In his New York Times op-ed piece, “”How Long Have I Got Left,” Paul Kalanithi (Jan 26) eloquently describes his dilemma when faced with an open-ended diagnosis.
His challenge isn’t all that different from the one facing ordinary people over 65. Even healthy people realize their chances of dying increase each year, even when they appear healthy. Apart from the lesser probability of dying from an accident in your youth, everyone faces the question he poses, “I don’t know if I’ve got 6 months, 10 years or much more.”
However, Kalanthi violates the boundaries when he writes. “What patients seek is not scientific knowledge doctors hide, but existential authenticity each must find on her own.” And we won’t find solace in statistics: “the angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.”
Typical medical arrogance. The doctor morphs from a scientific expert, providing information to help patients make informed decisions, to high priest of a cult with access to secret mysteries. The oncologist’s know-it-all attitude? Appropriate, says Kalanthi.
The truth is, many scientists who look up articles about their own diseases have realized they are probably outliers. They can ignore recommendations based on the “average” outcomes because they’re not average. They use their knowledge to pursue more hopeful outcomes and sometimes succeed.
Pharmaceutical companies and journalists provide pseudo-statistics so people are induced to accept risky treatments and useless tests, based on “relative percentages” and weak correlational studies. Think of headlines like, “reduces risk by 70%,” which journalists take from a drug company’s press releases.
Why not allow dying patients – in fact, all patients – to have access to real numbers, if that is their choice? For some of us, statistics would truly relieve the angst.