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Posted: May 13, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

Gleaning Hope from the Files of 'Miraculous Recoveries'

The call came several days ago. Close friend. Cancer. Not again . . .

I have been overwhelmed by what feels like an epidemic of cancer, by all the fear, sadness, and potential loss that I associate with the "C" word. But I also know that how we choose to respond to even the most dire diagnosis can predict the choices we make and, ultimately, how the disease affects us. Whether with defense or surrender, each of us responds in our own unique way. As I confront memories of all the friends I've lost to this frightening foe, my mind turns in another direction. Hope.

Just as some people succumb to disease faster than the average, some live longer than the mean, and a few suddenly find that their cancer has vanished. Do these survivors give us reason for hope? What can we learn from the positive end of a probability distribution?

Such questions have been on Caryle Hirshberg's mind for more than 20 years. With her friend and colleague Brendan O'Regan, she began to collect cases of spontaneous remissions. As word of their research spread, they began to receive mail. One letter, from a woman diagnosed with lung cancer, began, "I'm so grateful that research is being done in spontaneous remission. ... Statistics gave me six to eight months without treatment, but only 18 months with treatment. That was six years ago. ... Even in your research in medical journals, you will still miss a lot of us who are surviving quite happily and with an insight that has to come when one looks death in the eye."

Today, research on spontaneous remission and extended survival has gained momentum. Programs are underway across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia to collect cases, hoping to find common elements. An updated summary of O'Regan and Hirshberg's work, The Spontaneous Remission Bibliography, is now available in a searchable online database. Hirshberg says, "If psychosocial factors account for even 5% of the effect, that 5% may make a difference between recovery and death."

Of course, there are no easy answers, no behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, or personality traits that predict survival. But researchers have found that those who experience a spontaneous remission account for their hopeful situations in similar ways. Those similarities are not a recipe for survival, but a set of possibilities. They include:  

1.     A sense of self-sufficiency and an internal locus of control. Survivors felt that they were in charge. For example, one man with metastatic pancreatic cancer who was given a grave prognosis became depressed, but later rallied and exclaimed, "That's what they say; now let me see what I can do!"

2.     Giving more weight to intangibles such as changes in attitude, a sense of new meaning in life, an enhanced appreciation of nature, and strong connections with partners, friends, and health practitioners, than to treatments received

3.     A strong and supportive relationship with another person or intimate partner

4.     Religious conviction, or belief in and surrender to a higher power. Some survivors report that their own prayers or those of others helped them

5.     Willingness to try anything that makes sense, or to make changes when something doesn't seem to work

6.     Not denying their feelings. Fearful one minute, joyful the next, the gamut of emotions was acceptable. Survivors reported an increased appreciation for humor and more uninhibited laughter.

While spontaneous remission remains the exception rather than the rule, these survivors may lead us to new treatments as well as to better ways of living with the disease. We need only recall the prophetic words of Paracelsus, the father of modern medicine, "Ills of the body may be cured by physical remedies or by the power of the spirit acting through the soul." If one can choose, I choose hope.


Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D., is vice president for research and education at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and senior scientist at the Complementary Medicine Research Institute of the California Pacific Medical Center.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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