How to Use Cancer Statistics

First let’s address statistics about median survivability. It’s best use is in planning. Wills, powers of attorney, medical directives, trusts, etc. are critical items that we should plan on wrapping up no later than our median survival time. That also includes working our way thru our “bucket list” and saying our good byes*. If there’s more time great. Recognize that we’re not guaranteed to live as long as the median survival time, but it’s a reasonable stake in the ground.

In my humble opinion, that should be the primary use of median survivability. Don’t worry about 5 or 10 year survivability or any of the other measures that seem to forecast when we will die. The statistics can’t tell us that.

Follow the planning guide that median survivability gives you. Then assume you’ll beat the odds. There is absolutely every reason to assume you will beat them. I know this is easier said than done, but hang in there. No one can prove you won’t outlive them all!

Now let’s address statistics about treatments. It’s a “game” of chance. You’re told X% of people who get the treatment get better. You’re also told the possible side effects and the likelihood you’ll experience them. Finally, there’s the cost in dollars, time for the treatment, and time you may be recovering. You can’t know before you take the treatment if it will help you are not. You also can’t know before you take the treatment how the side effects will really turn out. The costs usually are a little better known.

If the odds look good, the side effects minimal, and the costs acceptable, it may seem an easy decision. But things can still go south and the odds may not play out as we’d like. Carefully think through the worst case and be prepared to accept that outcome when deciding to proceed.

Statistics can also be helpful when there are several treatments available. For example, there are quite a few prostate cancer chemotherapies. Comparing the odds among these therapies makes a lot of sense to help pick which treatments to consider and in what order. What we shouldn’t forget, though, is we’re still making a “bet” about the outcome of whichever treatment we select.

*Many thanks to my “terminal illness” psychologist, who helped me realize the real value of median survivability.

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