Cancer is Crap: 23% Stat Clarified!

October 21 2009, 1:52 pm

A big thank-you to everyone who weighed in & commented on the ‘23% chance of survival’ issue — I loved the story of a 9-years-and-counting survivor of Stage 4 HER-2 positive cancer on the Tell Her-2 website (thank-you Carol!) and had a few more amusing e-mails from friends, like the one suggesting that 23% of people are just talking out of their @$$es.

But this comment from Pam was the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, la piece de resistance:

“I think the study that was referred to in the Ottawa Citizen was this one:

It’s important to note that they refer to a 23% rate of recurrence for HER2 positive breast cancers NOT a 23% survival rate. Hope this helps!”

Oh it helps, Pam! Enormously, massively. Curtains for all but 23% of us?  Totally scary. But a 23% chance of recurrence? Pfffft – whatevs, already living it.

The study’s statistics on recurrence and survival rates for HER-2+ vs. other kinds of breast cancers indicated what I already knew; that it’s not quite as rosy for us HER-2 types.  But it sure as heck isn’t as grim as a 23% vs. 90% chance of survival:

“In those analyzed with HER2 positive tumors, the five-year, recurrence-free survival was 77.1 percent; in contrast, HER2 negative patients’ recurrence-free survival was 93.7 percent. Five-year distant recurrence-free survival was 86.4 percent in women with HER2 positive tumors compared to 97.2 percent in women with HER2-negative tumors.”

I hereby apologize to the authors of the study for calling you hacks.  I was a little upset at the time.  I still remain steadfastly suspicious of all statistics, but I now realize you nice Texans were actually just trying to get women with early-stage HER-2+ cancer access to Herceptin, and I wish you every success in that noble pursuit.

There remains the issue of just how grossly irresponsible the Ottawa Citizen article was.  I’m trying to imagine myself as that writer, on deadline, trying to put together a positive piece about a new service for people with some kind of breast cancer that I’ve never really heard of, and oh! Look, here’s a study!  Let me see, should I report that there is a 23% chance that HER-2+ cancers are going to come back? Orrrr, hang on a minute, maybe if I just warp it beyond all recognition to say that only 23% of these people with HER-2+ cancer will live, that would be better.  Recurrence is just so, I don’t know… vague and neutral.  Death is so much stronger.  Yep, I think I’ll just go with death.  Great, all done!  And I still have time for lunch.

Rather alarming. Rest assured my letter to the Citizen to requesting a correction is already underway.  Thanks everyone for getting me through this darkness and out to the light at the end of the tunnel of incorrectly reported stats.  That’ll learn me to pay attention to numbers. I’ll stick to words from now on, they’re so much more reliable. Can’t put a number to hope and courage and chutzpah, can you?  I rest my case.

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