Lies, Damned Lies, Google, And Statistics

Thank you, Mark Twain, for helping me put it so succinctly.

I am once again being buffeted by statistics. Statistics, the math of populations, not of individuals. And I am an individual.

Statistics Be Damned

I survived a rare and aggressive form of cancer in 2017, no thanks to statistics. I rang all the bells when it came to triggers; I pulled a perfect score on the list of predictors. My numbers through surgery, chemo, radiation, and afterward were appalling. By all rights, I shouldn’t be here to write this. Yet here I am, statistics be damned.

Early on I decided to ignore the numbers and focus on one thing: getting well. I did some online research to see what I could do to increase my odds. The content from reliable sources was generalized to the point of uselessness. (“Get your sleep. Eat foods that agree with you.” Duh! That second recommendation justified a historic chocolate binge.)

ConeheadsMy oncologist is a data wonk; she has the facts, figures, and population studies engraved in her brain. She knows her stuff. My doctor could tell me the odds of needing a transfusion were high—I never needed a transfusion. She could tell me 80% of the neuropathy in my feet would remain—about 50% has. She told me my hair would fall out. OK, she was right about that. I’d wanted to shave my head for a long time, so baldness turned out to be a fun experiment. (For the record, I liked having no hair. Cool in the summer with minimal upkeep.)

I am not a statistic; I am me and I needed answers for my specific case. I decided not to indulge in any more online searches, pursuing ever-more esoteric links down the proverbial rabbit hole. The news wasn’t good; the statistics did not get me one step closer to my goal of survival. If I’d paid them any attention, I’d have been planning my funeral instead.

I could tell when friends and family had been Googling. They looked pale and frightened, and couldn’t look me in the eye. I ended up reassuring them more than they did me. Trying to explain that statistics is the mathematics of populations didn’t help. They thought I was in denial.

Google and Statistics

Fast forward one year. Now one of my hips is well past its use-by date thanks to poor gene selection on my part, a lot of time spent jumping out of trees as a kid and my love of hiking. Most of the women in my family have had hip replacement surgery, so it’s not exactly a surprise.
I’ve begun the rites and rituals of preparing for surgery. Or, as medical folks call it, “pre-op.” If you’ve been subjected to Western medical practice lately, you’re probably familiar with the drill. Endless rounds of tests and interviews are conducted by various medical professionals so they can pore over the minutia of your body.

StatisticsI sat in an over-heated office with a competent nurse practitioner reviewing my life history. “Have you ever had…” “No.” “Any symptoms of….” “Nope.” “How many times a week do you….” “I don’t.” She nodded her head as we worked down the list.

The nods began to come less frequently. She looked puzzled. She took my blood pressure for the third time; it was still normal. As she asked me questions, she glanced at my honey. He sat calmly, listening to my litany of negatives, smiling in agreement.

The questions continued. The negative answers persisted. A frown began to pucker the nurse’s brow. We reviewed the very short list of medicines I’m taking a second time. Had I forgotten anything? There wasn’t much there to examine, but she dove in with all the enthusiasm she could muster. Her disappointment deepened.

I didn’t know whether to be complimented or apologize. If you buy into the statistics, the number will suggest a woman somewhat younger than I am.
Maybe that explains the ads Google steers my way. I just don’t know where they got the idea I need “male medical enhancements.”