Cancer Statistics – Hopefully the median is not the message

Cancer and statistics. A bad combination? Following a cancer diagnosis, no questions are more loaded than will I be cured? and how long have I got? Statistics apply to large groups of people, not just one person. So how do you make sense of the numbers?

One of the best articles on the internet about statistics and cancer was written by Stephen J. Gould and is called “The Median is Not the Message“. If you prefer to download a copy of the article (it’s a couple of pages long) then you can find a pdf document here.

Stephen J. Gould was a scientist who was diagnosed with mesothelioma (a cancer in the stomach, often found in people exposed to asbestos) at the time he was diagnosed, mesothelioma had a median survival of 8 months. He had surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy and lived for a further 20 years (i.e. not 8 months!)  He died of a different type of cancer in 2002. The article explains that while 50 % (or half) of people with mesothelioma will die within 8 months, the other 50 % (or half) will live longer, potentially much, much longer.

Why is this article so popular? Perhaps because Stephen J Gould writes from “both sides” as a person with cancer trying to make sense of his diagnosis and as a scientist used to dealing with the numbers. He takes a complicated subject and explains it clearly. More importantly, the other  reason I believe this article is still popular is that it gives people hope, especially when you’ve been given a poor prognosis. Just because the news is bad, doesn’t mean you stop hoping and that’s why I think “The Median is not the Message” will continue to inspire people for a long time to come.


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