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“Just one sunburn increases your chances of getting cancer by 100%!”

“People who don’t eat [food] have a 20% greater risk of colon cancer!”

“You have all the risk factors for skin cancer.”

“People with a family history of [malady] have a 40% greater chance of getting [malady] than the rest of the population does.”

Sigh. Just what my nerves need to hear. But what is my risk? What are the odds of my having [malady]? You notice that the news articles never really give you that information?

Scare-tistics. That’s what I’m starting to call the numbers tossed around by media outlets, often concerning health topics but also environment, health insurance, and the like. The goal is to get you to stop and watch/listen/read. Scare-tistics are not really helpful.

For example, and I’ll pull numbers out of the air, because the news piece came out a few years ago, but there was breathless reportage that “breast cancer diagnoses are up over thirty percent from forty years ago!” and implied that some dreadful thing in the environment was causing breast cancer.  To which the person in my family who works in a related medical field snorted and said something that rhymes with “pulpit.” What has happened is that 1) mammography has become cheap and common, and 2) because of that and better technology and imaging, more and more tumors are found that would not have been caught before because of their tiny size. Many of those are very slow-growing, most are not malignant at the time of discovery and are tracked but not removed.

Of those diagnosed with cancer, back before mammograms, sometimes the woman would have died of something else first without anyone guessing that they had breast cancer, like my great-grandparent. She/He died of heart failure and his/her autopsy revealed un-diagnosed [organ]* cancer. Her/His heart got him/her, not the cancer. She/He was in his/her 80s. Today, there are women in their 90s who are diagnosed with breast cancer, but who are suffering from other maladies that will do them in long before the cancer would.

I have all the risk-factors for skin cancer. I am very fair complected. I have moles and skin tags (blarg.)** I have been sunburned four or five times, three times that blistered (once shoulders and upper back, once the part of my hair, once the back of my hands). Since 6th grade, age 12, I have avoided sun so well that I have to take a vitamin D supplement. So what are my chances of getting skin cancer? The news media reports suggest 100%, and that’s the approach I take. I do monthly mole and spot checks. However, is that realistic?

According to, in any given year, one percent of the US population is diagnosed with skin cancer of some kind.That’s not a lot, really, when you consider that some people I know personally have been diagnosed four times with skin cancer and have had things trimmed off. Why? They spent their childhood and early adult years, or all adult years, running around in the sun without a shirt on, and never used sunscreen. Non-melanoma cancers are almost entirely due to excessive sun exposure. Melanomas are a little different, are  rarer, but more likely to be lethal (these are the ones that can kill you in less than a month if they are not caught). Even then, most melanomas are caused by too much sun.

Granted. If you develop cancer the odds are 100% and you don’t really give a rip about the other 99% of the population’s chances while you are sitting there in the doctor’s office. But since I personally never tanned, have used hats and sunscreen and worn long sleeves and long trousers since I was 12, I have greatly reduced my likelihood. Cool!

What about colon cancer, another thing that gets news time? If you are under 50, your odds are really low, unless you have bad genetic juju, and even then its less common than other things. Over 50 and you have a 1.4% chance of being diagnosed by age 60. And colon cancer grows slooooooowwwwly, which the icky*** study is only done ever 10 years unless you have other factors (family history, high risk factors, history of colorectal disease). If you don’t exercise, and don’t have a decent diet, your odds increase.

Let’s face it. No one gets out of here alive. Something or other is going to carry you off. But how much should you panic about “studies show a five percent increase in {bad thing} in the environment!!!!!” Zip, really. Because they never give you the baseline, never show what the results are, and in some cases, the date of the Terrible Dreadful Awful Event of Global Proportions is the year 2300. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Thppppth indeed.

Scare-tistics get eyes, but don’t provide useful information. What was the sample size? Is this because we can detect [thing] better because of better technology? Is it simply because we are living longer and so more people are surviving to come down with [thing]? What is the baseline percentage of [DeathGas] in the atmosphere? Scare-tistics don’t answer those questions.

*My family medical history is private.

**The blasted things always develop where they will find a way to chafe. Always. I think it’s a conspiracy.

***The prep and the idea of putting a camera there bug people. It’s not really that bad. Just don’t be like the individual who decided to eat all the high-fiber stuff that he or she never ate right before the exam. And then started the prep. Not a happy camper.


19 thoughts on “Scare-tistics

  1. It’s a lot like the WWI British injury study that showed a dramatic increase in head wounds in the hospitals after the helmet was introduced. It was so dramatic that the generals (hack, spit) discussed recalling the helmets, until someone with an ounce of common sense pointed out that the number of injuries had risen because the number of deaths had dropped.

  2. It is always a red flag when a percent increase in the chance happening is mentioned instead of the actual increase in the chance of something happening since it makes the situation look worse than it is.
    For example, if your chance of a certain disease is 0.1% in your lifetime, than an increase to 0.4% is an increase if 400% which looks scary but isn’t actually significant.

    • Still, it’s a much *nicer* red flag than being told that you’re [large number]% likely to die of [x] within [y] years.

      😉 In general, ghost stories are very much preferable to actual ghosts!

  3. Evidently, skin tags form as a result of chafed skin.
    So they will necessarily appear in places where they chafe.

    My wife provided me the full explanation a couple of years ago.
    The lesson was likely much shorter than it seemed at the time.

  4. Yep, coffee will kill you, oh wait; red wine will kill you, oh wait; ummm eggs will… you get the drift. And no, we don’t get out alive. My grandparents on both sides lived into their 90’s at bacon, sausage, eggs, biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, etc. most of their lives, but they were ACTIVE! None of that was what got them. Sigh…

  5. It continues to be the case that the three most potent known carcinogens are oxygen, sunlight, and potable alcohol. Therefore we should all live in subterranean dungeons, perpetually sober. And hold our breaths.

    “For every Ph.D. there is an equal and opposite Ph.D.” — Some wag or other.

    • IIRC, studies have shown that 100% of cancer victims have breathed air containing oxygen at some point in their lives.

      And while we’re at it, ban DHMO.

  6. This is my bitch about statins which the drug companies seem to want everyone on! A 25% decrease in heart attack risk sounds great until you figure out that your risk of having one was small anyway!

  7. Sometimes the scares are worth worrying about. For instance, I have all of the risk factors of becoming a hypochondriac.

  8. For all the fake news scare tactics, for some reason they don’t like to remind people that the overall death rate is, was, and always will be 100%.

    • The book Brit-Think, Ameri-Think claims that the difference between Americans and the English is that Americans believe that death is optional. The US media certainly seem to.

      • Yeah, but Brits also seem to believe that timely medical care is optional, or even unpatriotic. That NHS propaganda that some people have ingested is so evil. Mustn’t go to a private doctor. Mustn’t jump the queue!

        Americans understand emergencies. No freaking queue. And for goodness’ sake, what kind of reasonable healthy person would want to get treatment in front of, or instead of, somebody who’s dying? Unless it’s a triage and the person is way too far gone, I want that person to get treated first! Because someday, it might be me!

        • Around here, there are waiting times to see certain specialists (neurologists, orthopedic surgeons). Not for emergencies, true.

  9. Pingback: Scare-tistics – Darkness over the Land…

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