It's Complicated

My ex has been in the news this week, showing up in journal articles and editorials. My ex is named Statistics, and our on-again, off-again relationship is still a little raw. We used to be together, and we sometimes still see each other socially and professionally. In Facebook parlance, “It’s complicated.”

We met at my job as an ICU nurse, where I used Statistics in my work to both educate and comfort my patients, and also because I thought they made me sound smarter. It is also true that Statistics and I had a personal relationship outside of work, which is why I drove carefully nearest my home, did not bother to play the lottery, and brought Statistics with me to that first mammogram, so that I would not be nervous.

And then, as you know, I drew several short and unlikely straws: having cancer at all, having a hidden invasive cancer, and that having that invasive cancer be the kind that makes oncologists nervous. The hardest losses, though, were the long term ones, like the lifetime risk of recurrence which was a percentage of some debate, but which would not earn you an A (and perhaps not even a B in more rigid schools). And the residual risk following treatment, which could be reduced, but which could not be eliminated.

Statistics had betrayed me for the last time, and it was time to break up for good.

Post-breakup, things became simpler. Unburdened by data, I saw my chances as 100 percent, or zero; I was either going to live or I wasn’t, and with equal parts determination and abject terror, I chose therapies that were, at the very least, aggressive, and quite possibly, excessive. Now on the other side of healing and with a more balanced appreciation of risk-benefit ratios, I can admit that about my choices. Which is not the same as saying that I regret them.

I have started having coffee with Statistics again. After all, things have been better recently, and perhaps a cautious trust is in order. Even if I could live without Statistics in my personal life, I am once again in need of Statistics to educate and comfort my patients in my work.

There were several headlines that, quoting Statistics, piqued my interest this week, including ones reporting new data on the risks over benefits of screening mammography, the overuse of prophylactic mastectomy in certain populations, and, less prominently, the apparent willingness of women with dense breasts to take on the biopsies and false-positives that come with increased screening. Woven through all of these is a new realization of a very old reality: even today, the best time in the history of the world to be diagnosed with breast cancer, women remain afraid.

Statistics won’t tell you this, but survivors will: the fear of breast cancer, and perhaps even more so of breast cancer recurrence, cannot be quantified. The long and sordid history of breast cancer has left behind an uneasy dread that cannot be powered for statistical significance. It is better than it was; I remember the days breast cancer was not discussed, and I am ever grateful for the strides we are making. But we are missing the point if we look at data on what women want to know when, and why women make the decisions they do, as only about Statistics.

Statistics are only part of the survival story. It’s complicated.

15 thoughts on “It's Complicated

  1. Pingback: Soundtrack | QuiverVoice

  2. Dear Beth,
    In a word: Amazing.
    In more than just a word, what a wonderful gift to share your QuiverVoice. An expressive voice it is, and no surprise in how far it resonates already.
    Also, Kleenex called to say thanks for the extra business: one tissue per post, times the population of cyberspace…oh yea, it’s looking good.

    Well done!


  3. Sitting on a plane headed for San Antonio. Yes, It IS COMPLICATED and this is wonderfully written and captures what so many of us feel. Looking over our shoulders is not a great way of living but it goes with the territory. Although I understand the “stats” — it’s still not easy. Five years post chemo, not easy. Just easIER. Again.. Well done!


  4. Great post! As I’ve hit the year anniversary of my first mammogram at 43–which just happened to show grade 3 invasive BC–I’m not happy with how this week’s news is making me feel. It’s complicated.


  5. This is such a great post on so many levels. Your key message, that even after the most up to date treatment and DESPITE statistics, the fear of recurrence is ever present and unquantifiable. Sometimes it is felt more acutely and sometimes it recedes into the background, but it is there nagging away. This is what is so difficult to communicate and so tough for our loved ones to understand.


  6. Dear Beth,
    This is so right on point. It’s hard to trust statistics when you’ve already drawn a few short straws! I really like your approach and look forward to reading more.


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