a woman shields her eyes from floating charts and graphs above her head

What You Really Need to Know about Statistics

When we are first diagnosed with lung cancer, it feels like our world has come collapsing down upon us. I guess in some ways, it has. The world we have always known prior to the day we heard, “You have lung cancer,” will never be the same again.

In a lot of ways, we lost our innocence the day we learned we had cancer. I think most of us believe that we will never hear that we have cancer. Until we do. And we realize we aren’t exempt after all. It found us.

Effects of a cancer diagnosis

And, when it did, we joined a not-so-exclusive club. Cancer Survivors (for, it is generally accepted that we become survivors the moment we learn we have cancer) is a club that grows exponentially every year. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in 2018 an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States and 609,640 people lost their lives to the disease.1

Sadly, the NCI estimates that over 38% of all adults living in the United States will be diagnosed with some kind of cancer at some point in their lives.1 Those are some staggering statistics. I doubt there’s one of us whose heart didn’t stop at least for a moment when we heard that we have cancer. It doesn’t matter if it is stage I cancer or stage IV, skin cancer, or pancreatic cancer. A cancer diagnosis turns our worlds upside down.

I think this is particularly true when someone is diagnosed with one of the types of cancer that is historically very deadly. All of us are aware that lung cancer is one of those types of cancer. I am sure that every one of us knows someone, often a loved one, who has succumbed to the disease.

Statistics don't tell the whole story

Upon getting our diagnosis, many of us rush home to the Internet. We type in “What’s the life expectancy for lung cancer” and wait for Google to return the results. And our hearts sink when we see them. Because statistics are just not very good for this disease.

So, here’s some advice. If you’re the type that loves a challenge, the harder the better, go ahead and look at the stats. They will make you fighting mad.

However, if you are one of those people who gets depressed and feels overwhelmed by bad news, don’t even bother to look at the stats for beating lung cancer. I can tell you, they’re not good.

But stats don’t tell the whole story. They don’t. Statistics are about averages, not people.

The problem with statistics

When asked about life expectancies for people with lung cancer, Dr. Gregory A. Otterson, a thoracic oncologist at Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, reminded listeners that no one is average.

Statistics simply show a mid-point. They don’t consider the number of people with lung cancer who died from other diseases or in accidents.2 And, they do not account for advances made recently in the treatment of lung cancer, particularly late stage lung cancer. By their very nature, statistics are out of date by the time they are published.

The life expectancy I was given

My first oncologist told my husband that, based on my test results, he expected me to live four months. That was in December 2012.

You see, he didn’t take into consideration the fact that

  1. My body responds to treatment better than he expected it would,
  2. New treatments were in clinical trial and I got in a trial for a drug that completely stabilized my disease, and
  3. Only God knows when we will draw our last breath. In the last six months, this has been proven to me twice. My son and my best friend died within months of one another. Neither of them was sick. Neither of them felt bad even one minute before they ended up at the Pearly Gates. Neither expected to die the day they did...and neither did any of those of us who love them expect to lose them.

Nothing is promised

So, here is my advice. Rather than worry about what stats say about life expectancy, live today. This day, this hour, this minute to the best of your ability. Beyond that, no matter what stats or doctors or experience say, nothing is promised...and, in the end, no one knows when we will take our last breath, whether or not we have been diagnosed with cancer.

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