I have been asked more than once if lung cancer ever "just goes away." While it is indeed very rare, I had to share a report published in the journal Surgery Today, and hope that it warms your heart as it did mine.
In this report, a 69 year old woman was found to have an adenocarcinoma, a form of non-small cell lung cancer, which had spread (metastasized) to her adrenal glands. Since her cancer had spread beyond her lungs it would be classified as stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. One month following her diagnosis and before she had any treatment, both the tumor in her lung and the metastasis to her adrenal gland had shrunk considerably on both a CT scan and a PET scan. She then underwent surgery and was doing well 14 months later.
In the literature there are scattered reports of "spontaneous remission" from lung cancer. Spontaneous remission of cancer is defined as a partial or complete, permanent or temporary remission of a cancer without treatment, or with treatment that would not be expected to cause a tumor to decrease as much as it does. Considered a more common finding with some other cancers, such as leukemia and lymphomas, spontaneous remission has been reported with lung cancer. Overall it is felt to occur in roughly 1 in 140,000 people diagnosed with cancer.
Why would I write about such a rare occurrence? The last thing I want to do, after all, is raise false hope.
The primary reason is to remind everyone that we are not statistics. The numbers describing lung cancer survival rates are just that - numbers. Though helpful when looking at the "big picture" they don't necessarily dictate the experience an individual will have with lung cancer. People with lung cancer are real people - not numbers.
The other reason is that if we can understand why lung cancer simply "goes away" in some cases, we might be able to develop better treatments. A host of reasons for spontaneous remission have been proposed. The most common suggest our immune system is able to "fight" off the tumor for some reason, but other explanations ranging from infections to spiritual reasons have been proposed. Knowing that sometimes lung cancer "mysteriously" goes away without treatment reminds us that we have much to learn, and hopefully that knowledge will guide us in directions that can make a difference in the future.
Photo: National Cancer Institute
Haruki, T. et al. Spontaneous regression of lung adenocarcinoma: Report of a case. Surgery Today. 2010. 40(12):1155-8.