What are the odds?
A young couple in Brooklyn, Nathan and Elisa Bond, found out last month in one terrible week— that they both have aggressive and advanced cancer. I just read about this; and the numbers tell their sad story:
Nathan: age 38, Stage 3 colorectal cancer; 60% chance of surviving 5 years or more.
Elisa: age 36, Stage 4 breast cancer; 16% chance of surviving 5 years.
Sadie, their daughter: age 18 months.
It’s a heartbreaker.
And cancer really is a numbers game. Staging, tests, tumor size, and the odds for survival–all have numbers attached. Which seems appropriate since you feel like a number, anyway. The instant you get cancer you become a statistic.
The Bonds’ story and their numbers brought to mind something else I read this week. Dr. Peter B. Bach is a medical doctor who is writing a series about his wife’s cancer in the New York Times. She’s being treated by a trusted colleague—one of the world’s leading authorities on breast cancer. Naturally one of the first questions they asked was: what are the odds that her cancer would come back? They wanted a number, like those Nathan and Elisa were given.
But their oncologist refused, writes Dr. Bach: “Instead of just spitting out a number he went all philosophical on us. .. He said we should realize that it didn’t matter. It would either happen or it wouldn’t.”
I was stunned, says Dr. Bach. So was I, when I read it. After all, every cancer expert deals in probabilities, and cancer statistics are available on the internet to anyone. But the oncologist stuck to his position–and I agree with it.
I realize numbers are important for diagnosis and treatment. Only patients sometimes rely on numbers as if they’re like math we learn in school—with precise finite rules you can count on. But cancer doesn’t play by finite mathematical rules—because medicine is not an exact science; statistics tell only part of the story. And living by those numbers can drive you crazier than you already are from having cancer.
My math skills were really rusty—but I didn’t need calculus to weigh the odds. And the numbers made me numb. I was constantly calculating: if I lived 3 years, Daniel would be 10 when I died; Alli would be 14. I couldn’t stand obsessing every time I had a test; and finally I decided knowing the numbers wasn’t worth the stress. I chose not to see any results.
I don’t recommend this for everyone; but I do recommend not putting too much faith in numbers. Many patients defy the odds on both sides, and numbers don’t always hold up.
The truth is that for each individual those odds are meaningless—really, the odds are either 100 or 0. Each person who gets cancer is an individual scientific study; and the only number that matters is ONE—we each have one life.
I hope that Nathan and Elisa read the article by Dr. Bach, taking to heart that numbers don’t tell the whole story. And the rest of us can also take a message from the numbers—and count our blessings.
To read Nathan and Elisa’s blog about their journey, click here. Their friends have created Team Bond and a wonderful video to help support them with donations.