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 202-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, Hartford 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

Thanks for following this blog. If you’re visiting, I would love for you to start following Watercress Words : use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me. I also want you to find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest , Instagram, and LinkedIn .

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

                              Dr. Aletha 

5 gems of women’s health

Only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are familial (someone in your family has it). That means 90 to 95 percent are spontaneous, with NO family history. So don’t let your lack of family history of cancer lull you into thinking you have no risk and no reason for screening.”

Some  health issues impact women exclusively or differently than men, so we should be aware of new and updated information .  The issues we women face vary with our age, stage of life, and current health status.

In this post I offer “gems” on women’s health issues from women who are “gems” themselves- women physicians who practice medicine as well as take time to write about important health issues. 

This information is current as of the publication date; it is general medical information that helps doctors and patients make decisions about what is right for them. Medical recommendations and practice changes as we learn new things. If you deal with any of these issues , please discuss with your doctor before taking any action.

 I’m illustrating this post with photos of women from one of my affiliates, Lightstock, a stock photo site. You can help support this blog by purchasing from this link. Click now to get start a 30 day trial and get 4 free credits. According to Lightstock,

“Our library is large enough to cover all of your needs, but our faith-focused stock is one of a kind. No other company comes close to matching our quality and quantity.”

This post also has Amazon affiliate links.

Dr. Danielle Ofri offers
A Doctor’s Guide to a Good Appointment

Dr. Ofri explains how to find a doctor – online ratings sites are not always reliable. A good first step is -Check with your insurance to find a doctor who is in network.

Next she lists steps to prepare for the appointment. Establish goals for the visit, make a list, and gather any recent, pertinent medical records.

She goes to give some practical tips on what to do and say during the interview and physical exam. Read her post to learn more.

Dr. Ofri practices in New York City where she is also a professor at a medical school. She writes extensively and has spoken for TED Talks. You may want to read Dr. Ofri’s book, What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear. Here is my review . 

you cannot love without giving. Amy Carmichael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OBdoctormom explains
8 Things Your Doctor Wants You to Know About your Miscarriage

“Miscarriage is one of the hardest (and most common) challenges women face. If you have not had a miscarriage yourself, you most certainly have a best friend, sister, or daughter who has. There are many myths floating around the internet, however there are a few important truths everyone should know about miscarriage.”

woman sitting in a cemetery
photo from the Lightstock.com collection, an affiliate link

 

A psychiatrist, Dr. Melissa Welby lists and discusses
3 New Year’s Resolutions to Benefit Your Mental Health
  • Sleep better
  • Volunteer
  • Exercise

5 gems of women's health-Watercress Words.com

 

 

 

 

 In Go Pink ,Secret Life of an OB/GYN

answers typical patient questions about breast cancer and mammograms, including the latest recommendations for screening.

“Only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are familial (someone in your family has it). That means 90 to 95 percent are spontaneous, with NO family history. So don’t let your lack of family history of cancer lull you into thinking you have no risk and no reason for screening.”

a middle aged woman and a young woman together
Breast cancer can strike women of any age, although happens more often in older women.

 

 

Dr. Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon, offers tips to prevent foot pain and injury in an interview for Massage magazine.
  • Buy healthy shoes(and wear them)
  • Wear the right socks
  • Stand on a floor pad
  • Keep your feet warm
an African American young woman smiling

 

 

And a bonus gem-

 

Dr.Diana, an allergist who blogs at WHITE COAT PINK APRON
White Coat, Pink Apron web site

offers this recipe for ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH GARLIC , a vegetable I love. But if they’re not your favorite vegetable (or your family’s) , here is one for ZA’ATAR ROASTED CARROTS 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please review a previous post about women’s health

The “art” of women’s health- news from 2016

where I covered hormone therapy, the HPV vaccine, birth control pills, IUDs, hysterectomy, and osteoporosis.

The human heart tells us that we are more alike than we are unalike. quote Maya Angelou
graphic by Lightstock. quote by author Maya Angelou 

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exploring the HEART of health

I appreciate your sharing  this post on your social media pages.

Thanks for following this blog. If you’re visiting, I would love for you to start following Watercress Words : use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me. I also want you to find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest , Instagram, and LinkedIn .

Thank you for  viewing  the advertisements and using the affiliate links  that fund this blog; with your  help, we can grow, reach more people, and support worthy causes that bring health and wholeness to people around the world.

                              Dr. Aletha