Professor Hannah Fry on calculating the risks of cancer treatment: ‘I would have paid any price’

In February last year she underwent a radical hysterectomy which, along with the removal of her uterus, included her fallopian tubes, cervix, part of her vagina and a large selection of pelvic lymph nodes. . His lymph nodes were, it turns out, clear. Such radical surgery meant she didn’t need chemo or radiation. She is now cancer-free, with check-ups every three months, and only has a 1 in 10 chance of it coming back. Screening and surgery saved his life.

But it was the lifelong effects of her treatment and the different perspective she gained when she became ‘a number’, as she puts it, that led her to direct a new TBEN documentary, Making Sense of Cancer with Hannah Fry. It’s packed with footage that Fry filmed on her phone throughout her cancer journey, and that’s what makes the film so human and what qualifies her to question survival rates and statistics related to effective treatments. .

“There are hours and hours when I cry. I wrote a long diary too, ”she says. She is a very private person and initially “the diary and the pictures were so that I could have a trace of what I felt at those times”.

It was her friend, who runs a television company, who convinced her to make a documentary: “He said, ‘These are not just pictures of a person with cancer. It’s also the story of someone who spent his whole life thinking about numbers and trying to rationalize things.

This is what makes the documentary unique. As Fry explains, she made the documentary because her blind fear of cancer was completely at odds with her life as a mathematician, analyzing numbers and data, unencumbered by emotion. In the documentary, she ends by saying, “The chance we think we have of dying is the only number that matters… but we don’t have honest conversations about the benefits and costs of treatment, and that’s only when we do that people can determine what matters. what is most important to them and what suits them.

It’s what documentarians call his exploration of ‘almost a medical taboo’, to ask the question, ‘Are there times when a life-changing treatment might not be the right thing to do? To do? ”

In the end, Fry opted for mostly radical surgery, she says, because once she was referred to Guy’s Hospital, she had only two options: the first was the removal of her cervix, leaving her uterus and lymph nodes intact. This allowed for the possibility of the third child she and her husband wanted, but at the risk of spreading the cancer and miscarrying her future baby due to cervical surgery. There were also those enlarged lymph nodes that seemed to threaten his life. The second option was to delete everything, to be sure.

“I didn’t push,” she says of the phone conversation in which she had to decide. “I think partly because it was the pandemic and it was a phone call and I think if you’re brought up in Britain, well, I’m trained to be grateful and not want to waste [doctors’] weather. I really didn’t want to ask any more questions. It was’ we have a slot for you in three weeks to be on the table. That’s a good slot. Do you want it? ‘

The fact that her lymph nodes were clear at the end meant that she probably could have gotten away with it without a hysterectomy. There were two consequences to this treatment: she lost the chance to have another child – “letting go was part of my acceptance of cancer” – and she developed lymphedema, a permanent disease caused by the removal. lymph nodes. . She was not prepared for this. Today, her legs are swollen from the undrained fluid and she will have to wear compression garments, tights or shorts, for the rest of her life. How could she not have known about this? Was it because the pandemic changed cancer care in general? Because she didn’t ask? Or was not said?

“There was a time last year where I was just recovering from everything and emotionally coming back to life, and lymphedema was a real hit, a real blow. I felt very angry at this topic, ”she said.

“If I went back in time, I don’t know if I would have made a different decision, but I would have really liked to feel like I had more agency, or that I really understood what was calculation of risk, and that my values ​​and level of risk have been factored in. I don’t always think this is the case [with cancer care].

“I was so scared and so scared for my daughters, I think I would have just taken all the risks I needed. I would have paid any price.

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