I got the book with me!!

  • Bunge Kote 12/07/2012, 9:44 am

    Very convincing, authoritative medical health instructions. It was truly exciting and an eye opener. I will take every word of it seriously. Please read it right away. It will positively impact on your personnal health.

  • Madeleine Kolb 07/28/2010, 7:59 pm

    Adena, Thank you for your comment. Dr. Snyderman is a great dispeller of medical myths. When ideas get firmly established–such as that women don’t get heart attacks–it’s hard to make women and even doctors realize that it’s not true. But it’s essential to do so, since heart attacks are the number one cause of death in women.

  • Adena Atkins 07/28/2010, 5:31 pm

    I’ve never heard of Dr. Snyderman before, but I am glad to hear that she is a source of reliable medical information. It’s true! Doctors are people and make mistakes. It’s so helpful to have books like that and sites like this encouraging us to advocate for ourselves.
    .-= Adena Atkins´s last blog ..You Have Suffered Enough =-.

  • the Success Ladder 07/28/2010, 3:59 pm

    Very interesting article, thanks. Keep up the good work.

  • Madeleine Kolb 07/27/2010, 1:09 pm

    Cathy, Dr. Snyderman is definitely a straight-shooter. She has principles and sticks by them. But she doesn’t go on the attack.

  • Cathy Miller 07/27/2010, 12:53 pm

    Hi Madeline:

    Well, we really do have many similarities. :-) I have always liked Dr. Snyderman, but confess I did not know sh had a book out. Thanks for the review. I am going to have to put this on my book list. After spending 30+ years in the health care/insurance industry, I appreciate a straight-shooter like Dr. Snyderman.

    .-= Cathy Miller´s last blog ..Health Care Tuesday Tip-You Can Drink Too Much Water =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 07/25/2010, 5:13 pm

    Dr. Snyderman makes a very strong case that depression is devastating not only for the one affected but also for other family members. The whole topic used to be taboo–a real deal-breaker for someone’s career. If you read only one chapter in this book, this is the one I’d recommend.

  • Jean Sarauer 07/25/2010, 3:40 pm

    I’ve enjoyed Dr. Snyderman’s appearances on television, and I have no doubt this is an excellent book. I’m glad to see the myth about mental illness included. I have several friends and family members with depression and anxiety disorders and if they could just ‘snap out of it’ they gladly would have done so a long time ago.
    .-= Jean Sarauer´s last blog ..Why Bite Size is the Right Size Content =-.