More Complaints About Statistics

I’ve been obsessed lately, with the human need to quantify and predict the future, and how very wrong we tend to be. I apologize, this was going to be a light-hearted review of a kooky local museum or Captain Marvel, before I was felled by the Bubonic Plague (or a really nasty head-cold). 13 months of cancer treatment (and being, technically-if-not-actually, immunosuppressed) and I get hit by an infectious disease eight weeks post-treatment. If I seem a little “off,” or if this writing has a “Flowers for Algernon” feel to it; I apologize; I’m dosed to the gills with all sorts of antihistamines and a head full of mucus, which is not conducive to clear thinking (or writing).

But, what got me thinking about this, as it pertains to the human condition, is that it set me back a week in the gym (as in, I didn’t go to the gym for the better part of a week), and that then got me thinking about how hard it is to predict success in the gym — or anywhere in life, really. Every January, the floodgates of membership open, New Years’ Resolutions get passed, and you find yourself waiting twenty minutes at the barbells, or trying to find space for your mat in the yoga class. Come March, the place is nearly-abandoned. Which then got me thinking about how much we like to predict the future, and how unbelievably inaccurate that frequently is. I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by my graduating class (this is true); but failed to take into account that I would get three brain tumors before age 35 (that tends to screw up your life more than a little).

I was on the phone the other week with the folks running my neurocognitive evaluation (that’s a must for anyone undergoing intense treatment designed to disrupt your nervous system), who stressed that their results were just a snap-shot of my intellect and abilities at the time — “at the time” being “still suffering severe effects of chemo brain” (those effects are now being simulated by cold tablets), and that I could — and should — expect my neurological situation to change (and probably improve) over time. To quote you Herodotus (depending on which translation you get), “Judge no man fortunate until he is dead.”

To bring this back to the cancer community; we have access to all sorts of statistics and studies — thanks to PubMed, anyone with a keyboard now has access to the same studies most physicians use to make medical decisions. And patients are sick of all the “Rah rah, you’ve got this” bullshit we get to hear at the start of treatment — I’ve actually heard that complaint from leukemia patients (the whiners); cancer is dangerous. I’m unbelievably lucky in that my physicians never wrote me off, and their overall message — which turned out to be completely accurate — was that cancer, although dangerous, is in innately unpredictable, unstable disease, and there’s really no way to know — or predict — how things will go until you start active treatment (I’m also beyond lucky in that my disease responded far better than most hopeful predictions). To all my cancer friends, I’d say stick in there, because, even with a disease as dangerous as brain cancer, it’s impossible to judge how things will go until you get into the thick of it. And, although you should keep in constant contact with your medical team before making any major lifestyle changes, improved nutrition and fitness can have a massive impact in how comfortable you’ll be — which will make you and your physicians more comfortable ordering more (and harsher) treatment, should things go south. In other words, anticipate the future, don’t plan on it.

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Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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