For some reason, one in 50,000 is a number that has stuck in my head over the years. When I was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma this was what my family were told was my chance of getting the disease. (What can I say, other than, “Thanks, medical profession, for quantifying the rarity of bone cancer in children”?)
I don’t remember in which context I was told the number, just the number itself. My mom actually remembers the number as being much, much larger. In reality the precise value of the number is irrelevant, and it’s only the magnitude that means much. Today, as someone who studies disease in populations, the idea of telling an individual or family such a figure seems strange. But maybe someone asked a doctor, and this number was the answer given.
The thing about chance, or more accurately risk, is that it is only really meaningful if you haven’t yet developed the outcome. Maybe you can change the risk of an outcome by avoiding certain known ‘risky’ behaviours such as driving or smoking, but it is only in very rare cases that the risk of an outcome can be eliminated. Or the risk factors may be things you can’t change, like sex or age. But, the thing is, quantification of risk becomes somewhat meaningless once you’ve developed the outcome. You’re ‘The Chosen One*’, whether you like it or not.
I tend to think about the chance moments in life as a series of decks of playing cards. We have a measure of control when we’re drawing the card, but there’s always a large element of chance to the whole process. And when it comes to the risk of uncommon things happening, in the vast majority of draws from the deck the uncommon doesn’t happen. Irrationally, it’s this same fact that serves as reassurance when a person goes swimming in the ocean in which somewhere there are sharks.
But sometimes what is very uncommon does happen. To be uncommon, but still occur, it has to happen to someone. It’s this fact that keeps the lottery tickets selling, though it contradicts the logic employed above.
At some point in life, something uncommon happens to just about everyone. And when thinking about that possibility, in conjunction with contemplating how we will respond to it, well, the possible futures are both endless and enriching.
*I’m always reminded of a quote from the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. ‘Right. I’m the chosen one. And I choose to be shopping’.