The co-authors of Invasion of the Prostate Snatchers, blog alternate posts weekly. We invite you to post your comments.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Tyranny of Statistics


When you are first diagnosed with prostate cancer and you do your research into the various treatment options available, you are likely to come across a mountain of data, numerical tables, and graphs detailing your life expectancy. Do not let this statistical overload scare or dismay you! Remember: There is a biology of the individual as well as a biology of the disease. What is missing from statistics? A good many of the variables and intangibles that make you an individual.

In a magazine article on the subject of statistics, evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, who had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, quoted the Mark Twain quip about the three varieties of dishonesty, each worse than the one before: “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” The truth is that statistics measure populations, and they can be interpreted in a great many ways. What they do not determine are the distinctive features of any individual case—including yours. But if you allow them to frighten and depress you, statistics can become the stuff of self-fulfilling prophecy.

At the time of his prostate cancer diagnosis, one man I knew was told there was a 23% chance the cancer was contained in the gland, a 57% chance it had penetrated the prostate wall, a 10% chance of seminal vesicle involvement and a 9% chance that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes.  “Well,” he said, “try sorting out that lot! And besides, I’m not a statistic, I’m a person!” That’s the healthy response to statistics.

Among the many things I learned in the support groups I have attended, is that every man’s prostate cancer is different, as is his general health, his diet, his lifestyle and—at least as important—his mindset and his attitude. There is a growing acceptance of the idea that what you believe, what you think and what you feel, can make all the difference on your prostate cancer journey. A belief in your chosen treatment, a positive attitude, an irreverent sense of humor, an independent and contrary spirit, large doses of hope and a strong will to live can all work together to overcome even the most dismal prognosis.

Cellular biologist Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief, claims that it is the “micro-environment”—things like your emotional state, your level of anxiety, the effect of stress hormones and all those other intangible factors that make you an individual—that either strengthens or suppresses your immune system. This is not a new idea. It was Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, who declared that he would rather know what sort of person has a disease than what sort of disease a person has.
Statistics have their place. Be mindful of that, and keep them there. In the long run, it’s a matter of perspective. You’re not a statistic. You’re a person.

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