Exceptional Cancer Recovery

What does it mean when someone survives cancer against great odds?

Greater minds than mind have pondered the question. Bernie Siegel, MD, for one, focused much of his good work on studying and helping “exception cancer patients.” If patients had defied great odds against them, and recovered from cancer despite very poor prognoses, what could medicine learn from their stories?

He looked for what they might have in common with each other. That effort made some people uneasy, I think. Why focus so much on people who have beat long odds? Aren’t you in danger of providing false hope to others who may not be able to also beat long odds? I think there are two questions there. Let’s go one at a time.

Noticing what exceptional cancer recovery stories have in common with each other, to me, is a great effort. Most clinicians, and most cancer patients, already know that one’s “odds” are not really the same as a prediction. A certain chance of recurrence is not a forecast. When the weather reporter says that there is a 50% chance of rain, we don’t really know anything much. When your “odds” for a recovery are neither dismal nor terrific, I would argue that you also don’t know much.

On the other hand, if someone can determine WHY a certain number of people with terrible prognoses will walk away back to good health, well, that is a valiant search, I think, for useful information.

In my book, Active Against Cancer, I profiled a cancer patient recovery story that is under the heading of “exceptional” for sure. Helene Neville, who is in her early 50s now, had brain cancer, and many years ago was told to put her affairs in order. Her surgeries and treatments were at an end. She was told she was dying. The details are in her profile in my book, or you can look up more about her on her website, here, at www.oneontherun.com.

Helene forgot to go home and quit on her life. Instead, she went running. And she ran a marathon on precious little training. And then she kept on running… all the way back to good health.

Putting her story of remarkable recovery in my book, Active Against Cancer, was a bit of a gamble. Some medical doctors consider such stories to be dangerous and to be misleading. Was I trying to claim that all readers of my book should go run marathons and they would be saved from terminal cancer? No. Was I trying to say that exercise “cured” Helene? No. Was I making a point that extremely long runs had extraordinary merit? No. So what was my point?

My point was that we don’t know why Helene’s cancer recovery story turned out so positively. We do know that it’s interesting. She is a model of fitness, now, and ran across the country in 2010. Ran across the country. In about three months. At age 50 or so. Um, hello, fitness role model? She’s a nurse and she publicizes her belief that medical professionals should be healthier in their fitness habits. Helene is a marvel and worth reading about.

But let me be clear: I’m not telling anyone to try to duplicate her recovery by running a marathon against doctors’ advice or when un-fit, un-well and un-ready. My book is very measured in what is recommended for exercise volume for cancer patients. Don’t overdo it. Don’t get fatigued. Don’t exhaust yourself. A half an hour of walking is a valid goal during treatment. So is ten minutes of walking one day or a little yoga or a little light weight-lifting. I defer to the American College of Sports Medicine, their recommendations, and those of ACS and others. Ask your doctor what is right for you. Get help from a physical therapist or trainer, or better yet, from a hospital-based cancer rehab program. Don’t wing it and don’t go overboard.

But if you want to have hope, feel free. One time during my treatment, a friend was pushing me to answer what my “realistic” odds were. I think she was skeptical that I was going to be okay. I was feeling optmistic. Again, she pushed: “But realistically, what are your odds?”

“Realism is sometimes over-rated. I have all the hope in the world. It works better for me that way.”

So if you want to, have all the hope in the world. And if you are in a tough spot, with your doctor telling you that your time is up, but a little voice inside your head gives an idea for how to fight for your life and health instead; or if there’s nothing else “they” can do for you, but you have something that you think that you can do for yourself; or if there’s nothing left to lose, and everything to gain; well, remember that sometimes inexplicably good things do happen. Hope is not in limited supply. Dig in.