Stories of how cancer patients survived and recovered always offers a glimmer of hope for patients struggling with the disease. But people whose disease was defined as terminal and nevertheless overcame it, are generally considered miracle cases. Did these patients, who are defined in the medical practice as ‘exceptional cancer survivors’, have something in common that helped them overcome it? Although survival stories of terminally ill cancer patients have often appeared in the media, and this phenomenon is recognized by the medical profession, so far it has not been studied formally and orderly. Over the past decade, Prof. Moshe Frenkel, a Clinical Associate at the University of Texas, and chairman of the Israeli Society for Complementary Medicine delved into the subject both in the US and Israel. Today he an a Clinical Associate at the University of Texas, and serves as the Medical Director of Integrative and Complementary Medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, one of the leading centers in the field of cancer research. He tells us about his interest in “miracle cancer recoveries” below: Several years ago, I returned to Israel. Beyond my work as a family doctor, I manage the Complementary Medicine Unit at the Oncology Institute in the Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba. I began the study in Texas and continued it in Israel in the framework of general health services. As part of the studies that I conducted, researchers interviewed participants from Israel and the United States that were defined as cancer patients with an “exceptional disease course”, i.e. cancer patients with advanced disease whose chances were slim, and yet contrary to all predictions, succeeded in recovering from the disease.
The study was carried out in several stages. The researchers and I looked at how these patients perceived and explained their exceptional experience to try to understand if there is a common factor between them. Participants in the study were patients with a variety of cancers, including pancreatic cancer, advanced lung cancer, women’s cancers, and cancers of the brain. Although they were all diagnosed with very advanced cancer, they survived, some of them more than 30 years after the diagnosis. My interest in these patients began in the 80’s, after reading Bernie Siegel’s book “Love, Medicine and Miracles.” Dr. Siegel pointed out in his book extraordinary cases of exceptional patients which was then a completely unexplained and unresearched phenomenon. The book sparked my curiosity, and when I arrived at the cancer center in Texas, one of my first actions was to launch a study on this issue, locate these patients and investigate the phenomenon. While engaging in the research, I discovered that there were quite a few patients who live beyond their doctors’ expectations. Locating these patients was not a simple process, since these patients overcame all expectations and survived their disease beyond the known prognosis for their type of cancer and the extent of its metastasizing. It was necessary to verify for every patient the medical diagnosis and the exceptional disease course.
In the first stage, researchers were assisted by doctors and therapists who directed them to those patients, mainly from memory and long-term familiarity with these patients. In the second stage, we decided to locate the patients more objectively, and we used information databases that directed us to these patients. Beyond that, we turned to complementary medicine practitioners, who the patients described to us as magic-workers, and we tried through them to locate other patients who met the criteria for exceptional patients and to use medical files to verify the uniqueness of these patients in terms of survival. Contrary to common belief that they are super people who are resistant to any injury, and who used a magic potion that made the difference, we met ordinary people, people like you and me, who in most cases did not attribute anything unusual to their story and their extraordinary survival. But while investigating and interviewing them, we found some points identical to most of the patients.
Already in the initial processing of the data collected in the first stage of the study, we saw that the patients had a different way of coping than usual. Most exceptional patients were very active in choosing their treatment team and the form of treatment, and were significantly involved in treatment decisions and coping with the disease. We published this initial data in the medical literature. The criticism that we received for this phase of the study raised doubts that the method by which we had pinpointed the patients would yield biased and subjective findings. We therefore relied on identifying patients that were referred to by physicians. However, this raised the possibility that we might be missing many patients who left the conventional medical system, or turned to alternative medicine without the knowledge of the medical staff and disappeared from the recovery statistics, thereby possibly losing important information about the survival of these patients.
Consequently, with the approval of the Helsinki Committee, we focused on one district of Clalit Health Services that has about 650,000 patients, and this time we located the patients through the district computerized database irrespective of the treatment team. Using this database we were able to detect patients who were diagnosed with an illness with very low chances of survival who survived the disease, whether they were treated by conventional medicine, or left the accepted conventional medicine track and used undocumented alternative methods. Over the past two years at this stage of the study, we identified another 15 patients for our research. We are carrying out the final summary stage of the findings of the two study phases, whose results we will publish during the upcoming Empowerment conference. The findings will have implications for each patient who has to struggle with a malignant disease.