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Spontaneous Cancer Remission: Medical Mystery or Miracle?

Among all of the diseases one can get, cancer is certainly one the deadliest, most notorious, and feared. More or less incurable, it spreads through us and ravages our bodies until we wither away and die, for the most part helpless to stop its inexorable, destructive march. Yet for all of the tragedy, sadness, and pain that the specter of cancer has wrought upon us, there are numerous stories of those who have inexplicably and spontaneously been cured of its ravages, to the bafflement of both family members and doctors. These are the bizarre cases in which people who were considered terminally ill with cancer have undergone a miraculous transformation from doomed to perfectly healthy, without treatment and in some cases practically overnight. It is the very opposite of everything we understand about cancer; that it is a progressively degenerative disease that gets worse, not better, and certainly not without treatment. Often hailed and held up by the religious as proof of the power of prayer and of a higher, benevolent force, these baffling sudden reversals of what should be a relentless death sentence of a disease have long baffled the medical community and inspired awe and reverence in the faithful throughout history. What lies at the root of this little understood phenomenon? Can it be rationally explained with biological processes that we just do not fully understand yet? Is it proof of some kind of power of mind over matter? Or are these true miracles perpetuated by some inscrutable higher power? Let us take a journey into the strange, mysterious, and little understood world of spontaneous cancer remission.

In order to understand just how dramatic and amazing some of these spontaneous remissions, also called spontaneous regressions, can be, perhaps it is best to look into some examples of these puzzling cases. One such well-known case is that of Sharyn Mackay, a 46-year-old mother of four from Newcastle, Co Down, in Northern Ireland. Sharyn’s hopes for the future and dreams of watching her kids grow up were dashed when she was diagnosed with spindle cell sarcoma, which is normally a bone cancer but in this case had developed into a hideous, cancerous kidney tumor. This condition of having this type of bone cancer become a kidney tumor is so rare, with only 10 documented cases worldwide, that perplexed doctors had to send samples to be analyzed by specialists in London, Glasgow and Harvard just to be sure what they were dealing with. Doctors kept an eye on Sharyn’s kidney condition, but by April 2004 the cancer had spread out its tendrils throughout her kidneys and into her lungs, and she was told that it was a terminal case that was inoperable and would likely not be helped by chemotherapy or other treatments. Sharyn was given a year to live at the very most, and was told that treatment would only add perhaps a few weeks to that in the best case scenario.

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Sharyn was understandably devastated, her happy life cast into the bleak shadow of her impending death and the notion of her kids becoming motherless. Her previously bright future was now a blanket of darkness. Nevertheless, she made regular trips to get scans to monitor the progress of the cancer that stopped her life short, and then one day something miraculous happened. Sharyn had gone in for yet another check-up, which she fully thought would only confirm what she already knew, that she was dying, but then her consultant came back visibly perplexed and explained that the tumors and lesions were gone. Not smaller or less scary, but totally gone without a trace. It was such an amazing, unprecedented development that the scans were examined by four different experts and none of them could find any sign of the cancer or any explanation for why it had disappeared, saying that it was impossible that this could have happened due to anything they had done. And so a woman who had been sentenced to death within a year by the rampaging cancer within her body was suddenly given a full life again, the cancer has never come back, and nobody, not even leading cancer authorities, knows why. For her part, Sharyn explained that she believed it was due to the power of her and her husband’s prayers. She would later say:

When the doctors said my cancer was terminal, I put my faith into practice and attended a Christian healing ministry. The situation was out of my hands and I just believed in the power of prayer. I was absolutely terrified. But I was also convinced that this was not my time. I told my husband, William, I wasn’t going to let my youngest girl, Olivia, who was then eight, grow up without a mummy.

Another dramatic case is that of John Pattison, of England, who in 1974 was told that he had terminal cancer of the lymphatic system when he was only 21 years old. The cancer was extremely aggressive, and he was told that there was nothing that could be done. With no hope of being cured and with a heavy heart, he decided to take a leave of absence from his job as a shipyard worker to go stay with his aunt in North Carolina for two months. When he returned to England, he did so with the thought of his worsening cancer ever on his mind, knowing that his time was steadily ticking away. However, when he went in for his routine tests his astonished doctor told him that there was no sign of the cancer, and that he was completely, miraculously clear. Once again, baffled experts could offer no explanation for the sudden and startling disappearance of the tumors that should have killed him. John would go on to study nursing and eventually become a cancer specialist nurse at South Tyneside District Hospital. He has said of his extraordinary luck:

It is a privilege that I can do this job – although there are times when I feel guilty that I survived and some of my patients do not.

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Equally amazing is the remarkable spontaneous remission of 30-year-old John Matzke, who lived in Wisconsin where he ran a humble homestead growing organic vegetables with his wife, Lyn. In 1974, just a few weeks after the birth of his first son, his happiness would be stained when he discovered a weird lump under his armpit which would later prove to be a particularly vicious and deadly form of skin cancer called malignant melanoma. When the cancer spread to his lung, he was told by an oncologist at the Veterans Administration hospital in White River Junction, Vermont, that it was urgent that he undergo immediate treatment. Matzke was informed that once a melanoma invaded an internal organ, it usually led to a swift death within months if left untreated, and even with surgery his chances of survival were slim at best. Yet instead of going under the knife, Matzke took a month off to physically prepare himself for the hardships of the treatment ahead, such as exercising and eating healthily. He also would later claim that he practiced visualization techniques, imagining his body free of cancer. It is unclear whether this technique had anything to do with what would come next, but when he finally returned to Vermont to undergo surgery, new x-rays showed that the cancer had simply vanished. Matzke’s oncologist, Dr. Joseph F. O’Donnell, would later say of the incredible remission:

When John came back a month later, it was remarkable—the tumor on his chest X-ray was gone. Gone, gone, gone.

There are numerous other spectacular cases like this. One anonymous 74-year old woman in Dublin, Ireland, was plagued by a persistent rash on her leg that quickly exploded into wicked looking red and purple waxy lumps. By the time she went to a hospital to get it checked out, her condition was deemed to be dire indeed. She was diagnosed with a terrifying, deadly type of skin cancer called carcinoma, which had progressed to the point where there was not much that could be done to save her. The only thing that the doctors could think of was to amputate the limb, but they had doubts about whether the woman could survive the procedure or adapt to a prosthetic limb at her advanced age. Then there was a sudden change in the lumps. Without any treatment at all, they began to get smaller every day over, practically right in front of the puzzled doctors’ eyes, until they were gone as if they had never been there at all. In this case, the woman credited her faith in God for her recovery, and claimed to have kissed a religious relic just before the cancer had started to go into remission. Regardless of the exact cause, the woman’s doctor, Alan Irvine of St James’ Hospital, Dublin, would later say of the miraculous case:

We watched for a period of a few months and the tumors just disappeared. After 20 weeks, the patient was cancer-free. There had been no doubt about her diagnosis. But now there was nothing in the biopsies, or the scans.

In another case, a woman in the U.K. who had been deemed infertile discovered that she had a tumor between her rectum and her uterus. She then mysteriously conceived a baby, something thought to have been quite impossible for her, which prevented doctors from operating. Her unexpected pregnancy already mysterious enough, the tumor, which had been diagnosed as malignant and life threatening, had inexplicably vanished by the time her baby was born. Another 68-year-old woman who went to her doctor complaining of chronic headaches and dizziness was found to have an inoperable brain tumor called a cerebral lymphoma, which she was told would kill her within a month. Later tests would then show that the lesions were suddenly gone, without any treatment whatsoever. The remission was so sudden and so bafflingly unexpected and strange that doctors at the time called it a “ghost tumor.”

Acute myeloid leukemia

Acute myeloid leukemia

While they do occur, and are recognized by the medical community as a genuine medical phenomenon, such unaided spontaneous remissions without treatment are not particularly common, occurring in only an estimated 1 in 100,000 cancer patients. Yet, in the rare instances when they do occur, the results are startling. In many cases, there are complete remissions of even very aggressive, deadly forms of cancer. For instance, it occurs with a relatively high proportion of patients who have been diagnosed with advanced stage terminal breast cancer, skin cancer, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer. One extremely lethal type of cancer is acute myeloid leukemia, which involves a rapid progression of abnormalities in white blood cells. Left untreated, this terrifyingly potent form of cancer typically makes quick work of its victim, with the patient dying within weeks or even days, and there is very little to be done for those who have it. In fact, acute myeloid leukemia is considered to be one of the most serious, frightening types of cancer there is, and a sure death sentence for anyone who has it. However, despite this shocking lethality, there have been 46 cases documented in which acute myeloid leukemia has completely regressed and disappeared without any treatment at all, leaving amazed doctors scratching their heads. One doctor, an Armin Rashidi, of Washington University in St Louis, has said of the phenomenon:

If you find a random oncologist and ask if this can this happen, 99% would say no – it makes no sense.

So what is going on here? Why is it that some cancers, even very deadly ones or ones in advanced, terminal states from which there is deemed to be no return, suddenly totally vanish without any treatment at all? The answer to this depends largely on who you ask. For many, it is a matter of faith. In a large proportion of cases where spontaneous remission has occurred, the patient has later claimed that they were cured through the power of prayer, and that God has basically reached down and taken the cancer out. This is a pleasant notion to be sure, that there is a kind and benevolent higher power watching over us which on occasion comes down to aid those who are doomed to die from the terrifying disease growing within them. However, there are several problems with such claims.

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For one, in the case of having a normally fatal disease and having it mysteriously disappear of its own accord, there is a strong possibility of what is called “confirmation bias.” This is basically the tendency for one to be more likely to interpret events, outcomes, or evidence in a way that favors their own preconceived beliefs and notions, while ignoring alternative possibilities and contradictory evidence. For instance, if you have a lucky charm that you truly have faith in, and something fortunate happens to you, you are likely to attribute that good luck to the charm, regardless of how many other unlucky events have also happened while wearing the charm. The same can be possibly be said for those who believe that faith and the power of God have cured them of cancer. If a deeply religious person convinced of their faith prays every day for the cancer to go away, and then they just happen to end up as one of the lucky, rare cases of spontaneous remission, then they are bound to credit the power of God and prayer with their unlikely recovery and give disproportionately less weight to other potential factors. This can give rise to flawed conclusions, biased relations assigned to unrelated things, and a misunderstanding of the cause and effect involved. Adding to this is the fact that if faith is indeed healing people, then it is at the whim of some inscrutable higher power rather than any natural occurrence subject to the laws of the natural world, and is therefore impossible to demonstrate with reproducible results in a lab setting. In the end, there is just no way to prove it, and it remains solely a matter of faith. To be sure, prayer might be saving them, but there is no way to know for sure. The same sorts of problems face people who turn to alternative forms of treatment such as healing hands, crystals, and so on, with them giving credit to whatever form of treatment they engaged in, often based on ambiguous evidence and without giving equal consideration to other possibilities.

A few attempts have been made to study the effects of prayer and other alternative techniques such as “healing touches,” but these have not proven to be very helpful. In one study done by researchers at Duke University on the effects of prayer on patients recovering from perilous cardiac stent replacement surgery, it was found at the end of the study that there was no reduction in patient mortality whatsoever between the experimental and control groups. In other words, prayer did not seem to do one bit of good. Another study done on the alternative technique of therapeutic touch, in which practitioners claim to be able to sense and manipulate the body’s “energy fields” was equally disappointing. In one study featured in the Journal of the American Medical Association, practitioners of this technique were asked to locate a hand without seeing it based on sensing its energy field alone, yet they were only able to successfully locate the hand 44 percent of the time, which is around the same probability as blind chance. This does not necessarily mean that faith and alternative medicine are completely useless or bogus, but there will certainly have to be better evidence produced in a laboratory setting before we will ever be able to say whether they are truly effective or not. In a way, those who have been diagnosed with cancer can actually be put in more danger through their faith in these methods, ignoring actual medical treatment in favor of pursuing unproven techniques and prayer for a miracle, all while the disease rages through them.

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Another theory of spontaneous remissions is the mind over matter angle; that positive thinking, visualization, and support therapy can help cure cancer through the power of the mind alone. There is certainly much evidence that the mind can have very powerful effects on our health and physiology, and this is not disputed by the medical community. After all, fear can cause a strong physical response such as a racing heart and increased adrenaline, as can nervousness with its sweaty palms or the blushing of embarrassment. The placebo effect for medication can also be remarkably powerful. One notable example of the mind’s influence on the body is the ability for stress to affect us in various, profound ways, such as reducing the effects of our immune system and causing all manner of health problems. Clearly our minds do affect our bodies in many remarkable ways, but it is difficult to tell just how this applies to spontaneous remission because, as with faith and alternative medicine, there is a tendency towards confirmation bias. Additionally, few scientific studies have been done on it, and the ones that have are ambiguous, contradictory, misleading, or of mixed results. Another problem plaguing the “success stories” of those cured through faith, alternative medicine, or mind over matter techniques is that these cases often display what is called the “survivor effect.” This means that only the survivors, in this case the ones who have demonstrated spontaneous remission, have been able to tell their version of events, often filtered through a cracked lens, while we are robbed of the accounts of the many, many others who may have tried similar methods but died. The survivor effect causes collections of “miracle cure” stories to become extremely misleading, and do very little to realistically help us get to the bottom of what is really going on. For that, there will have to be more in-depth study into the power of prayer, positive thinking, and various other supposed healing methods.

In the meantime, doctors have been trying to understand the mystery of spontaneous remission from the viewpoint that there are certain, as yet mysterious, biological factors at work. It is not an easy mystery to solve for numerous reasons. For instance, it is often difficult to determine if a case is truly one of spontaneous remission in the first place. Since most cancer patients receive at least some form of treatment, it is hard to ascertain whether the remission truly occurred unaided or if some medical treatment or therapy had some hand in it. Adding to the problem is that some cases of spontaneous remission have proven under closer inspection proven to be anything but, including cases that turned out to be misdiagnosed or even downright false. Even in the case of confirmed, documented cases, it is very difficult to narrow down just what factors may have contributed to the remission, and precisely why one person gets better while another does not. However, research over the years has relentlessly pursued finding some possible answers to this perplexing medical phenomenon.

One of the most promising areas of research involving spontaneous remission is the theory that the immune system has something to do with it. After all, theoretically our bodies should be able to hunt down and destroy mutated cells before they even have a chance to turn into full blown cancer. A subtype of a white blood cell type called T lymphocytes specifically patrol our body with the sole purpose of tracking down such mutated cells and destroying them, and in fact the body has several defense mechanisms in place devoted to preventing cancerous cells from developing and keeping the system clear of these unwanted guests. For instance, in addition to T lymphocytes, the body has the ability to detect when there are imbalances that will cause uncontrolled proliferation of cells leading to cancer, and will command such cells to essentially self-destruct. A growing body of evidence seems to show that it may be quite common for the body to routinely control and get rid of very small or microscopic cancers, making them stop growing, shrinking them, or causing them to disappear completely before they ever have a chance to become a problem. It has been found that the majority of adults in their lifetime develop  small or precancerous tumors that either stop growing or shrink to disappear entirely before ever becoming serious cancer, and without the person never knowing they had them at all. This has been documented in various types of cancer in their very early stages, including cervical cancer, melanomas, prostate cancer, and breast cancer, and it probably happens with most types. Without his hardwired ability for the body to rid itself of abnormal cancerous cells, cancer would be inevitable, not an if, but a when, leading some researchers to say it is not so much a question of why we get cancer so much as why we don’t. So in theory, our body already has the ability to cure itself of cancer, yet some seem to get under the radar somehow and grow out of control until they become large and life threatening. It is thought that in cases of spontaneous remission, the immune system has been somehow kick-started into recognizing the intruding tumor and exterminating it, although why and how it does this after the tumor has already reached such an advanced state is unknown.

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One of the earliest studies of this idea of the body curing itself of cancer was conducted in the late 19th Century by a doctor named William Bradley Coley. At the time, Coley was trying to save a patient who had life threatening tumor in his neck, but five operations had failed to remove it. It was then that the patient came down with a terrible fever brought about by a serious skin condition. When the nasty fever finally receded, it was found that the tumor, which had previously defied all efforts to remove it, was gone. Coley theorized that the intense fever had had something to do with it, and began experimenting with deliberately infecting other patients with various disease causing agents, bacteria, and their toxins, which would produce high fevers, and reported that in some cases the tumors indeed disappeared altogether. It was dangerous work, as the fevers, toxins, and the introduced diseases themselves were often just as life threatening as the cancer, yet it paved the way for the idea that the immune system was somehow being boosted, becoming aware of the cancer, and eliminating it, or that the introduced diseases were somehow making the body otherwise inhospitable to tumors.

Further research in later years also suggests that this may be the case. For instance, it has been found that, bizarrely, many of the patients who have undergone spontaneous remission did so after suffering from a plethora of different nasty illnesses such as pneumonia, diphtheria, gonorrhea, hepatitis, influenza, malaria, measles, smallpox and syphilis. In another case, a patient had a spontaneous remission after being vaccinated for tetanus and diphtheria, likewise leading to speculation that it had caused some immune response against the cancer. In yet another case, a man whose terminal lung cancer had vanished was found to have high concentrations of an antibody called NY-ESO-1 in the cells where the cancer had been, suggesting the body’s immune system had played a strong role in its disappearance. Research done in 2006 by Paris based Dr. Wolf Fridman also showed a correlation between the number of white cells in a region and the chance of recovery. Peter Johnson, the professor of medical oncology at the Cancer Research UK Centre in Southampton, said of the connection between the immune system and spontaneous remission:

The immune system’s role is tantalizing because we know something is at work in spontaneous remission but we don’t know what makes the system do it. The question is, how do you turn the immune system from an occasional assistant into a more constant helper?

A melanoma cell

A melanoma cell

This insight into immune response and spontaneous remission, and the promise of using the body’s own natural responses to eliminate cancer without the unpleasant side effects of other treatments such as chemotherapy and harsh drug cocktails, has become of obvious interest to pharmaceutical companies and has led to a wide range of efforts to harness this effect. Some of the approaches have been radical to say the least. One American drug company called PrimeVax has been experimenting with the idea of actually infecting patients with dengue fever, a tropical disease, and then introducing cells that coordinate immune response, called dendritic cells, which have been extracted and programmed to recognize cancer cells in the patient. The idea is that the high fever caused by the dengue fever, in cooperation with inflammatory molecules and the programmed dendritic cells, will put the body in a state of high alert and hopefully jolt it into recognizing, targeting, and destroying the tumors.

There are many other efforts under way to find this Holy Grail of cancer treatments, including research done by huge players in the industry such as GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Sanofi-Aventis and Pfizer. A drug for use in fighting lung cancer and melanoma is being developed by GlaxoSmithKline and is in its final-stage of tests on 2,200 patients. The drug in question attempts to stimulate the immune system and harness the body’s natural ability to destroy harmful cells by way of a series of injections that train the body to attack cells that carry a molecule called MAGE-A3, which is found in many types of lung cancers and melanomas. Another drug called Ipilimumab is being developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Medarex, and similarly aims to use the body’s own natural immune response to fight cancer cells. While these two drugs are still in their testing phase, there is one such drug that has actually been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The drug, Rituximab, produces a monoclonal antibody that assaults cancer cells in patients with a subtype of B-cell lymphoma, and has reached wildly successful sales of over $2 billion, showing that there is certainly a gold mine to be made for anyone who can successfully develop these sorts of medications.

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Yet all of these medications can only slow down the progress of the disease, not stop it, and certainly not make a terminal tumor vanish into thin air. None of the drugs developed so far have been able to replicate the dramatic results of the cases of people who have had spontaneous remissions without any medication at all, and the exact causes remain elusive. It is unknown just what combination of factors, such as hormone levels and body temperature, are converging to cause this phenomenon, or exactly what physiological processes are taking place in these cases, making development of medications seeking to emulate this effect a slow and confusing process. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that the body’s immune system and cancer defenses are an incredibly complex, sophisticated system of interconnected cells that are all in perfect balance, and differ slightly from person to person, making any attempt to tamper with it risking throwing the whole system out of whack. Cancer that has managed to sneak by the immune system to progress to an advanced stage is also elusive to body defenses to the point that it almost seems like a self-aware malevolent force. For instance, some cancerous cells are known to “wear” anti-blood clotting blood cells called platelets as a sort of camouflage as they travel through the body, tricking the defense systems into thinking they are just a normal part of the system passing through and exploiting their aversion to attacking healthy cells from their own body. Indeed, ramping up the immune system to attack the cancer without overdoing it and turning on healthy cells as well in the process is yet another challenge. This has all created formidable hurdles towards creating medicines that truly mirror what we see in cases of spontaneous remission. It is thought that further study of the seemingly miraculous cases of people who have been mysteriously cleared of cancer will provide clues. Gary Halliday, of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, has said of this drive to find such treatments:

Spontaneous regression is an ‘experiment of nature’ where the immune system is effective in destroying the tumor. If we understood the mechanisms involved, we would know what mechanisms we should be trying to switch on therapeutically.

In the end, spontaneous remission remains one of our most profound and puzzling medical mysteries. Why do some people with inoperable, terminal cancer who have no chance of recovery suddenly make complete recoveries without treatment? What it is about them that allows this to happen when so many others wither away and die? What forces are at work here? Is this all related to some complex natural physiological process the doctors just do not yet fully understand? Is this truly an example of mind over matter? Or is it, as many of the faithful believe, a genuine spiritual miracle and demonstration of the power of God? At this point, none of the answers to any of these is clear. We simply do not know. All we know is that, for whatever reasons, in some cases one of the deadliest diseases and persistent takers of life known to man can sometimes just vanish as if it were never there, and that there are wondrous mysteries of the body that work in magnificent ways, brought about by forces which we will perhaps never fully comprehend.