If you’re a cancer survivor, you’ve no doubt been barraged with statistics: likelihood of side effects, five-year survival rates, efficacy of medications. But remember: the “average” cancer patient, based solely on statistics, is a myth. While it may be tempting to cling to those statistics, here’s why it doesn’t make sense. And if you still look to the “typical” patient’s experience for help, here’s how to avoid getting spooked when you deviate.
Statistics and breast cancer
How do statistics translate to breast cancer? After all, cancer is a human experience, not a list of numbers. Still, it’s useful for your medical team to be able to look at years of cancer-patient data and draw some reasonable conclusions, then use those conclusions to formulate your treatment plan.
The challenge is, no living, breathing person can embody all of the variables present in any body of data. In other words, the “average” cancer patient doesn’t exist; she’s simply a portrait composed of hundreds of thousands of data bits from researchers all over the country, or even the world.
Be prepared for surprises
Thus, even when the treatment your oncologist advises would seem to fit any patient with your diagnosis — e.g., IDC stage II, localized — sometimes it just doesn’t. And those typical side effects from chemo? Guaranteed you’ll have your very own side effects. Some may be by the book; some your very own. But the complete range won’t exactly match either what your oncologist told you to expect, nor that of any of your new cancer friends.
Why can’t doctors be more accurate?
Researchers are finding more and more evidence that cancer has a significant genetic component. Even if, like the vast majority of breast cancer survivors, you have no family history of the disease, genetic mutations, or increased risk factors, your genes still play a part in whether or not you get cancer — and whether or not you survive it.
The research community’s current thought is that genetic mutations or susceptibilities leading to cancer are present in many of us — but simply haven’t been identified yet. And due to the intricate relationship between the many variations of breast cancer and your own DNA, “IDC stage II, localized” can be a minor health event for one woman, but can prove fatal for another.
Currently, there are several genetic tests — Oncotype DX and MammaPrint — that can predict with some accuracy whether or not a woman should have chemo, based on how effective it might be. As research into the relationship between cancer and genetics continues, doctors will be able to identify treatment protocols specific to individual patients. But for now, all your oncologist can do is devise a treatment plan based less on you as an individual, and more on the experience of millions of women who’ve gone before you.
Remember, you’re not average
“My doctor said 85 percent of women who have this particular chemo end up with nausea and vomiting. I feel fine. Does that mean it’s not working?”
Not at all! It simply means you lucked out: you’re in the 15 percent of women who don’t experience nausea. Don’t worry, there’ll probably come a time when you’re on the other side. For instance, maybe only 10 percent of women experience severe radiation burns, and you find yourself in that unlucky group.
The point is, don’t stress when treatment doesn’t go exactly as predicted. Where cancer is concerned, the “law of averages” is really just the “suggestion of averages.” Your body is simply doing what genetics, environment, and lifestyle has programmed it to do. In the end, the only 100 percent guarantee is that your cancer experience will be unique — just like you.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.