It was headline news when, in mid-November of this year, the British press announced that Andrew Stimpson, a 25-year-old with AIDS, had apparently been cured. Diagnosed as HIV-positive three years ago, today he has no trace of the disease in his body - and yet, he's had no medical treatment whatsoever.
Although some now suspect that his original diagnosis may have been a 'false positive', the case highlights how extraordinary we think it is to be suddenly cured of a terminal disease without medical intervention.
But such cases may not be as rare as we think - we're perhaps just not likely to have heard about them. Alternative health guru Dr Larry Dossey sometimes refers half-jokingly to a phenomenon that seems to occur during the rare times that doctors go on strike in the US: the death rate always goes down. He cites this as evidence of rampant iatrogenesis (death by doctoring) at the heart of medicine, but it could equally be due to patients curing themselves.
Indeed, over the years, a few doctors have dared to look into the very subject of patients getting better by themselves. What follows was reported in 1910 by Dr F. Godfrey, a British physician.
"A man of 54 . . . suffered severe pain in the throat, he was emaciated . . . there was foul discharge from an extensively ulcerated surface of the irregular hard growth, and there were enlarged glands in the neck on the affected side. As surgical treatment appeared to be out of the question, I told him that nothing could be done except treatment to relieve his suffering, and that he could not live many months. He was . . . seen by four surgeons of St Bartholomew's staff, who concurred in the diagnosis and prognosis . . . a portion of the growth, removed for examination, proved it to be epithelial cancer.
"About 18 months later, the patient came to see me. I did not recognise him, and was thunderstruck when he told me who he was, as I had thought of him as dead. He was in perfect health, and the only trace of the growth was some smooth scar tissue. He had had no treatment except antiseptic gargles, sprays, and pain relievers" (BMJ, 1910; 2: 2027).
How rare are SRs?
Doctors sporadically continued to report cases of spontaneous remissions (SRs) throughout the 20th century, but it was two non-medical researchers who, 15 years ago, took on the huge task of collating all the reports into one database. Caryle Hirshberg and the late Brendan O'Regan both worked at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), founded in 1973 by astronaut Edgar Mitchell to promote research into human consciousness. The pair assembled 1860 SR cases (O'Regan B, Hirshberg C. Spontaneous Remission: An Annotated Bibliography. Petaluma, CA: IONS, 1993). Cancer made up 74 per cent of cases, but a wide range of other potentially fatal diseases also mysteriously 'remitted' (see box, page 9).
Spontaneous remissions are not as rare as believed. For instance, nearly 7 per cent of all cancers involving the digestive organs or bone or soft tissues spontaneously cure themselves. Some 12 per cent of cancers involving the skin and the lymph nodes heal themselves, and an astounding 19 per cent of cancers - nearly one in five - involving the genitourinary organs undergo spontaneous cures (see chart, p 9)
Some are rare conditions such as Addison's disease (adrenal-gland breakdown), but even common ones such as hypothyroidism or blocked arteries can 'miraculously' disappear.
Take diabetes, for example. In the 1960s, doctors were surprised to discover that up to 90 per cent of patients with 'early diabetes' were completely clear two years later - with no treatment at all. And most of the patients hadn't lost any weight either. The message? "Spontaneous remissions in diabetic patients occur frequently enough to [avoid] ascribing such results to any specific form of treatment" (Arch Intern Med, 1966; 117: 769-74). In other words, don't overtreat early diabetes as it will probably clear up on its own.
Indeed, something as apparently irreversible as degenerative eye damage may not be so. Doctors were astonished to find that one 95-year-old woman's cataracts (cloudy lenses) in both eyes cleared up without surgery (Klin Monatsbl Augenheil Augenarzt Fortbild, 1980; 177: 816-8).
According to the IONS database, one in 20 cases of infectious and parasitic diseases, problems of the circulatory and endocrine systems, and metabolic and immune disorders self-heal, as does one in every 25 nervous system or mental disorders, and problems involving the sense organs.
What's more, the number of cases is probably vastly underreported. One Dutch study found little difficulty in finding SR cases, raising the question of "whether the phenomenon of SR is as rare as is reported in the literature" (Hum Med, 1987; 3: 1-14).
What the IONS cases demonstrate is that serious, often fatal, illnesses can cure themselves with no obvious external or medical intervention. The sheer size of the database establishes these 'miracles' as medical fact.
One conclusion is that the body can heal itself in ways far beyond the familiar ones of healing cuts and through fighting infections - what the IONS authors refer to as "untapped powers of self-repair".
Body, heal thyself!
But what factors promote such dramatic recoveries?
Let's start with cancer, the most common disease in the IONS case histories. In 1906, Drs Harvey R. Gaylord and George H.A. Clowes, impressed by the number of SRs seen in cancer, inoculated mice with cancer cells, a procedure guaranteed to be 100 per cent fatal to the hapless animals. To their surprise, some of the animals, even though they developed cancer, didn't die. In fact, in 23 per cent of the mice, the tumours regressed, resulting in 'spontaneous cure'.
As a follow-up, Gaylord and Clowes reinoculated the surviving mice with more cancer cells - but found that tumours would not develop at all. They speculated that an 'immune response' had been triggered by the first cancer, precluding further tumours, and that there must be "immune forces capable of terminating the disease" (Surg Gynecol Obstet, 1906; 2: 633-58).
Albeit in animals, this is one of the earliest references in the medical literature to the likely role of the immune system in combatting cancer, a concept largely abandoned 50 years later with the advent of chemotherapy.
With fewer medical interventions in those days, it was easier for doctors to observe the natural course of a disease. Physicians noted that some cancer remissions occurred after the patient had developed a fever following, say, a major infection. In one case, a man with inoperable lung cancer had intermittent fever reaching 103o F (39.4o C) over a number of days. With-in six months, his cancer was gone - making him the first recorded case of complete regression of bronchogenic carcinoma in the literature (J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg, 1964; 48: 984-90).
In the IONS database, the cancers that most often respond to fever are leukaemia, bone and connective tissue cancers, and malignant melanoma (skin cancer), in that order.
Although doctors have been aware since medieval times of a connection between high temperatures and cancer cures, it wasn't until the late 19th century that the idea became a treatment. Dr William B. Coley, a young surgeon in New York, deliberately infected cancer patients with bacteria known to cause high fevers (Am J Med Sci, 1906; 131: 373-430). However, results with 'Coley's toxins', as they became known, are mixed - with impressive results for soft-tissue sarcomas and lymphomas (50 per cent and 38 per cent cure rates, respectively), but more disappointing for breast cancer (15 per cent cure rate).
So, although Coley's toxins are now officially condemned by the orthodoxy as 'unproven', some researchers are taking a fresh look at the links between fever, the immune system and cancer (Del Med J, 1990; 62: 1155-6, 1159-64), and are recommending 'fever induction' for cancers of muscle, bone and connective tissue (Cancer Immunol Immunother, 2001; 50: 391-6).
The older medical literature also contains observations that suggest that the body may sometimes produce its own anti-cancer agents. In some patients, remissions followed "formation of large collections of fluid" within tumours that caused "degeneration" of the masses, followed by cure (Int Clin, 1910; 20: 98-108).
Doctors have also experimentally transfused blood from SR cancer patients into other cancer patients to see what would happen. In some cases, the cure was somehow transferred to the recipient. Somewhat surprisingly, these experiments appear not to have been followed up (Lancet, 1971; 2: 466-9).
The role of the mind
The IONS survey also reveals the powerful role the mind plays in the spontaneous reversal of illness. Perhaps the best known and most dramatic example of mind-over-matter is the case of Mr Wright, whose terminal cancer was completely cured - twice - by nothing more than his belief in the treatment (see box, page 7).
Although extreme, it's just one instance of the so-called 'placebo effect', where belief in a medicine is enough to cure, which is only now becoming understood through the burgeoning new science of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). Strong biochemical connections between the brain and immune system have been found, explaining how thoughts and emotions can affect the body.
PNI research has legitimised the mind's role in SRs such as the so-called 'miracle cures' at places like Lourdes in France. In its 120-year existence as a shrine, Lourdes has produced thousands of claimed cures, of which about 60 truly defy medical/scientific explanation (J R Soc Med, 1984; 77: 634-8). Although, for believers, such cures are the work of divine intervention, a simpler explanation is the power of the placebo effect.
Other well-documented cases of cancer SRs involve major changes in the patient's attitude towards life. One researcher looked at 18 cases of cancer regression and noted "a marked favourable psychosocial change one to eight weeks before the shrinkage in their tumours". These changes included religious conversion, reconciliation with a long-hated mother, a sudden marriage and the death of a long-hated husband (J Am Soc Psychosom Dent Med, 1983; 30: 151-5).
Letting go of long-term suppression of negative emotions such as fear can also trigger an SR. Psychotherapist/ physician Dr Lawrence LeShan had a 32-year-old male patient with a rapidly growing tumour in his neck and throat. Before undergoing surgery to remove it, he was seen by a psychotherapist who discovered that the patient was repressing a terrible childhood trauma.
It turned out that the patient had witnessed his father preparing to murder an adult friend and, after the murder, had feared that he would be called to court to testify against his own father. From the psychotherapy sessions, it was clear that the patient had repressed the memory, and apparently believed that his father was innocent and had been 'framed'.
The therapist encouraged him to relive the original experience, and he "recounted it in detail, weeping and trembling". Immediately after this 'release', the tumour started to shrink. Within four hours, he was able to eat for the first time in a week. Within four days, the tumour had completely disappeared. The astonished surgeon in charge of his case cancelled the operation (Am J Psychother, 1958; 12: 723-34).
These case histories support recent research showing that 'psychosocial stressors' deplete immune-system defences such as NK (natural-killer) cells (Ann Oncol, 2002; 13 [Suppl 4]: 165-9).
Personality appears to be important, too. One landmark study gave psychological tests to breast-cancer patients, and followed them up five years later. By then, half of them had died, mostly women who had reacted to their cancer with "stoic acceptance or feelings of helplessness and hopelessness". In contrast, the survivors tended to have reacted with "denial or a fighting spirit" (Lancet, 1979; ii: 785-7).
Of potentially more practical value are the remissions produced by directed mental intention. Some of the most remarkable results were obtained by Australian physician Dr Ainslie Mears. After teaching cancer patients 'intensive meditation', he reported that 10 per cent had a "remarkable slowing of the rate of growth of the tumour", and half had a "greatly improved quality of life" (Aust Fam Phys, 1980; 9: 322-5).
More recently, Canadian doctors have offered advanced-cancer patients a year's course of daily meditation, relaxation and mental imaging. When followed-up seven years later, a fifth of the patients who had become "highly involved" with the self-help therapies achieved "complete remission". In contrast, patients who had "showed little application" to the therapies had all died relatively quickly (Integr Cancer Ther, 2002; 1: 146-61).
Perhaps the most sophisticated use of the 'mind-over-cancer' approach is the so-called 'New Medicine' pioneered by cancer surgeon Dr Ryke-Geerd Hamer in Germany. He was struck by the large number of unresolved emotional conflicts buried in the psyches of his cancer patients (see WDDTY vol 15 no 4).
What does all this tell us? First, although cancer is the disease where SRs most often occur, they are also seen across a wide range of serious conditions (see table below), suggesting that the body has an extensive capacity to heal itself. Next, SR is much more common than we think, which suggests that we should be wary of automatically accepting potentially harmful, knee-jerk medical interventions if the risks clearly outweigh the benefits. It opens a whole new area of research - in particular, into the power of the immune system. Also, that SRs have followed blood transfusions from SR patients raises the possibility of blood-borne or energetic factors that might be isolated and cultured as a treatment. It means that doctors should be forbidden ever to give their patients a death sentence, as no one can predict who will live and who will die. Finally, the greatest healing agents may come from our own unblocked minds.
It's now clear that miracles can and do happen - almost, it seems, as a matter of routine. But the greatest chances of cure may well be resolving - whatever it takes - to live a happy and purposeful life.