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Mesothelioma: A survivor's story

No one wants to receive a cancer diagnosis, especially when that cancer has no known cure. But if you or a loved one have been handed a mesothelioma diagnosis, you want to make the most of the time you have left. Who knows? You might even have more time than you think.

The statistics are scary, but it’s important to remember how statistics work. They address trends, not truths. And as the story of famed scientist Dr. Stephen Jay Gould illustrates, it’s possible to beat the odds. Even more immediately, it pays to understand them.

Behind the numbers

Perhaps you learned that mesothelioma has a low five-year survival rate. If so, you were likely taken aback. But so was Dr. Gould when he got his diagnosis. As he tells his story, his doctor refused to point him toward any literature. That didn’t stop Dr. Gould, and he eventually learned the median expected lifespan for someone with mesothelioma was—at the time—just eight months.

However, that’s when Dr. Gould took a breath and collected his thoughts. Then he looked at the statistics more closely. Here are some of the things he noted:

  • A median is just one number out of a whole range. Half the numbers lie in front of it. The other half lies behind it. But the median isn’t the truth of the range and the shape of that range matters. Mesothelioma skews right, meaning that half of all victims should expect to live past the median and, potentially, much longer.
  • Statistics only measure the things they measure. The numbers for median life expectancy may not account for the specifics of your case. Researchers recently noted there were very few studies that explored the various factors that could affect survival rates. Their research found differences based on everything from age and the location of the tumor to gender, race and the types of therapy used.
  • A good attitude is important. As Dr. Gould noted, a good attitude can do more than help you cope. There are real ties between attitude and life expectancy. When other things are equal, people with positive attitudes and a strong will to live will outlive those with gloomier and more defeatist attitudes.

As a scientist, Dr. Gould also made sure to argue we shouldn’t ignore the numbers. You can’t, he explained, simply live in a world of feelings and no facts. But the numbers you see don’t always tell the whole story—especially as researchers continually look for new ways to combat the disease.

Indeed, the eight-month median survival Dr. Gould learned about more than 20 years ago is a thing of the past. The median survival for older adults is now 10 months. For adults 18 – 44, it’s nearly five years.

Beating the odds

With reliable support and the right treatment, mesothelioma victims are now living longer than ever. Researchers continue to look for better ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

In the meantime, it can help to understand how limited the numbers are. They don’t tell the whole story. They may not even tell your story. In the end, Dr. Gould lived more than 20 years after his diagnosis. He eventually died, but not from mesothelioma.

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