Can Cancer Undergo Spontaneous Regression?

Dr. Richard Frank—

For most people, the word "cancer" conjures up fears of a life-threatening disease. Common definitions found on internet sites describe cancer cells as "growing out of control" and relentlessly spreading throughout the body causing harm. The reality, however, is much more complicated. Because I have found in my oncology practice that each patient is unique and each cancer is unique, I was compelled to write my book Fighting Cancer with Knowledge and Hope. I wanted to impart many important types of cancer knowledge, one type being that although some cancers are aggressive and can lead to death, others may not grow very much at all. Still others may actually undergo spontaneous regression! This latter possibility has been of recent interest in the press.

In the New York Times (Oct 27, 2009), Gina Kolata wrote an article entitled, "Cancers Can Vanish Without Treatment, but How?" The impetus for her article were recent medical publications on screening tests for breast cancer and prostate cancer (mammography and PSA testing). She wrote, "Besides finding tumors that would be lethal if left untreated, screening appears to be finding many small tumors that would not be a problem if they were left alone, undiscovered by screening. They were destined to stop growing on their own or shrink, or even, at least in the case of some breast cancers, disappear."

It is presently being debated whether or not screening mammography truly detects an appreciable number of cancers that otherwise would have disappeared on their own. As this impacts the recommended frequency of screening mammography, I will give my take on the current cancer screening debate in a future post. For now, I wish to comment on the concept of the spontaneous remission or regression of cancer. This is defined as a cancer that shrinks or disappears completely without any anticancer therapy.

The concept that some cancers undergo spontaneous regression must be quite foreign and difficult for many people to fathom. But, it is well-established in the medical literature (hundreds of descriptions) and amongst oncologists. In my book I describe the case of a young woman with widely metastatic thyroid cancer that underwent a spontaneous remission. I have cared for many individuals diagnosed with widespread cancer that either stops growing or shrinks to some degree without any conventional or alternative medical interventions.

The most frequently cited cancers that may experience a spontaneous remission include kidney and testicular cancers as well as lymphoma and melanoma (estimated at 1 out of every 400 cases). Perhaps the best studied group is a type of lymphoma referred to as "low-grade, B-cell, Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma." It is well established that approximately 20% of patients diagnosed with this type of lymphoma will experience a spontaneous shrinkage of their disease. It is for this reason that oncologists do not treat these types of lymphoma unless they are causing bothersome symptoms for the patient.

What is the basis of spontaneous remission? In most cases, the individual's own immune system is thought to be able to control the cancer, even fight it into submission. In a few cases, patients' immune cells have been shown in the laboratory to strongly react with their own cancer cells, proving this point. Another reason may be that cancers which undergo spontaneous remission have a special and uncommon biological makeup. This was shown in in a recent report in the journal Blood on 9 patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) who experienced spontaneous remissions. The genetic makeup of their leukemia cells were analyzed and found to be similar in many aspects. This description will hopefully prompt more studies of this type.

The spontaneous remission of an established cancer is not a common occurrence. Still, if researchers could understand why it occurs, what biological features of the cancer or immune system of the affected person lead to remission, then it might lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of cancer. I do think that there should be a national research center that studies patients who experience a spontaneous remission of cancer. 

Richard C. Frank, M.D., is director of cancer research at the Whittingham Cancer Center of Norwalk Hospital, medical director of Mid-Fairfield Hospice, and Clinical Assistant Attending at Weill Cornell Medical College. He has been appointed cancer expert for WebMD and was named a “Top Doc” in the New York Metro area by Castle and Connelly.

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19 Discussions on
“Can Cancer Undergo Spontaneous Regression?”
  • Hi Richard,
    You talk about spontaneous regression, and I believe this is the medical term. But this implies that the person has had no input to the improvement in their health. However, study is definitely needed to discover any factors which are in fact having an influence. For instance the person may improve their diet, level of exercise or their stress levels may change. If these types of changes do influence the regression of a person’s cancer, then that would not only give much impetus to take charge of our own health, but also make the word ‘spontaneous’ innapropriate.
    I will look forward to further study in this subject area, as it is a little like the difference between saying ‘it’s only the placebo effect’ and saying ‘this placebo effect is really powerful, how can we harness it to improve health’. The second approach seems better to me.

  • Dear Anne,
    Thank you very much for your very wise words, with which I am in complete agreement. The body and mind are powerful instruments that may have strong influences on health and disease. In the field of psychoneuroimmunology, researchers are trying to better understand the effects of the mind on the immune system. Some studies have shown that a person’s psychological state can cause changes in their immune system that lead to immune reactivity with their cancers. Unfortunately, I have never seen a study that showed that this mind-body or mind-immune influence was strong enough to actually cause cancers to shrink or go into “spontaneous” remission. If there was such a circumstance or individual then I would agree we could not use the word “spontaneous.” I would recommend that the psychological profile and immune system of that person(s) be heavily studied so that we may learn how to harness such an effect for everyone affected by cancer!

  • Thank you for this article and the information on CLL remission. So much information on CLL discusses how rare remission is — so this is very heartening.

  • I am just one of these spontaneous remissions/regressions. I had non-hodgkin’s lymphoma 12 years ago. I can fully testify to the fact that there was considerable involvement on my part on all levels: diet, exercise, mind control,facing up to unacknowledged emotions, spiritual reconnection etc… I have written a book about(Rabbits don’t get lymphoma. Kissing my cancer goodbye. Available on it as I wanted people to know about this mysterious link between mind-body-spirit. And yes it is powerful enough to bring about the disappearance of disease, even cancer.
    I lost many of my relatives to different forms of cancer. For me, a cancer diagnosis meant I was not long for this world. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
    Hope this is of use to you.
    cathie grout

  • Dear Cathie,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story of survival. I wish you long life and continued remission!

  • Use a dictionary and grammar guide constantly. Keep a small English dictionary with you at all time. When you see a new word, look it up. Think about the word – use it, in your mind, in a sentence.

  • Dear Cathie,
    I can’t thank you enough for your email. I will get your book as soon as I can. I was diagnosed with Follicular and agressive large B-cell NHL in march. I have stopped chemo twice. In april from my local oncologist and in June from a second opinion from John Hopkins. Fortunately, because of the Lukemia/Lymphoma office in Phila.,I finally found Dr. Leonard (third opinion)in NYC, who has given me a watch and wait diagnosis. I would very much like to talk to you if possible.
    Joe LoBiondo

  • You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post.

  • I was diagnosed with NHL, folicular,indolent,B-cell ( in my neck)on St. Pat’s Day 2006. the next 3 months i made the usual life style changes. I also tried overheating my body while sleeping by wearing a stocking cap, socks, and especially a scarf while I slept. There is some anecdotal info that high temps can fight disease by increasing the immune response.At my next visit in June of 06, all of my hard “stones” in my neck had disappeared. Subsequent oncological exams have all been negative…John Russell, RN, PMHNP

  • This is a very good article. I first I want to thank you for sharing it with everyone. Second I hope that we can have further discussion on this topic here. Lastly, I want to ask if there is any article(book) that has comprehensive statistics for Spontaneous Regression.

  • I’m a 81 yr old woman very fun loving.
    I have non Hodgkin’s lymphoma.4th stage apparently limited to my legs. I have had chemo many times and radiation once. My legs were sprinkled with lesions on my instep, legs, and thighs. Now there is only two left. One is almost invisible and the last red one is fading. All I did was give up sugar and pray a lot. I also laugh a lot.
    I still eat pasta and rice type of carbs but gave up all deserts and sweets. Only Truvia in my coffee.
    I try to eat healthy food but sometimes eat too many chips. 🙂

  • I was recently diagnosed with follicular and large B cell NHL and my doctor had recommended Chemo treatement ” RICE” and a bone marrow transplant.
    I have had these both before and this time they both came back and I have a golf ball size lump in my throat and tonsil. However, after a recent PET scan my lump has shrunk about 70%. So my wonderful and compassionate doctor said let’s take a pause and see and eval further before doing anything else due to spontaneous regression. I would love to communicate with others with same conditions to share notes?

  • I was diagnosed with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer in 2007. The tumor board recommended three rounds of chemotherapy followed by a thoracotomy to remove a dozen lymph nodes then 6 weeks of radiation. When I declined, the thoracic surgeon said I was crazy and would likely be dead in 1-2 years. Here it is 5 years later and I’m fine. When I pass the surgeon in the hallways of the hospital I work in, she just shakes her head in disbelief.
    I often wonder why scientists are not studying spontaneous remission. Could it be that there is no money to be made?

  • thank you for writing. i would hope that most scientists hard at work on cancer want to make discoveries, the vast majority are not concerned with money or they never would have gone into science and research!
    be that as it may, spontaneous remissions of cancer have been studied and it is clear that some patients mount an immune response against their cancer. But to translate that into curing everyone else is not so easy.

  • I was diagnosed with a triple negative breast cancer in 2012. The tumor was near my pectorial muscle-very visible to the naked eye and easy to feel. I had a ultrasound and biopsy that confirmed the cancer. I did nothing for several months-just trying to figure out what to do. They told me it was very aggressive. I was putting my house in order-because I knew I would not do chemo. After the biopsy-I did nothing different-lifestyle-diet nothing and I noticed the tumor was getting smaller. I went back to the surgeon-an ultrasound was done that confirmed the tumor was smaller in size and now needed a “wire guide” prior to surgery. By the time I had the surgery (several months after the biopsy) I was told that there was no cancerous tumor left and they called it a spontaneous tumor regression. I did not have any lymph node involvement. They called it a medial miracle-I call it a miracle from God. He answered my prayers. I truly believe in the power of prayer. If I would have done chemo first (which is what I was told I should do-but I refused) then the shrinkage of the tumor would have been falsely attributed to the chemo. My question is-would more of these cancers go away on their own-if people did not automatically go for chemo? Has anyone REALLY looked into the immune system of people like me and others who have had this happen? Maybe more investigation should be put into what some of us have that help to fight off these cancers-instead of immediately going for harsh drug related treatments. I am just curious. I am so grateful to have mine gone-without the standard protocol of harsh chemo-I just think with investigations-maybe more women could be cancer free through their own immune system. I am not a Dr. so I do not know-but I do know that it happened to me. I was in my 50’s when I found the lump.

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