Small c: Stats and odds

My prostate cancer was caught with multiple PSA tests that weren’t out of the normal range but that were rising fast. That led to a biopsy, which found cancer in 1 of 12 samples, meaning it apparently was caught early. That led to surgery, which confirmed my malignancy but also that it was contained to the prostate.

I say, thank god science for screening. Those tests gave me information I needed to make a choice. Without the information, I wouldn’t have had the choice.

But there is a growing rumble about curtailing screening, especially for the erogenous-zone cancers of the breast and the prostate. See today’s New York Times report on the debate about the efficacy of screening to save lives.

Note that plural: lives, not a life. This isn’t about me and my cancer. This is about statistics and money. The question they’re asking: Is it worth it to find these cancers and cut them out at considerable cost if we’re not sure those cancers would have killed all those people who had surgery? But who’s to say what’s worth it?

What if I’m the one in a hundred who would die without the screening and surgery? Only one way to find out: keep the cancer in me and wait. Indeed, I had that choice — “watchful waiting,” it’s called. But without the screening, I wouldn’t have had the information to know that was cancer was in me until it spread — until it was too late. I wouldn’t have known I had a choice.

As The Times points out, part of the problem here is that researchers don’t know whether some prostate tumors are more certainly deadly than others and I’ll agree that more research is inevitably a good thing.

But this discussion is really about playing the odds with my life – and who gets to roll those dice. I want to be the one who makes this bet. I want to have the information to make it. But implicit in this debate is the idea that insurance companies want to make the bet and they want to do it for everyone at once: “Let’s curtail the screening and see what happens. OK, so one more person in a hundred dies, but we also saved huge money.” Worth it? Not if you’re that one in a hundred. Not if that one is me.

I am 55 years old and in good health with a wife and two children. Faced with the choice of not knowing whether I had cancer, I chose screening. Then faced with the choice of leaving cancer inside me because it might not kill me (that is, something else could kill me sooner than this slow-growing tumor), I chose – my wife and I chose – to get it out. In my grandfather’s case, no other disease or accident got him first; his prostate cancer killed him.

My insurance company will probably pay $25k for my surgery to take out my cancer. I am now facing some inconveniences. Worth it? I’d say it is. Will the insurance company think it’s worth it? Don’t know. Don’t care. I don’t want them making that decision. I will make it. That is the point of having control of information about my health: my information about my life. That is the point of screening.

If this were a purely economic decision, then some would die. Imagine you’re Frank Purdue and you can spend $100,000 to save a few chickens worth $100 on the market; you won’t do it. But we’re not chickens. At some level, it’s always an economic decision, I know. That is why I support government involvement in health care. Yes, I’m a free marketeer when it comes to other industries, especially the press (because I’m also a First Amendment adherent). And yes, even when government is involved, it can decide not to spend money for expensive treatments or old people (the stories we keep hearing about the U.K.) – but at least then we hold political pressure over the government. Chickens don’t vote. Patients do.

As a matter of statistics and odds, I know screening results in treatment that adds to costs. But it also saves lives – no matter whether we know precisely how many. I believe screening saved my life and I chose not to have been proven right by waiting.

So get your screenings, folks, get ’em while they last. I’m due for another damned colonoscopy (which I’ll get after my rump feels repaired from the damage of my last surgery) and I’ll get it because they found a polyp in me (benign) last time; I won’t take the risk. You should get your PSA tested, men, and your mammograms, women. And then you can make informed decisions – informed by data and your doctors. It’s the information that gives you the choice. That information is yours.

: MORE: This discussion also leads to the work Doc Searls has been doing with vendor relationship management and personal health records. We not only need the information, we need it in a form that is usable, and we need control of it — because it is, again, our information about our lives.

: Later: Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report (and a friend and fellow prostate guy) reports on TV’s reports on the story.