By Richard Frank, MD
How do you define a miracle? It can be thought of as an event brought on by divine intervention or more commonly as something wonderful but totally unexpected or against the laws of nature. For an oncologist, miracles do not happen frequently. Certainly, we see many cases where patients live far longer than expected but that is not enough to qualify as a miracle. A miracle grabs us and takes our breath away. Truly, it is when a dying patient is restored to life and vigor. The miracle is obvious also to the patient, who is astounded and imbued with the incredible lightness of being and a renewed appreciation for life and feeling well. I witnessed just such an example today.
My patient Tom has metastatic prostate cancer which he has battled for over three years. The cancer had been steadily growing in his bones and he had received an arsenal of treatments: hormone therapies, chemotherapy, experimental antibody treatments. He was hospitalized for complications of treatment on several occasions; he caught various infections as well. Just three months ago, Tom was ready for hospice. He appeared emaciated, shuffled slowly into my office and needed a cane for support. He was barely 60 but looked much older; he was exhausted and depleted. He was also “done” with cancer treatments.
Yet, a new therapy, called abiraterone (Zytiga), had just been approved for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer and I urged him to try it. He repeatedly declined. “No more treatments. The side effects are brutal and land me in the hospital. What’s the use. Nothing has worked lately.” I couldn’t argue with his rationale because I appreciated how much he was suffering. Still, I thought the medicine could truly help him and would not be associated with severe side effects. I tried to convey this to him but he stubbornly refused. Finally, his sister asked to come with him because she knew he was stubborn. Ultimately, she prevailed and he agreed to try the new pills.
Today marked three months for Tom taking Zytiga. He came into the office bounding with energy. No cane, no shuffling walk. “I feel great. This is amazing!” said Tom. “I mean, Doc, I can’t believe how well I feel. I’m off the oxycontin now ’cause I have no pain. My appetite is fantastic! Life is sweet and every day is wonderful! And the PSA, wow!” Tom’s PSA went from 50 to 1.
The new drug had transformed him and restored Tom back to health. It truly was a cancer miracle. I’ll take more of those anytime.