The natural remission of cancer

An article in today’s New York Times, based on an article by Zahl et al. to be published next Tuesday in the Achives of Internal Medicine (but already available on line), is about to stir up a hornets’ nest in the world of cancer research.

The study suggests that (at least in the case of breast cancer), there may be a significant incidence of “spontaneous remission” of early stage breast cancers. Specifically, in a study conducted in Norway, 22 percent more women were diagnosed with breast cancer among women who were regularly screened with mammograms and self-examinations than among women were were not regularly screened.

What does this imply?

Let’s think about this for a moment. Our immunological systems fight off disease all of the time, with greater and lesser degrees of success. We know that, at least in theory, cells in all of our bodies regularly can mutate and become cancerous, but most of those cells are chewed up and spat out by our immune systems, and we have no clinical signs of the disease.

So what happens if a cancer starts to grow because our immune system “misses” a few cells at first. One might compare this to the case when we get a worse case of the flu (as opposed to a few flu sniffles). Often our bodies will still fight off a bad case of flu, with the help of some aspirin and a couple of days of rest. We had the flu, but we overcame it. Isn’t it reasonable to imagine that this can happpen with cancer too?

And imagine the implications if we become able to define a “mild” case of cancer, that our bodies can be reasonably expected to fight off. Listen to what Dr. Laura Esserman, professor of surgery and radiology at the University of California, San Francisco, said about the breast cancer study.

“I am a breast cancer surgeon; I run a breast cancer program,” she said. “I treat women every day, and I promise you it’s a problem. Every time you tell a person they have cancer, their whole life runs before their eyes.

“What if I could say, ‘It’s not a real cancer, it will go away, don’t worry about it,’ ” she added. “That’s such a different message.”

Imagine how you might feel if your doctors could tell you that about an early stage prostate cancer!

Before the PSA era, we have no idea how many cancers may have gone into “spontaneous remission” like this. (None? Some? Lots?) What we do know is that there are men who have prostate cancer that doesn’t progress much or at all during their lifetimes. Is one reason for this that their immune systems can successfully fight off the disease? Might we be able to boost the immune system in some way to increase that potential possibility?

Naturally the arguments have already started about how “real” the results of the breast cancer study data are. Some are pooh-poohing the results completely. Others are dubious. In an editorial that accompanies the publication, Dr. Kaplan of the University of Chicago and Dr. Franz Porzsolt, an oncologist at the University of Ulm, say that, “If the spontaneous remission hypothesis is credible, it should cause a major re-evaluation in the approach to breast cancer research and treatment.”

Dr. Kaplan is further quoted in the New York Times as stating that, “I think everybody is surprised by this finding” and “Our initial reaction was, ‘This is pretty weird,’ … but the more we looked at it, the more we were persuaded.”

If I was a prostate cancer researcher today, I’d be looking for an opportunity to test this hypothesis in prostate cancer.

7 Responses

  1. It would make sense that the body has its own mechanisms to deal with badly behaved cells. I have read of incidents of biopsy samples that contain cancer that resulted in RPs with no cancer found in the removed prostate.

    From the PCRI: “dendritic cells (DC): cells that process antigens (proteins) and present them to immune lymphocytes called T cells playing a major role in the initiation of the immune response against tumor and other types of abnormal cells…” Maybe this is what is involved.

    Even if proven correct, it could still a long way from the knowledge to a cure. Provenge seeks to use an enhanced form of this, but is still in testing.

  2. It would be interesting to know how many women have breast cancers on autopsy (compared to men with PC).


  3. Steve: The lack of any identifiable cancer post-prostatectomy in men diagnosed with prostate cancer is actually not that rare. (I mean it’s not common, but it is well documented.)

    The type of immunological boost that I was thinking about would probably be very different from the dendritic cell agents being developed by Dendreon and others. I was actually thinking of something that truly increased the ability of the immune system to respond to any type of “non-self” cells rather than something specific to prostate cancer.

    Leah: Apparently, according to a book by Gilbert Welch, MD, quoted by Christiane Northrup, MD, “in autopsy studies of healthy women in their 40s who died in car accidents, a striking 40% had evidence of DCIS in a least one area of breast tissue.”

    Now it needs to be said that DCIS is not quite the same thing as an actual diagnosis of breast cancer. (It’s more like being told you have high-grade PIN for men.) I have not been able to find the original research to which Welch and Northrup are referring, but to be honest I haven’t looked too hard. The breast cancer literature is massive and I have limited experience in that field.

  4. Are you idiots? My husband “has” stage III prostate cancer. He has had four PSA blood tests that show his PSA levels have dramatically decreased over the last 12 months (after 44 rounds of radiation). He is not “cured”, he is not in “remission”! The cancer is still lurking in his body just waiting to attack him. No one surgically removed the cancer. Jesus and/or no other miracle worker made it magically disappear, so your studies are just that: studies. If a person has cancer, does not have it surgically removed, and it is still in their body; just because the cancer is not “active” does not mean it went away to some special hiding place.

  5. Dear Carre:

    If your husband was initially diagnosed with stage III prostate cancer, this is not early stage. and a cancer of this stage is most unlikely to go into spontaneous remission. However, “we” are not idiots, and I can assure you with complete certainty that spontaneous remissions of cancers do occur, that they are well documented, and that in some cases such remissions have been documented in men with relatively advanced forms of cancer. … These are not “studies”; they are real cases in real men and women.

    Furthermore, men diagnosed with stage III prostate cancer can be treated with curative intent (sometimes with with radiation alone although more commonly with a combination of radiation and hormone therapy). If your husband’s PSA levels are still falling, he may even be one of them.

  6. I have prostate cancer diagnosed as T1c with a PSA of 5.5 on April 17, 2012. On May 25, 2012 I began taking ACAI Berry and on July 11, 2012 my PSA had fallen to 4.2. On October 22, 2012 my PSA had again fallen to 3.5. Does this mean the cancer is in remission or just slower growing? I am still taking the supplement and awaiting the next PSA test in January.

  7. Dear Ken:

    This absolutely does not mean that your cancer is “in remission”. However, you appear to have a low-risk form of prostate cancer which may not actually need invasive treatment anyway. To know whether this might be the case, I would suggest that you join our social network, where we can discuss your personal case in more detail (without having to expose all the relevant details to the entire planet).

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