When people are diagnosed with cancer, they often ask their doctors, “what are my chances?”. They want a number or a timeline so they can plan for what’s ahead and adjust their sense of hope -- in either direction.
In many cases, people take the data they’re given as an absolute, unavoidable truth.
But here’s the thing…
The more complex and the less concrete the data in any field of study, the more room there is for interpretation and straight up misguidance. And I’m not telling you this from a ‘woo-woo-hippy-dippy’ life coach perspective. I’m telling you this as an applied mathematician.
I’ve been fascinated by numbers, patterns, puzzles and colors ever since I was a little girl. My brother (who’s also a mathematician) and I used to pass math problems to each other during dinner on small folded sheets of paper. Our parents wanted us to be social and talk to them, so math at the dinner table was a big no-no, but these little pieces of paper allowed us to do both. We were legitimate rebels ;)
Given this strange and nerdy love of numbers, it’s no surprise that as soon as I graduated high school, I followed in my brother’s footsteps and moved to America to study Applied Mathematics. In my corporate career, I spent the next two decades leaning on math as a philosophy, more so than a science. Its natural laws, constructs, abstractions, and patterns have helped me in my 25-year career in business and technology. From all this experience, there was one realization that stood out from all the rest…
Numbers and data can be manipulated to paint and support almost any kind of story.
Now, I realize this is probably a surprising thing for an applied mathematician to say. And maybe it’s even a surprising idea in general.
Because as soon as we can count our fingers, we’re taught that numbers are reliable; that they’re a certainty. While subjects like english or music always have some element of subjectivity, math has one definite right answer.
Most of us leave math behind after high school, where it sticks in our minds as a series of concrete facts and undeniable truths. It’s only when you study it more deeply that you realize it’s full of grey areas and open to interpretation.
In the words of Vin Scully --
"Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination."
So please, as a woman with cancer, don’t place blind trust in numbers and statistics! By all means, use the numbers as guidance, or part of the picture, but not as an ultimate truth.
Trust me… you have more influence and control over your outcome than a number on a page.
Want to talk numbers? Join the Truth & Dare Cancer Facebook group. It’s a safe space where I and lots of other like-minded ladies with cancer hang out and share our stories, struggles, tips, and support.