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“I have fantastic news; you have lymphoma.”

Never before have those seven words been strung together in that sequence. Of this, I am sure.

Just five days before hearing this news from an oncologist 18 months ago, my young, rabid non-smoking husband, who had never worked with asbestos, had been told there was greater than a 99% chance he had small cell lung cancer. We were advised he might make it three weeks.

But with those seven words we were given new hope. You see, unlike small cell lung cancer, patients with lymphoma can reach a “curative state”.

What happened to change the news from “game over” to those seven words in just four days?

Big data.

We’ve all heard of big data and we all have a working idea of the definition: a collection of structured and unstructured bits of information (known or assumed as facts) so large and complex, and stemming from myriad disparate sources, that, when mined for insight, can change our lives. Literally (as in my
husband’s case).

We struggle to process terms like curation, visualization, customer sentiment, analytics and capture. We freak over concepts like storing and transferring and sharing data with all the implied security risks.

But the positives of big data make overcoming any issues well worth it, not just on a business level, but on a personal one as well. April marked an anniversary that many forgot and millions more never knew. On April 14, 2003, the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium announced they had completed the Human Genome Project, an effort that documented what they considered to be the DNA sequence of a sort of … everyman (or everyperson). Three billion letters of genetic code were compiled into a single list.

It took thousands of scientists from more than 20 countries including China, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States13 years to
process and compile the three billion letters of genetic code required for the DNA sequence; a project that a small team can now do in less than a week.

The odd thing I learned about cancer is that the treatment for each individual is unique. Doctors run scads of tests which generate an immense amount of data. They gather structured data from blood tests and urine tests and vision tests, as well as questionnaires on family history, prior medical history, and home and work environments. But it doesn’t stop there. Ever see a doctor watch a patient intently while asking seemingly innocuous questions? The resultant observations will be written up and entered into the official record. That unstructured data will be used in future evaluations.

Once my husband was transferred to a hematologist, the treatments began. It was not pretty. On two more occasions, we feared we’d lost the battle. But more tests and rapid analysis led to adjustments in medications until one day, after a month-long stay at a hospital, his doctor looked my husband in the eye and said, “Don’t take this personally, but I want you out of here.”

That, my friends, is what Big Data means to this individual.

Originally published at SAP Innovation.

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