Friday, January 07, 2011

An "N" of 1

I ran across this reflection today, in a Chicago Tribune article, from breast-cancer survivor Catherine Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University:

"I [remember] my meeting with my physician after the results of the exploratory biopsy. He was telling me what they found and what his thoughts were about what I ought to do.... I'm trying to digest this news, and I start peppering him with questions. What are the percentage chances of this? What are the percentage chances of that? And he answered all my questions, then he said, 'But just remember, whatever you have you have at 100 percent.' And that was such an important comment for me, because I realized, you know, whatever I learned, I was an 'N' of 1, and I had to figure out what that meant within this larger framework of all this information. I also thought it was an interesting thing to have a physician [who was] in a research medical center who was obviously a doctor doing clinical work as well as treatment to be able to remember that, that a patient is an 'N' of 1, not just one in a whole line of statistics. I've often thought of that as I've faced health challenges."

That's a rather perceptive comment on the part of her physician: "Whatever you have you have at 100 percent." Lots of us get stymied by statistics. We get preoccupied by the question, "What are my chances, Doc?" - and by whatever percentage answer the doctor may be so bold as to give us.

I don't fully understand the "N of 1" business. That's mathematics-speak, and I'm not so fluent in that language. I take it to mean, though, that each case is unique. There's no sense buying trouble by assuming someone else's cancer experience will turn out to be our own. Our experience is bound to be different in some way or another, because we're different.

I remember meeting with a friend not long ago, days before he succumbed to his cancer. He was recalling some of the treatment decisions he and his doctors had made along the way. Before deciding on some rather invasive surgery, the doctor had said he felt obliged to tell him that the chances of the surgery being successful were only about 5 percent.

"That's OK, Doc," my friend told him. "I figure I'm going to be in the 5 percent." (He wasn't, as it turned out, but he exercised his prerogative to think that way.)

That was his decision. Other patients in similar situations may decide differently, and I figure that's OK, it's their road they're traveling and no one else's. Yet, my friend chose to exercise his freedom of choice and not let statistics rule him.

He intuitively understood what President Faust is talking about. He knew he was an "N of 1."

The same would go for someone making the opposite choice, even if the odds looked very much better. I've known older patients who declined surgery or treatment when the chances of success were as high as 50 percent. The explanation went something like this: "I've lived long enough, and at my age, I can't expect to live much longer. I choose not to accept the harsh side effects and long recovery the doctors are talking about. Quality of life is important to me. I want to enjoy the days I have left."

According to "N of 1" thinking, that's OK, too.

Yes, there's a lot of science involved in the treatment of cancer. But there's also an art to it.

It's the art of living.

"If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast."

- Psalm 139:9-10

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