Continuing to muse on how a programmer can help fight cancer

Reading about Senator Kennedy’s battle with brain cancer, and recent excitement in my own extended family, I learned most people are diagnosed with brain tumors only late in the process when they have seizure.  And more interestingly, the symptom is a headache.  Thinking that just any headache is a brain tumor is hypochonria of the worst sort, but the headaches of brain cancer follow a pattern:

Headaches linked to a brain tumor are often more painful in the morning and tend to improve throughout the day. The headaches, which can be accompanied by vomiting in the morning, may get worse with coughing or exercise or a change in position, such as kneeling. (MSNBC)

So I thought–the humble blog could capture that data.  I’m not the first to think of a headache log.

I would worry that while a headache log would catch a brain tumor early, there are probably a lot of other more likely diseases one should watch out for, like testicular cancer, breast cancer both detectible via self examination.  You’d think with all the porn on the internet there would be higher detection rates, but the most intensively inspected naughty bits are not owned by high risk populations.  Rectal cancer is much more common, but I’d rather not self inspect, thank you very much.

Is early detection the right strategy, can we just prevent it like we can prevent lung cancer by giving up the coffin nails? Outside of avoiding radiation, the risk factors for brain cancer aren’t related to choices you make.

Will early detection lead to excessive or dangerous false alarms?  Well, this website says in some places you can get an MRI for $160 bucks– cheap.

Will early detection actually make any difference?  Is brain cancer like Huntington’s Cholera, a disease you can diagnose early, but you can’t really do much about it?   Well, the 5 year survival rate for brain cancer is about 10%– higher or lower depending on the exact kind and your age.   Depending on the website you read, some websites seem to think early surgery helps– although 10% is a pretty small base to be expanding on.

So is this a worthwhile widget?  Would it work?

It seems like it could be implemented as a wordpress plug in or a facebook app.  I imagine an app that would ask you a question a day about interesting health events, like heachaches and then when you have a string of morning heacaches that go away in the evening, it would apply some probablities bases on epidimilogical data and then send you a link to a MRI center or give you a print out of your head ache log to take to the doctor.

If health is a public good–as some of the politicians in congress are arguing, the late Ted Kennedy among them, then it would make sense for the headache log to be public.  The more people who watch other people publicly keeping track of headaches– the more people would know what to look for.  And that would help get that 10% 5 year survival rate up better than just a few obsessive compulsive diarists knowing exactly when they got brain cancer.

Just don’t ever, ever, ever, ever, ever post in my facebook feed if you did a self rectal examination.  Really, I don’t want to know the good news.

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