After reading the "All Meaning Above" collection, I will no longer subconsciously assume that colleagues are skeptical

What does it mean, asks Hannah Fry, that people who offer cancer treatments don’t want them themselves?

Ionica Smiths

Documentary Hannah Fry make sense of cancer full of numbers. Not surprisingly, because Fry is a mathematician and when she heard in 2021 that she had cervical cancer, her first reaction was to read, research, and calculate as much as possible.

Last week the BBC aired the documentary, in which the 38-year-old Frye tries to understand what happens when you have cancer – in many numbers. For example, more than a third of end-stage patients would try an experimental treatment if it gave a 0.01 percent chance of extending life. While 61 percent of oncologists say that if they developed cancer themselves, they would refuse treatment with less than a 25 percent chance of success. “What does it mean,” Fry asks, that the people providing the treatments don’t want them themselves? ”

The numbers surrounding over-treatment are at least complicated. Frye reviews breast cancer screening data. For every 200 women screened, it saves one life. But at the same time, it also leads to overtreatment of three women, who may continue to suffer serious side effects for the rest of their lives.

There are also statistics like this with treatments like chemotherapy: to save one patient, you have to treat dozens of others meaningless, with the severe side effects that result from it. Is this worth it? Frye doesn’t answer, but he makes it clear that there’s a big difference between what the numbers say and how he feels. You do not know in advance which group you are in. When it comes to you, you like to believe that you are the only one whose life is saved.

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Fry is undergoing major surgery in which her uterus and all other types of tissue are removed. It’s not always a good idea to be good with numbers. When Fry came over, I asked if the lymph nodes looked suspicious, and the doctor responded that five of them were a little bigger than usual. Frye read well and you know that if the cancer is in one lymph node, the chance of survival is 60 percent, in two lymph nodes it’s less than 50 percent and in four or five, well, you sum it up like ‘So you’re there too’. A few days later, she received good news: her lymph nodes were clear, she didn’t need chemotherapy and she could resume her life. It sounds like a nice ending, but the documentary continues.

You develop lymphedema, a serious condition in which fluid builds up in your legs. You discover that surgery has a one in four chance of this debilitating lifelong condition. And all you get from the hospital now…a compression sock.

Frye wonders if she was too greedy and if she shouldn’t be thankful just for being a cancer survivor. But she also knows that half of all cancer patients feel that the long-term side effects of treatment are not clearly explained. Was it an option too late not to have her surgery? Mostly not. Was it an option to keep the operation smaller? Not knowing Fry, all she wanted at the time was to get the cancer out of her body as quickly as possible. “It is very difficult to make life-changing decisions when you are in the middle of a crisis.” And then you have almost nothing to do with numbers.

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