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What makes a 'miracle'? Patients, doctors share stories of extraordinary recoveries

After a 15-month battle with cancer, Joseph Rick had accepted the inevitable ? he'd even bought a cemetery plot. Then, everything changed. "To me it was a miracle," he says. "It was a gift from God."
/ Source: TODAY

Joseph Rick had finally accepted the inevitable and bought a cemetery plot. His cancer was still spreading throughout his body even after 15 months of treatment that included chemotherapy, radiation and nine surgeries. But as a last-ditch effort, he signed on for a clinical trial of an experimental therapy. Within a month, the tumors on his skin had shrunk to nothing.

“To me it was a miracle,” says Rick, now 54. “It was a gift from God.”

In the face of such unusual and unexpected recoveries, patients often give thanks to a higher power — while their doctors see the extraordinary event as something that has an earthly explanation that has yet to be discovered. Both might even use the word miracle, but attach different meanings to it.

Image: Doctor holding patient's hands.
The word 'miracle' is a controversial one in medicine.michaeljung / Shutterstock

“Different people have different concepts of what a miracle is,” says Dr. Jeffrey Long, medical director of oncology services at the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center at Terrebonne General Medical Center. “The dictionary gives two basic definitions: an extraordinary event that manifests divine intervention in human affairs or an outstanding or unusual event or accomplishment that does not require divine intervention.”

Upon hearing Rick’s whole story, it’s hard to find any other word that fits what happened to him.

Rick was just 40 years old when he spotted a rather innocuous purple bump on his thigh. “It looked like a blood blister,” he remembers.

But doctors soon diagnosed melanoma. And a full body scan revealed that the cancer had spread to his intestines, with traces visible on his bladder and stomach.

Chemotherapy didn’t slow the cancer down. In fact, during the six months of treatments, tumors popped up in Rick’s lungs, liver and pancreas. Radiation didn’t blunt its spread either. Surgeons removed parts of Rick’s colon, liver, left lung and his entire lower bowel. But still the cancer continued to sweep upwards toward his brain.

In 15 months Rick had gone from 210 pounds to 92. His doctors told him they had no more options and gave him just a few months longer to live. “I was put on home health care and put on a feeding tube,” he says. “I bought a grave.”

One day his regular nurse couldn’t make it and a substitute came to take care of him. She told Rick that she’d taken care of a patient just as sick as he was that had been helped by an experimental melanoma therapy that was being tested at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It was December of 2002 and at that point I was ready to die,” he remembers.

But Rick signed on for the study and was given a first dose of the new drug, which was designed to stimulate the immune system. “Within the first 30 days, the lesions on my skin disappeared,” he says. “It was unbelievable. [The researchers] were very excited. They didn’t know why it was working or why it was working so fast.”

Rick continued to get treatments and by 2009 he was told that he was officially in remission.

“I really do think it was a miracle,” he says. “I responded and I’m alive today. I’m currently working on my doctorate in clinical psychology. My whole life turned around.”

Rick’s physician, Dr. Antoni Ribas, agrees that the recovery was extraordinary. But, Ribas says, “I don’t work in miracles. I treat melanoma. [Rick] was part of a group that was treated with a drug that stimulated an immune response. When it works, the immune system takes care of the cancer. It worked in him. But I would not call it a miracle. It was a stimulus to try to do better and get more patients to do better.”

Ribas agrees that Rick was one of the lucky ones: The therapy worked on only 10 percent of the patients who received it. But to Ribas that just meant that he needed to figure out why the treatment worked on Rick and not on many of the others.

As it turned out, the experimental therapy worked by allowing the immune system to switch on. It’s like taking your foot off the brake pedal in your car, Ribas explains. The trick, he says, was to find other ways to turn off the brakes holding the immune system back. Ultimately, what Ribas and his colleagues learned from patients like Rick has led to new drugs—ones that work in one third of patients.

“That does not mean you can’t be religious,” Ribas says. “But in our medical practice, I think it’s a detriment to consider things miracles because you will fail to understand what it was about that patient that triggered a change in the disease.”

And that’s how many doctors see “miracle” survival stories.

“Very surprising things happen sometimes,” says Dr. Alan B. Astrow, director of hematology and medical oncology at Maimonides Medical Center. “And some people call them miracles. “

Astrow points to the exceedingly rare cases in which cancers go into remission on their own. “It’s an immune reaction to your cancer,” he says.

Dr. Herbert Benson has spent decades studying what he dubbed “the relaxation response,” which is the reaction of the human body to a decrease in stress. Diseases that are at least partially driven by stress can improve when people find a way to tune out “the train of everyday thinking,” says Benson, mind-body medicine professor at the Harvard Medical School and director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

“People can get better to the extent that their condition is caused or exacerbated by stress,” Benson says. “Some people say it’s miraculous.

“We have within us an alternative response to the fight or flight response, which we have labeled the relaxation response,” he explains. “What this does is break the train of everyday thinking. It’s often achieved by the repetition of a word or sound or movement. The Roman Catholic rosary is a perfect example.”

New research is looking into how the relaxation response might affect the expression of genes that control inflammation and the immune system, Benson says.

Ultimately, doctors seem to be able to separate their religious beliefs from the science involved in the medicine they practice.

An intriguing poll performed in 2010 found that three quarters of doctors thought a miracle would be possible in present times. But, the poll wasn’t asking about medical miracles, says Glenn Kessler, CEO and president of HCD Research, the company that conducted the poll.

A majority of doctors, 52 percent, said they had seen treatment results that they considered “miraculous, that is, unexplainable by science.”

More telling was the answer to another question: “How much of the outcome of medical or surgical treatment of a patient do you believe is related to forces totally outside your control (referring here to the ‘supernatural’ or an ‘Act of God’ and not things like HMO decisions.” A full two thirds answered “little” or “none.”

Still, for people like Joseph Rick, sometimes events can seem too extraordinary to be explained by science.

Even though he understands the physical explanation of how the experimental therapy banished his cancer, he still feels that something miraculous happened to him.

“A person came to my door whom I had never seen before and referred me to these doctors who gave me this vaccine that saved my life,” he says. “To me it was a miracle.”