Sometime back, I learnt that I don’t have cancer. My doctor called and said, “I have some good news!” Fortunately, we were in the middle of a fire drill in my office at the time, so no one noticed as I blinked back tears of relief.
I had found the lump almost two weeks before the call. I had an early biopsy, but the pathology lab was achingly slow; days passed with no word. Clearly, they were working hard to figure out how bad my condition was. In fact, they were working hard not to miss anything before they concluded that my tumour was rare, but benign.
I had been preparing for the diagnosis for more than a week…and to some extent for years, as I turned my investing focus from “all things Internet” to all things health-related. It turns out that understanding and promoting health is a great application of information technology. Health increasingly involves numbers. Many of those numbers aren’t just medical probabilities; they concern daily life choices that you can make before you get sick (or are threatened, as I was).
As a director of 23andMe, a consumer genetics start-up, and a participant in the Personal Genome Project research study, I have been studying how genes affect one’s chances of getting various diseases, and how much impact behaviour can have on those chances. For most people and conditions, the genetic chances of becoming ill are well below 20%. Moreover, regardless of your genotype, you can raise or lower those chances through diet, exercise, avoidance of stress, and engagement with friends.
Yet there is some emerging thinking— and statistics—about how the toxins we encounter in the modern world affect our immune system, which in turn affects our bodies’ ability to combat cancerous cells. Everyone has cancer cells every day, but usually the body deals with them, using strength gained from eating right, exercise and social engagement. When the body gets overloaded or weakened, cancer has an extra chance of winning, especially if you have a genetic vulnerability to a particular cancer.
I have no particular risk for breast cancer—no family history, and no known genetic markers. But that is true for many of the one-in-eight women who get breast cancer over their lifetimes in the US. Given that I’m almost 60, it’s probably not life-threatening.
If I were a young mother, I would trade almost anything for the chance to see my kids grow up, but as an older person, I’m more concerned with quality of life than length. Of course, if the cancer was aggressive, I would take more treatment just to stay alive. If it was slow-growing, I’d remove the tumour and engage in what is called “watchful waiting”.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand is statistics—whether for cancer or health in general. In my case, they could have gone something like this: assume you have a 70% chance of survival (defined as no recurrence for five years) if you simply have the tumour removed. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments can reduce recurrence by a further 30%. That sounds like a lot, until you realize that it means your “survival” chances go up only 9 points, from 70% to 79%, because it is the 30% recurrence rate that drops 30%, to 21%.
That is not such a great increase in odds, given that there may be better treatments available by the time the cancer recurs, and that costs of treatment— in time, pain and side effects such as heart disease and cognitive impairment (“chemo brain”), as well as money—are high.
Was I willing to take on three years of aggressive treatment and potential long-term side effects for a 10-point increase in my chances of being alive and cancer-free for five years, especially since no one really knows what the chances of recurrence in 10 or 20 years are?
These numbers may be perplexing, but they are useful. Almost everyone is faced at some point with decisions about treatments and side effects, for themselves and for loved ones.
Indeed, you are probably facing such choices right now—if you pay attention to them. A large number of painful, dangerous conditions are more likely if you are overweight, under-exercised, a big drinker, lonely or stressed. Even if you’re not and get such a disease anyway, you will be better able to cope and undergo treatment if your health is good.
It may be that the main value of services such as 23andMe (at least until researchers use its data and others to learn a lot more about genetics) is not the specific genetic details, but the way it makes us focus on the numbers. Whether we are choosing what to eat or how much to exercise, or trying to assess our chances of a specific condition, the numbers make it feel real and immediate.
For example, a vague warning against diabetes is a lot easier to ignore than the fact that your risk of diabetes is 22% (as mine is, slightly above normal), but that you can lower it substantially (as I have) by eating right, exercising and so forth.
Yet many people are afraid of knowing these numbers; they don’t realize that they are a guide, and something that they can change, rather than an immutable destiny. Just as a student can improve his grades by studying or an athlete can improve his performance by practising, so you can change many of the numbers that define your health prospects.
Esther Dyson is chairman of EDventure Holdings, and an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, healthcare, private aviation and space travel.
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