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Understanding Statistics

Posted 7/6/2013

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Trying to understand statistics, especially when we are trying to make decisions about treatment choices, is very hard. We know that statistics are never an absolute predictor of what will happen to one individual. Instead, they are information gained from observation of a large pool of people in similar circumstances. The truth for each of us is that our cancer experience will be either 0% or 100%--no one's cancer recurs at 78%. We stay well or we don't; that is the bottom line.

But we often read and talk and obsess over these numbers. Should I do treatment X that will lower my recurrence risk by 5% or can I live with doing (easier) treatment Y which lowers the risk by 3%? Many sleepless nights have been spent in these calculations.

  Not infrequently I write about new research and include links to read the full study. If you go beyond my summary and read the article, it is all too easy to start drowning in the numbers.  Learning enough, however, to make sense of what you read is not too difficult. This is an excellent article from ASCO's Cancer Net about understanding statistics. I give you the beginning and then one of those aforementioned links to read more:

Short correction: I am working remotely and the computer is freezing, and I am about to despair and toss it out the window. Rather than succumb to those impulses, you can go to www.cancer.net and write "understanding statistics" in the search box. Up it will come. You might also type in "understanding cancer research" for an excellent companion article.

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