Listen when your body talks

He has an audience of four and relishes it. Words pour from him: saliva flies, he shakes slightly. Obsessed with finding the elusive snow leopard, he besieges us with details of two unsuccessful treks to accomplish this quest. I find his passion infectious, and the snow leopard’s almost mythical status is compelling. But the other three listeners are immune: fidgeting, facial twitches and even the odd sigh telegraph their disinterest.

Eventually, one of them, clutching a full wine glass, mutters about “a refill” and takes off in mid-sentence. The other two follow. The enthusiast turns to his remaining audience – me. “Damn rude, don’t you think? Why didn’t they just say they’re not interested?”

They did. Enraptured by his own discourse, the body language of his audience, which I found distracting, hadn’t registered. He failed not only to engage them, but also to gauge them. Rapid eye movements, small gestures, lip-biting, all semaphored desperation to escape – and all completely escaped him.

As annoying as it is to be bored stiff, the victim of someone else’s egotistic spouting in a social setting, it is insignificant in the larger picture. Far more dangerous is a failure to observe, listen or reflect on what our own bodies tell us – or changes we may observe in those we love.

Our bodies are in constant conversation with us and, sometimes inadvertently, with others. They talk away, day in, day out; most of the time we tune them out, to the point that we have become desensitised to the diversity and significance of the messages. Our stomachs hiss and catcall after a big meal; grumbles and rumbles signify a need to eat. The digestive system is our most vocal messenger; our sensitive brain does not brook being ignored.

In spite of this, a friend of a friend experienced worrying symptoms for a year, including regular bleeding. Eventually, he reluctantly consulted his general practitioner, whom he thought of as “alarmist”. Needless to say, the doctor was not: the patient, finally convinced to investigate further, was found to have bowel cancer that had over a year to spread to the liver.

The plaints of a myriad other organs are easier to ignore: a tension headache, aptly named, will pass if we rest. A headache that lasts two or three weeks may not. Through pain, the body is texting us: something is amiss and needs attention.

Last week an acquaintance experienced such a headache. Despite the discomfort, which at times became debilitating pain, he thought it would pass. It didn’t. He had a massive stroke and as a result his body has split into two halves: the right side won’t work at all – the doctors say the likelihood of recovery is small – and the left works poorly. A formerly active man, not yet 60, he is destined for an old-age home.

His body had been dispensing information for some weeks. If only he had bothered to heed that information, interpret it and act swiftly to stem the damage.

“I’m convinced,” says a dermatologist, “that some men are blind. They are the ones who die of melanoma because, unlike my female patients, they ignore lesions until it’s too late.” She thinks it’s part fear, part ignorance.

I think we may be too busy with messages from smartphones and email to bother reading those of our own bodies. It’s a form of illiteracy we can ill afford.

There is the physically fit medical professor whose life-threatening pneumonia was only diagnosed when a colleague observed that he couldn’t make it up a few steps. There was a doctor who specialised in sports medicine and became obsessed with running. The mother of two children, she ignored the stress messages of her exhausted body; by the time she dropped dead during a run, aged 43, those messages had long since expired.

Then there’s the teenager who ate enormous meals and made frequent visits to the toilet during and after. Her mother didn’t notice; nor did she hear her daughter’s agitated, increasingly raspy voice. She adjured her to eat less or she would gain weight and “boys didn’t like plump girls”. The teenager went on vomiting. Irregular heartbeats didn’t stop her but, eventually, a ruptured oesophagus did. She almost died.

Most organs in our body have their own voice; some, unfortunately, are silent. “So many body parts,” an old woman bemoans, “and now there’s a different doctor for every single one.”

As we age, the cacophony can become deafening, and more significant changes are sometimes disguised by lesser aches and pains. By the time real pain asserts itself, it can signal an advanced threat to health.

Separating out the messages of our bodies, taking the time to read them intelligently, can be disturbing. But it is essential, and it may save your life.

Rosemund Handler’s four novels are published by Penguin

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