Friday, November 25, 2005

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0001 - Shock & Statistics

Today was devoted to family, friends, thinking, feeling, and recovering from the shock of yesterday’s diagnosis. My wife and sons were, naturally, very upset. We all had time to cry and express our frustration, disappointment, and sorrow yesterday afternoon and evening and again today. It was cathartic to do so. For me, the tears were mainly about loss and trauma, even though I thought I was prepared for whatever the gastroenterologist would have to say. But nobody is quite ready for that kind of news. Certainly I wasn’t, and neither were the members of my immediate family.

But we’re moving past that into new territory today. I’m hopeful that we will each find a place of peace and acceptance of the situation while, at the same time, bolding saying “No” to the doom and gloom of cancer statistics.

Early this morning I read an essay by Stephen Jay Gould entitled “The Median Isn’t the Message”. As Steve Dunn said in his introduction to the essay, it “is the wisest most humane thing ever written about cancer and statistics.” I agree. It set the tone for the day.

Gould made a number of useful points in the essay against both those who see no value in statistics and those who use them carelessly. In 1982, Gould was diagnosed with a rare and vicious form of cancer called mesothelioma in which the median time from diagnosis to death was a mere eight months. But he recognized that the statistics were skewed and that the true point of the statistics was in the variation and not the median. Because of that realization, as well as because he had an inherently sanguine personality, Gould could write “I am an optimist who tends to see the doughnut instead of the hole, but primarily because I know that variation itself is the reality.” He lived for another twenty years before dying of another unrelated cancer. Two months before he died, Gould published his magnum opus, a 1342-page book entitled The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

I, too, am committed to an attitude of affirmation of life and the incredible variety and opportunity it provides. I will gather and digest information, but I will also visualize myself as an exceptional person for whom endless possibilities exist, no matter how discouraging the statistics might be.

That choice was reinforced later in the day when we visited Chapters and I discovered and purchased a book called The Intelligent Patient Guide to Colorectal Cancer by Michael Pezim and David Owen, two Canadians from Vancouver who specialize in this particular form of cancer. The last two sentences of the preface by contributing editor Cheryl Edwards are ones that I trust will apply to me and my family: “You will choose courage and hope. Though the journey was unwanted, you will choose the way you face the future and your inner spirit will prevail.

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