Cancer Treatment Decision-Making: Risks and Choices


In January 2021, mathematician Hannah Fry faced a cervical cancer diagnosis that left her grappling with the uncertainty of her condition. This article explores Fry’s experience and sheds light on the challenges of assessing risks and making decisions regarding cancer treatment.

Understanding the Complexity of Risk Assessment

Fry’s story highlights the difficulties in calculating risks associated with cancer treatments. While weighing the potential benefits, patients also need to consider the life-altering consequences that treatments may bring. Fry notes, “With cancer, you’re often fighting an invisible enemy that may or may not be there. And even if it is there, it may or may not pose a real threat.”

The Hidden Presence of Cancer

Scientific evidence supports the notion that cancer can exist undetected in our bodies. A study conducted by Danish pathologists revealed that around 25 percent of deceased women, who had never been diagnosed with cancer, had abnormal tissues associated with cancer. Similar experiments with other types of cancers have shown that a significant portion of the population may have cancer cells without being aware of it. However, the majority of these cases do not progress into clinically significant threats.

Balancing Medical Interventions and Outcomes

Examining various studies, Fry highlights the importance of considering the effectiveness of medical interventions. For example, a study involving 1,600 men diagnosed with prostate cancer found that different treatment methods (surgery, radiotherapy, or monitoring) showed no significant difference in overall survival rates. However, those who underwent medical interventions faced additional challenges such as erectile dysfunction, incontinence, and bowel problems.

Evaluating Treatment Options: A Personal Perspective

During her treatment, Fry encountered a fellow patient facing a difficult decision. Despite having a good chance of survival without further treatment, the woman was contemplating chemotherapy for a marginal increase in her odds. Fry reflects on the dilemma and the emotional struggle patients face when making such decisions. She emphasizes the importance of involving patients in the decision-making process, ensuring their values and priorities are taken into account.

Moving Forward with Informed Decision-Making

Fry acknowledges that making rational decisions based on statistical considerations can be challenging when facing a cancer diagnosis. She herself underwent treatment and is now cancer-free, but she also experiences the long-term effects of treatment, such as lymphedema. Fry believes that the decision-making process should involve a more comprehensive understanding of patient’s individual preferences and values.


Hannah Fry’s journey with cervical cancer offers insights into the complexities of decision-making in cancer treatment. It underscores the need for a nuanced understanding of risks, potential outcomes, and individual priorities when considering various medical interventions. By striving for more patient-centered approaches, healthcare professionals can better support individuals in making well-informed decisions about their cancer treatments.

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