A California man whose malignant brain tumor disappeared without a definitive medical explanation is crediting his recovery to prayer and an act of God. And while doctors are puzzled as to what spurred the tumor’s shrinking, this type of spontaneous regression has occurred in a number of documented instances that, while anecdotal, do create an interesting discussion.
Exactly what causes, or influences, these “miraculous” recoveries has yet to be determined. However, there is a medical practice called immunotherapy that aims to harness and amplify the body’s natural ability to fight cancer and create healing like this man experienced. Discussing this spontaneous regression phenomenon, an article published in the Journal of Oncological Science states, “Activation of immune system has been found important in its pathogenesis.” (Whether immunotherapy has a real effect on tumor regression has yet to be proven.)
One doctor has been at the helm of immunotherapy for many years. Dr. Steven Rosenberg, Director of Surgery at the National Cancer Institute, encountered a spontaneous regression case 40 years ago, and it spurred decades of such immunotherapy research to understand how medical treatments can encourage such healing. “Somehow this patient’s body had learned to destroy his own cancer,” he told SurvivorNet. “And I spent the last 40 years or so trying to figure out how that happened.”
In fact, immunotherapy treatments are becoming more widespread in a number of oncological fields. “In the last several years, there’s been an explosion of information that enables us to help larger numbers of patients by getting their body’s own immune system to fight this disease,” Dr. Rosenberg explains.
According to a Chicago Tribune article citing cancer specialist Dr. Rebecca Johnson, it’s important to note that there is no concrete medical data about the phenomenon, and forgoing medical treatment in hopes of such an event is not recommended. “For every person we hear about who refuses cancer therapy and lives, there are additional people who refuse standard medical therapy and die,” she said. “There’s no way to count the latter number. Without formal scientific studies, it’s impossible to generate statistics on the efficacy of alternative treatments.”
This type of treatment has recently gained traction as an effective method of fighting breast cancer in exciting new studies. SurvivorNet spoke to Judy Perkins, who is officially the first person to be, “declared free of metastatic breast cancer after a course of immunotherapy.” Further, with regards to another aggressive form of breast cancer called triple-negative breast cancer, adding immunotherapy treatments to chemotherapy was shown in one study to extend the life of patients by as much as 9 1/2 months. The so-called IMpassion130 trial showed that the combination of treatments were effective on tumors containing the PD-L1 protein, according to Dr. Sylvia Adams.
The FDA has also recently expanded its approval of an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda to treat a specific type of lung cancer (called squamous non-small cell lung cancer) when used in conjunction with chemotherapy. And while the benefits of immunotherapy aren’t fully understood or explored yet, one article published in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine says that, “Regression is more commonly associated with groups of tumors…”
It’s important, though, to discuss immunotherapy with your doctor rather than waiting on spontaneous regression to occur on its own, Dr. Rosenberg cautions. Other doctors agree: “We have all heard or seen a few cases like this,” Dr. Deborah Axelrod, of the Perlmutter Cancer Center at New York University Langone Medical Center, told the Tribune. “I have also seen women die of neglected cancers, despite a fervent belief that they will be cured with a nontraditional treatment.”