Tales of a spontaneous cure (accidental, inexplicable, not connected with treatment) are very popular in the oral folklore of patients, when a terminally ill patient, without the aid of any medical professionals, gradually gets better and lives to a ripe old age. How beautiful this would be, if it were only true! It’s not uncommon for a mistaken diagnosis of cancer to be given while looking at symptoms of another illness. Every doctor has also seen a few cases where a patient, after a long and unsuccessful course of treatment disappears from view only to show up months, perhaps even years, later in what appears to be good health. But is he cancer-free? No. For some reason that we don’t quite understand, the disease can sometimes slow down for a period of time, but unfortunately it hasn’t disappeared altogether. Sooner or later, this period is followed by a recurrence. For this reason, patients should have reasonable expectations. No one can stop you from believing in miracles, but you’ll never forgive yourself if you pass up an opportunity to get treatment. Don’t fool yourself with dubious illusions, but rather put your faith in the possibilities that medicine provides. Cancer is, after all, a very serious threat to your health and also your life.
A spontaneous cure is a phenomenon, which has been described for a number of diseases for hundreds of years. The oldest known account is attributed to Saint Peregrine Laziosi (1264 – 1345). At the age of around 60 he suffered from a tumour on his shin, which continued to progress, had become ulcerated and caused him great suffering. The night before he was to have his leg amputated, Peregrine fell into a fervour of passionate prayer and even had a dream where Jesus touched him and cured his illness. The next morning Peregrine beheld a healed wound under his bandage and there was no need to remove the leg. After his miraculous recovery, Peregrine lived for at least another 20 years. In 1726, Pope Benedict XIII canonised Peregrine and he is still honoured in many places on May 1. Thus Saint Peregrine became the patron saint of cancer patients as well as other people suffering from incurable diseases.
Spontaneous tumour regression (remission) as a result of what we now know to be infections with fever by various bacteria, viruses, fungi or protozoa were already observed in the distant past. This encouraged people to use an infection as a weapon in the battle against cancer. Although there are many such cases reported in the medical literature of centuries past, today they belong to the realm of casuistry or especially rare cases. In the 18th and 19th centuries, infected bandages from other patients were even used to cover the wounds of cancer patients.
Today, spontaneous remission from a tumour is considered to be especially rare. It’s estimated that there are 1 in 80,000 to 100,000 cases. However, this leads us to believe that this can be a reversible process. As far back as 1899, the British doctor D’Arcy Power wrote: “Malignant tumours are rarely seen in places where people frequently contract malaria.” At the same time, observational studies were also carried out that showed that the risk of cancer was somewhat reduced by contracting an infection. The most significant achievement in oncology linked to infections is attributed to American doctor William Bradley Coley (1862 – 1936) who suggested that cancer patients should be infected with dead bacteria. Thus, natural infections, or Coley’s toxins, induced a fever that in some way initiated a whole cascade of events with the unquestionable aid of the immune system, which led to tumour regression. Today, we still use the BCG tuberculosis vaccine (Bacillus Camette-Guérin) in a similar fashion to treat the surface of bladders afflicted by cancer. Even earlier, in the beginning of the 1980s when I began working in oncology, the BCG vaccine was also used to treat melanoma by injecting it directly into the tumour or in the surrounding skin.
Later, prolonged virological studies discovered that viruses were not only capable of infecting cancer cells, essentially destroying them, but also capable of awakening the immune system allowing it to recognise and destroy cancer cells. But I’ll discuss this in greater detail in a blog dedicated to virotherapy. Today, more and more interest is being directed toward immunotherapy, a method that doesn’t attempt to annihilate all cancer cells, but to find common ground with them and to find a way to live together. Toxic chemotherapy, at least in some cases, is becoming a thing of the past, while immune system modulation is considered to be the future of cancer treatment. Perhaps then we will finally achieve spontaneous regression, when the body will heal itself of the disease in a gentler manner without hurting healthy cells, tissues and organ systems.
But currently I don’t recommend that you rely solely on your body’s own self-defence capabilities. They can disappoint us. We have both aggressive and less aggressive methods (virotherapy on its own or in combination with a wide variety of other treatment methods, hormone therapy, etc.) at our disposal to make a truce with our diseases. However, I always recommend that you consult with your doctor, have faith in their competence and ask questions and expect answers, because attempting to battle cancer on your own can cause more problems than solutions.