I’m not a statistician and I struggled in the one statistics class I had to take in college. This is not about how to calculate or how to understand statistics as I’m so not the person to hand out that information. This post is to explore the uneasy relationship those of us with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer have with statistics.
When I was initially diagnosed, my doctor shared some statistics with me. I realize this is not everyone’s experience since some doctors are wary of scaring patients and legitimately, no one person’s life can be explained by a statistic. However, for Type A people like me, knowing how much time I have to plan is pretty significant. I turned to the known statistics to try to get a sense of how much time I really had left. My current medical oncologist isn’t a fan of looking to statistics to try to plan and so I’ve been left to muddle through the morass on my own.
Turns out, there are a lot of different perspectives and statistics drawn from different data sets out there. Makes it a little difficult when one is looking for data to rely upon to make decisions. Plus, I learned a few things about how statistics can be manipulated and that means I tend to look much more carefully at what others claim to be reliable statistics. I’ll never be a statistician; at the same time, I’ve learned a little too much about interpreting data and I’ve become even more skeptical of those that confidently state a statistic without support.
At the end of the day, I’ve discovered that no one really knows the answers to the questions that I would like to have answered.
And that’s really frustrating to a planner like me. We live in the chunks of time between each scan because that’s what we have to do. We wait to make decisions about traveling or activities until I know if the cancer is behaving itself. We all hold our breath when a scan comes and we wait to find out what our life will look like for the next few months.
This living in the increments of time between scans has been, frankly, awful for everyone involved. This captivity to information; a reliance on a broken system, is traumatic in ways that are hard to articulate. We are no longer free agents, able to make the decisions we need to for our family. When I want to do something new, one of the steps that has now become a necessity is to ask my doctor. I think I hate that the most. Don’t get me wrong, my doctor is great; at the same time, I don’t give away my decision-making authority easily.
And yet, that’s just one more thing that MBC has taken from me.
Back to those statistics … the one that scared me the most was that the median life expectancy for someone diagnosed with MBC is 2-3 years. The next one that scared me is that at diagnosis, each person has a 24% chance of living 5 years. Once a person living with MBC has passed these milestones, the likelihood of living longer starts to climb. The likelihood of becoming an outlier grows with each year lived past the diagnosis. There are obviously lots and lots of details that adjust one’s life expectancy, like age or subtype or disease load, so these numbers aren’t as reliable as one would hope.
Here’s another statistic that I do like: one study showed that people who have bone only mets like me live an average of ten (10) years after diagnosis. While this is nowhere near the amount of time I want to have with my kids, it’s better than 2-3 years, I suppose.
My conclusion is that statistics are only truly helpful in certain contexts. The statistics I described above are ones that I use often in my advocacy efforts because they are shocking and compelling. Applying those same statistics to real life are just more problematic. Putting the statistics in the right context makes them more palatable.