1. Plain language: If you don’t understand something your doctor says, ask him or her to explain it better. Don’t expect doctors to know when you don’t understand them.
2. Absolute risk: The most important statistic is what risk you have that something will happen to you if you take a certain treatment. You might hear: “This drug will cut your risk in half.” But, that really doesn’t clear up much. This is called “relative risk” and it makes people favor a treatment despite the uncertainty. But, if you are told that a drug will lower your risk of cancer from four to two percent, then you know most people won’t get cancer when using the path you are about to take.
3. Visualize your risk: Go further than numbers. Draw out 100 boxes and color in one box for each percentage point of risk. This kind of visual can help you understand the meaning behind the numbers.
4. Consider risk as a frequency: Say 60% of men who have a radical prostatectomy will experience impotence. So, imagine a room of 100 people: 60 of them will have this side effect and 40 will not. Thinking this way will make statistics easier to understand.
5. Additional risk: You’re told a side effect is seven percent. But if you didn’t take the drug, is there a chance you’d still experience that? Ask what the “additional” risk of a treatment is.
6. Order of information: The last thing you hear is most likely to stick. When making a treatment decision, don’t forget to consider all of the information and statistics you’ve learned.
7. Write it down. You may be presented with a lot of information. At the end of the discussion, ask for a written summary or see if your doctor can create one for you.
8. Averages: Don’t worry so much about these. Learning the average risk of a disease does not help you make good decisions. Your risk is what matters — not anyone else’s. Focus on the information that applies specifically to you.
9. Less is more: Avoid information overload. There may be lots of treatment options, but only a few relevant to you. Ask your doctor to narrow it down and discuss only the relevant ones.
10. Risk over time: Your risk may change over time. If you’re told the five-year risk of your cancer returning after a certain treatment, ask what the 10- or 20-year risk is. Always understand the timeframe.