I thought I’d focus today on the discussion we had about statistics. A woman (the blog reader who told me she wished she’d known about curcumin earlier) said that when she was diagnosed with smoldering myeloma, her doctor told her that she had only three years to live. Even though I was almost rendered speechless, I managed to translate what she’d said.
Without batting an eyelid (I’m sure he hears this kind of stuff all the time), Prof. Gertz answered that statistics are useful mainly to doctors when they get together at congresses et similia. But, he added, statistics are simply of NO USE to patients. (Have you read Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould’s excellent essay on statistics? If not, click here: http://goo.gl/jzMkK).
He kept shooting examples at us, one after the other. The ones I remember, more or less, are these: 1. Statistics tell us that the average man is taller than the average woman. How tall is your sister? 2. Statistics tell us that the average European male makes € 40000 a year. (Turning to Vittorio) How much does Vittorio make?
Precisely. Statistics are a waste of time, as far as we’re concerned. And that’s one of the most important things I heard during this patient doctor meeting. Even before I read the above-mentioned essay and even though my brain has always refused to understand anything related to numbers and math, I have always felt (hoped?) there was something terribly wrong with myeloma statistics.
Example: in 2007 I read a Science Daily article on an Ohio University study that linked the stress hormone norepinephrine to the development of myeloma: http://goo.gl/BUHti While the entire article is very interesting, this particular paragraph is relevant to our discussion: In this latest study, the researchers looked at a different type of cancer – multiple myeloma. One of several types of cancers of the blood, multiple myeloma strikes nearly 20,000 Americans each year, killing at least half that many annually. Patients diagnosed with this disease normally survive only three to four years with conventional treatments.
Three to four years…
I shared this dismal statistic with Stefano who replied by quoting a sonnet by the Roman poet Trilussa (see my November 24 2007 post for the original text written in the Roman dialect). Here is my rough translation of the sonnet: You know what statistics is? It’s something you use to make a general count of the people who were born, who get ill, who die, who go to jail, who get married. But for me the peculiar statistic is the one dealing with percentages, because then the mean always remain the same for everyone, even for someone who has nothing. Let me explain, from the way they count in statistics nowadays, it appears that you eat one chicken per year: and, even if you can’t afford to buy a chicken, you are part of the statistic anyway, because there is someone else who eats two chickens. Spot on.
Whenever we happen upon any myeloma statistics, we should always remember Trilussa and his chickens. Or Stephen Jay Gould, and the fact that he survived 20 years after his diagnosis, exceeding his 8 month median survival by a factor of thirty.
We are individuals, not numbers. What do you think?
P.S. the photo is of my daffodils…