What are the Odds?


Please give me a little leeway and try to get past the next paragraph.  I apologize, profoundly, in advance.

Before dawn, one of my beautiful rescue dogs relieved himself in the snow and made a perfect outline of a swan–the feathered back, the delicately curved beak, the bend of a graceful neck.  (I’ll spare you a photograph; some things, as my aunt once wrote, are best left to the haze of imagination.)

And it actually occurred to me to ask one of my children for a statistical assessment of the odds: what is the actual numerical probability that such a discharge would hit all those points on a plane coincidentally?  Because the only other option seems to be that my otherwise slightly special beagle is supremely artistically talented.  (Perhaps, like I, he is an idiot savant?)

Having been stripped of the excuse of remaining ragingly febrile from influenza, it occurs to me that the nerd gene has not entirely skipped me.

Sometimes coincidence strikes my not-so-mathematically-skilled mind, which in turn  bends numbers to untoward and circular purposes.  As I recently ruminated about my own chance of getting Very Bad Medical News, the physician to whom I was speaking said she understood I had been conditioned to hear such news, but that in the real world my chance of getting cancer was not somehow heightened by my spouse’s out-of-the-blue diagnosis.

“But I’m a lot more likely to get cancer than Jim was to have pancreatic cancer.” I protested.

Well, yes, technically that’s true.  But not a particularly winsome way to approach the rest of my own life.

I’ll tell you when to panic, Jim would have told me, relieving me of the burdens of worrying about what can’t be changed or averted.

There was a point after Jim died when a friend remarked, shaking her head at the unfairness of it, “You know, only one in a hundred people gets diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.”

She said it as if one in a hundred were a rare event–which, I suppose, would be true for many things.

But my mind immediately viewed that as a gross overestimation of the chance that my young, healthy, non-smoking husband would have been the one person I know to have received such a diagnosis.  I viewed it more on the order of magnitude of winning a lottery no one wants to win–far more like being chosen to compete in the Hunger Games than picking a handful of Powerball numbers, or even drawing the number one spot in a Yankee Swap.

“No, no,” I said.  “It’s much rarer.  Only 13% of pancreatic cancer is diagnosed in people under sixty, and twenty-five to thirty percent of primary pancreatic tumors are accounted for by smoking. . .”  I trailed off.

Despite my refusal to read anything about pancreatic cancer, snippets of meaningless statistics somehow have gathered and still toss in my mind like black waves.

“I mean, what are the odds, actually?”  I asked in front of one of my children, who all are savvier than I.

My child deadpanned.  “Well, 100% at this point, mom.”

“Oh, right.”

My children’s lives are replete with numbers: they are mathematical wizards.  But their numerical exercises have a purpose, whether it is finessing a bet on the flop of a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, or wending their way through a Putnam exam.

In contrast, my ever-tenuous grip on the sea of numbing numbers associated with my husband’s rare, deadly affliction seems purposeless and counterproductive.  Because what good does it do me to revisit how random it was for him to have been one of those afflicted?

I must remember, as I hope our children always do, that Jim himself never thought of himself as an unlucky man.

No, not even then.


Author: Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like forensic evidentiary issues, jury instructions, and expert scientific witness preparation. She attended law school near the the banks of the Charles River and loves that dirty water; she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter and @schnitzelpond on Instagram. Bonus points for anyone who understands the Instagram handle. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2023 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with the wee Wordpress buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.

2 thoughts on “What are the Odds?”

  1. My mom was the healthiest person I knew. She ate right, took vitamins, exercised every day, didn’t smoke, and only had an occasional glass of wine. She had no risk factors for pancreatic cancer except that she was 64 years old when she was diagnosed. But here was this tumor, which couldn’t be removed, taking her life away. My mom never complained and was always hopeful she’d be one of the lucky ones to beat this disease. I don’t understand, especially since both her parents lived to age 92. I don’t understand and I’ve stopped trying to because it doesn’t make sense.

    P.S. I love your dogs.

  2. eating right and exercising, limiting alcohol and not smoking do reduce the chances of getting many cancers- but cancer isn’t as discriminating as we would like. My mother too was extremely healthy- thin, active, hardly ever even got the flu. At one point during her illness I was at the gym and told myself “what is the f*$%ing point?” I can do all the “right things” and still die too young from a shitty disease. It would be nice to live in a world where A + B always equaled C. I am still counting on good outcomes, I’m still going to the gym, but losing our loved ones teach us that life is unpredictable and unfair, and anyway, we are all terminal cases.

    Great story about your dog- I would have appreciated a picture, but I’m a nurse and we look at poop in a professional capacity 🙂

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