CANCER can retreat and even disappear in some patients – even, very rarely, without any treatment.
And medical experts say the phenomenon, while little understood, is likely to have biological rather than spiritual explanations.
As Australian Catholics prepare to celebrate Mary MacKillop’s canonisation, many atheists, agnostics and even Protestants are questioning whether the new saint’s supposed miracles represent more than medieval hocus-pocus.
Some senior doctors say while prayer can help give hope and focus to religious patients, events that could be considered miraculous do sometimes happen.
Sydney oncologist David Bell, who co-wrote a book on so-called spontaneous remission – where cancer disappears by itself without any treatment – said he knew of about 400 confirmed cases worldwide over the past 150 years.
Despite having a “religious nature” himself, Associate Professor Bell said he was “very sceptical” of supernatural explanations for remarkable medical outcomes.
“I think there’s more likely to be a biological explanation for the rare (cases of remission) that we do see,” Professor Bell said.
“Yes, you can call it a miracle, but you don’t have to invoke divine intervention to believe that.
“I’m very concerned that a lot of people will mistakenly think, ‘I just have to go down to Mary MacKillop’s grave and pray, and I’ll be cured’, and come away disappointed.”
He said a 27-year-old once consulted him, saying God had said Professor Bell would cure him.
“That chap was dead two weeks later, but it caused an enormous amount of difficulty with his whole family – they were basically saying, ‘You just have to pray harder’.”
Martin Tattersall, professor of cancer medicine at the University of Sydney, said sudden remissions were particularly associated with melanoma and kidney cancers, even when these had spread elsewhere in the body.
He said he was aware of four cases of metastatic cancer at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital this year in which patients had had “extraordinary outcomes” from treatment, including one of a man with metastatic stomach cancer that had spread to the liver, who remained alive against all expectation.
“A lot of things that in the past we interpreted as supernatural have been eroded away with better understanding of events,” Professor Tattersall said.
Christobel Saunders, professor of surgical oncology at the University of Western Australia, said an infection could sometimes kick-start the body’s immune system into attacking a tumour.
“Personally, I think there’s a natural explanation, because we’re only just beginning to scrape the surface of our understanding of human biology,” she said.