BY ARUNABHA SENGUPTA
Old textbooks of surgery in their chapters on neck swellings used to carry a picture of the "Royal Touch", the good king healing a sick subject by a gentle touch on the neck. "Strangely visited people, all swoll'n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye... despair of surgery, he cures," Shakespeare had these words said to describe a king of England and his divine power to miraculously cure diseases, a power that successive kings inherited along with the throne and treasury. It is fascinating to see that to recognize a holy person as a saint, except in the case of martyrs, the Catholic Church presently considers only acts of healing as cognizable "miracles", as attestation that the holy person is with god and is able to intercede to heal a disease in a manner that science cannot explain. That last clause, "science cannot explain", discomfits many, including some theologians. For it reduces god to only the "god of the gaps", implying the existence of god only in the gaps of scientific knowledge, the most cited example of which is Newton bringing in a god to cover the gaps in his theories about celestial motion - a god who stands behind the backdrop and uses means beyond the natural laws to keep things in order. Now that science has bridged that gap, where has his god gone? Admittedly, much larger theological issues confront one here, but those apart, can one judge such matters purely with scientific reasoning? Can medical science, as it advances, explain seemingly miraculous cures?
It hopes to, to a large extent. Experience tells us that many events that appeared supernatural in the past have been found quite explicable by natural laws later. The truth about the kings' healing touch is that most of those patients suffered from scrofula or skin disease with swollen neck nodes, often from tuberculosis. The nodes used to suppurate with abscess formation and burst to discharge their purulent content and become quiescent for some time. It is well known that given time, food and rest, the human body can heal itself from many bodily ailments, particularly of the infectious type. It is a curious coincidence that the local doctors who had treated Monica Besra, the first of the mandatory two cases needed to canonize Mother Teresa, claimed to have treated her for a tubercular tubo-ovarian mass. The second case is from Brazil, that of a kidney transplant patient hospitalized and treated for multiple brain abscesses. The Church of course, through its scientific commission and the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, scrutinizes each case rigorously to determine if healing has occurred without medical treatment, completely and instantly. Rather superfluous in Mother's case, many argued, her life made her case amply. However, in both the cases, after all due diligence, the Church decided that healing had taken place instantly and after prayers to the Mother. Moreover, in Besra's case they diagnosed that she had an ovarian tumour. It is worth finding out what medical science has to say about such cures or what can be scientifically termed as the "spontaneous regression of diseases".
A general question therefore arises, can cancer go away on its own at times without active medical treatment? In fact, it can, rarely, but documented in good enough numbers to accept the chance of its happening once in a while, which has been variously estimated as one in every 60,000 to 100,000 cancer cases. If that be the case, then, as Carl Sagan pointed out, the cure rate of the famous shrine Our Lady of Lourdes in France, with recognized miraculous healing power, is lower than what would be the expected incidence from spontaneous regression of cancers in hundred million devotees that had visited the shrine in the last 150 years for curing their diseases. Estimating, of course, that cancer victims comprised 5 per cent of those devotees and as per Vatican only four cancers have been miraculously cured so far (out of a total of 67 of all types of ailments). Unfortunately, shrines of any other religion keep no records of their "cures", and excepting a few commemorative plaques no other testimonials are available. However, cases of such spontaneous regression of malignant tumours or their metastatic foci without any form of active treatment have been elaborately documented by scientists of standing like Harvey Cushing and William Boyd amongst others.
Published results from screening mammography studies in Scandinavian countries have indicated that a percentage of screen-detected breast cancers either never give rise to clinical manifestations of a full-blown invasive cancer, remain latent, or regress by themselves. Post-mortem examination of aged males dying from other causes or prostate cancer screening has showed that such cancers remain latent for long in some people. The Institute of Noetic Sciences in California has complied with details of more than 1,000 spontaneous regression of cancers reported in credible literature. A careful perusal of those cases show that spontaneous regressions occur more commonly in some particular types of cancer like neuroblastoma, melanoma, testicular cancer, renal cell cancer, and lymphomas, pointing to a pattern and one or more probable causes. Scientists are naturally eager to know what bodily mechanisms cause the regression or halting of the natural progression of a cancerous process, for therein might lie a way to treat cancer. Of the various theories considered, the most attractive and plausible seems to be the postulation that a surge of the body's own immunity destroys the growing cancer cells. Analysis of cases showed that in most cases regressions were preceded by episodes of bacterial, viral or fungal infection and high fever, which can stimulate the body's immune defence system. "It has long been noted that the growth of malignant tumors halts for a time when this disease is present," Anton Chekov wrote about erysipelas in 1890.
At about the same time, observing how a patient of advanced oral cancer got well after successive attacks of erysipelas, William Coley produced a toxin made from dead bacteria to work as an antigen to stimulate immunity in cancer patients. His method was crude and reactions to treatment were unpredictable, but building on the fact that current researchers have produced different classes of drugs that can either selectively enhance the body's immune mechanism to recognize cancer cells as harmful or reduce the capacity of cancer cells to bypass the immune system. One such drug has cured Jimmy Carter, former American president, of advanced metastatic melanoma, a universally fatal disease. St Augustine himself had put it succinctly, "Miracles are not contrary to nature, they are only contrary to what we know about nature."
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