5 steps to understand statistics on cancer, COVID-19, and other health risks

But numbers need context. Statistics help us understand what has happened before, what is happening now, and what may or will happen in the future. And not only what, but how and why. Then we can act to change the outcome. And sometimes those outcomes involve life or death.

Recently I reviewed a journal article about breast cancer, and as most medical articles do, it started with statistics. You’ve been hearing and reading a lot of statistics about COVID-19 the past year; every television news report about the pandemic starts with the numbers -how many new cases, how many total cases, how many vaccinated, and unfortunately how many deaths.

Before the pandemic you probably weren’t too familiar with the medical science of epidemiology which uses lots of statistics.

Epidemiology is the branch of medical science that investigates all the factors that determine the presence or absence of diseases and disorders.

National Institutes of Health

But numbers need context. Statistics help us understand what has happened before, what is happening now, and what may or will happen in the future. And not only what, but how and why. Then we can act to change the outcome. And sometimes those outcomes involve life or death.

Health data doesn’t help us much if it just ends up in medical journals or textbooks. Physicians and other healthcare clinicians use it to counsel patients and make medical recommendations about preventive care, and diagnosis and treatments of diseases.

How doctors use statistics to help patients

You might say we use them as “talking points” to convince people to do things we believe will help them and to avoid doing things we think might hurt them. You’ve seen the same thing happen when public health officials make recommendations about COVID-19 suppression. So a doctor might

recommend you do something -get a mammogram or wear a mask

a mammogram image
a mammogram revealing a breast cancer image source- National Library of Medicine, Open-i
caution you against doing something -smoking cigarettes or gathering in crowds
No Smoking sign with pumpkins
Ask your doctor about ways to help you stop smoking.
encourage a behavior-wearing sunscreen or keeping 6 feet distance
Practice Social Distancing

all based on knowing the epidemiology of breast, lung, and skin cancers, and COVID-19 based on statistics.

Breast cancer incidence and risk

So getting back to the breast cancer article, I think many women overestimate their risk of getting and dying from breast cancer. According to the article, in the

past 5 years, 2.3 million cases of breast cancer

in women have been diagnosed in the United States (breast cancer does occur in men but the number is so low it does not change this total significantly)

The mortality rate for breast cancer is 20 deaths/100,000 women. The most recent number for deaths in 1 year is 42,000. (United States)

chance of developing breast cancer by age 70-National Cancer Institute
Source: National Cancer Institute (NCI)
The majority of women have NORMAL BRCA.

COVID-19 by comparison

Since the onset of the pandemic there are been

27 million cases of COVID-19 (February 2020-February 2021)

diagnosed in both men and women in the United states. (And many experts suspect that thousands of cases have gone unrecognized.)

The current mortality rate for COVID-19 is approximately 134/100,000 people. The current number of deaths in the past year is 460,000. (These numbers are compiled by Johns Hopkins University and are current as of the published day of this post)

Photo by Anton Uniqueton on Pexels.com

WHO, the World Health Organization, reports that 2.3 million new cases of breast cancer occurred last year, while in less than a year there have been 105 million diagnosed cases of COVID-19.

Did these numbers surprise you?
Did they cause you to change your mind about something?
Will you change behavior based on these numbers?

What does it matter?

Healthcare professionals use statistics to understand and predict health risks, then counsel their patients about maintaining health and preventing disease, disability, and early death. One way they do so is with screening tests, like mammograms, to detect early breast cancer when it is easier to treat. successfully.

a female physician talking to a male patient

Public health professionals do the same thing, but apply the knowledge to large populations of people, such as infants, children, adolescents, pregnant women, or the elderly. And sometimes to an entire neighborhood, town, state, or nation, as we’ve seen happen with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, recommending masking, social distancing, handwashing, and vaccination.

But when health, especially public health, becomes politicized these “talking points” can be used to

  • inflame rather than inform
  • manipulate not motivate
  • confuse rather than comfort
  • cause panic instead of instilling peace.

And this is more likely to happen when we don’t understand the statistics and reasoning behind the recommendations. I believe much of the misinformation that has been shared on social media is not intentional, but from misunderstanding of the message that was intended.

The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics

This is the title of a new book by Financial Times columnist Tim Harford in which he tries to answer the question

Why do we believe what isn’t true?

In an interview by Erica Pandey, Harford encourages us to be curious and open-minded, and ask the right questions with a desire to understand. When you read or hear some new and perhaps disturbing information about the pandemic, cancer, or any other hot topic, ask yourself if the teller is trying to make you smarter or trying to win an argument. (AXIOS Today podcast February 5, 2021)

(This is an affiliate link, meaning it may pay a commission to this blog is a sale occurs.)

If we can toss aside our fears and learn to approach them clearly—understanding how our own preconceptions lead us astray—statistics can point to ways we can live better and work smarter.

The Data Detective listing on Amazon

My 5 guidelines for making sense of information

  • RECOGNIZE any bias, inconsistencies, contradictions; does it confirm what you already know? If not, why not? What is it trying to make you believe?
  • RESEARCH other sources and other media, what do they say about the topic, and are they credible ?
  • REVIEW all the information you find trustworthy; do you have all the information you need to make a conclusion?
  • RECONSIDER when new information becomes available or circumstances change; if significant, you may need to start the process all over.
  • REMEMBER almost everything is subject to reinterpretation; as the numbers change, so may the conclusions. Statistics give us a chance to learn and understand, but aren’t the best way to prove a point or to win arguments .

final thoughts-Know Your Chances

(an affiliate link)

How to see through the hype in medical news, ads, and public service announcements

be a healthy skeptic. That doesn’t mean you have to be a cynic, simply disbelieving all the health messages you hear.

Instead, it means approaching messages critically: looking out for—and seeing through—common tactics used to exaggerate the importance of health problems or actions you can take to address them.

These tactics include emphasizing unimportant outcomes, avoiding numbers, or presenting statistics in ways that make them seem more important than they really are.

Know Your Chances: Understanding Health Statistics, by Steven, Woloshin, Lisa M. Schwartz, and H. Gilbert Welch. © 2008 by the Regenets of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press. (Read free at this link)

sharing the HEART of healthcare statistics

Find up-to-date information about breast cancer from The American Cancer Society and in Breast Cancer Clear & Simple (an affiliate link)

Fighting COVID-19 in 2021-it’s not over yet

In this post, I’m offering a graphic review of COVID-19 and what we can still do to prevent infections IN ADDITION TO getting vaccinated. Until we achieve wide spread immunity through vaccination the risk of infection and death are still present and still just as real.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This post was written and published 9 months ago and much has been learned and changed since. However, the basics have not changed and are perhaps more important than ever. I hope seeing this again will remind you of what’s important and prompt you to carefully follow reputable sources for updates.

This time a year ago, no one in the United States, or even anywhere in the world, knew about a novel coronavirus, except a handful of physicians and scientists. Perhaps not even they knew we were facing a viral pandemic that would turn our lives upside down.

That unknown virus, SARS-CoV-2, has sickened 90 million people world wide and caused almost 2 million deaths. In the United States it has infected 22 million people, killing 370,000.

UPDATE: as of September 5,2021 there have been

221 million worldwide cases with with 4.5 million global deaths

40 million U.S.A. cases with 650,000 deaths

In the United States, the healthcare systems in many places, including our most populous states, are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, so much so that it impairs their ability to care for them and other patients. Cases are at an all time high across the entire country.

illustration showing the coronavirus which causes COVID-19
a model of the structure of the SARS_CoV-2

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses.

Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. In this view, the protein particles E, S, and M, also located on the outer surface of the particle, have all been labeled as well.

A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS, public domain.

Finally, a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2

There is hope for an end to this nightmare now that two vaccines are available and being dispensed. I feel fortunate to have received my first dose of the Pfizer-BiONTech vaccine but I know for many others it will be weeks if not months before they will be vaccinated.

Dr. Aletha inspecting her arm after a COVID-19 shot
Three days after my first vaccination the soreness in my arm is almost gone, and I had no redness or swelling.

Let’s review COVID-19

In this post, I’m offering a graphic review of COVID-19 and what we can still do to prevent infections IN ADDITION TO getting vaccinated. Until we achieve wide spread immunity through vaccination the risk of infection and death are still present and still just as real.

Please note I am not addressing management of COVID-19 in this post. Your best source of information for treatment of symptomatic COVD-19 is from a physician familiar with your symptoms and underlying health.

The timeline of a COVID-19 infection-from exposure to immunity

Other common symptoms include
  • headache
  • muscle and/or joint aches
  • nasal congestion and drainage
  • sore throat
  • nausea/vomiting/diarrhea
  • loss of taste or smell-this almost always means you are infected
  • fatigue
  • there may be no symptoms at all

Steps to prevent infection from coronavirus-

Wash your hands, Wear a mask, Watch your distance

Practice social distancing and wear a mask.
What to do if you think you have COVID-19 or have been exposed
You should also contact your physician for advice, especially if you have chronic medical conditions which might make you at greater risk of severe disease.

Base your actions on FACTS, not FEAR


Learn about the vaccines from Dr. Gupta and Dr. Fauci

Throughout the pandemic, I have depended on the reports from Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and medical correspondent for CNN. I don’t miss his daily podcasts called Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction.

In this episode, Dr. Gupta interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci about the coronavirus vaccine. I suggest you listen to this 12 minute podcast, as well as the others in this series.

A Q&A on vaccines with Dr. Anthony Fauci

exploring the HEART of controlling a pandemic

And if you found this information interesting and helpful, please share with your friends on social media and elsewhere. They and I will appreciate it.

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