Imagine this. You go in for a mammography, and the technician finds a mass that looks suspicious. The mass is biopsied, and it’s cancer. Your doctor, who’s been sympathetic and encouraging, sits you down to talk with you about your prognosis and says, “There’s a good chance your breast cancer will disappear.” If you’re like most women, you would be stunned and confused.
A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in November 2008 suggests that some breast cancers will go into remission without any treatment. Zahl¹ Like the study’s title, this just may be “The Natural History of Invasive Breast Cancers Detected by Screening Mammography.” The study was headed by one of Dr. Northrup’s favorite researchers, H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., along with Perh-Henrik Zahl, M.D., Ph.D., and Jan Mehlen, M.D., Ph.D.
This study followed a group of more than 200,000 Norwegian women ages 50–64 over two consecutive six-year periods. Half received regular, periodic breast exams or regular mammograms; the other half had no regular breast cancer screenings. Researchers found that the women who received regular routine screenings had 22 percent more incidents of breast cancer than the other women.
Dr. Welch and his colleagues concluded that the most likely explanation for their findings was: The women in the second cohort (those who didn’t have regular breast cancer screenings) actually had the same number of occurrences of breast cancer, but these abnormalities were resolved by the body naturally and without intervention. Other doctors unrelated to the study analyzed the data and concurred that this conclusion makes sense.
Dr. Northrup was intrigued by the study and found it heartening. “My colleague H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., has written numerous articles about the pros and cons of today’s mammography, which can pick up anomalies smaller than a pencil point. (He also wrote a wonderful book that I highly recommend called Should I Get Tested For Cancer?: Maybe Not and Here’s Why [University of California Press, 2004]). Dr. Welch believes we owe it to our patients to explain that too much testing can lead to excessive, invasive procedures.
“For example, studies show that if you get a mammogram 10 years in a row, you have a 100 percent chance of being told you need a breast biopsy. The emotional and financial repercussions of believing you may have cancer when you don’t are staggering. And the experience can drain a person so much that it weakens their natural immunity. This is why I suggest that you make judicious decisions about medical testing and approach it with a bit of skepticism.”
When asked how this spontaneous regression can occur, Dr. Northrup said, “People believe that it takes a miracle for cancers to disappear, but it happens more often than you think. Although doctors can’t say why and when, I think the hypothesis of spontaneous regression brought to light by this study is plausible. After all, one of the body’s natural functions is apoptosis—scourging cancer cells and encouraging the growth of healthy cells.
“Scientific studies document this, as in the example of Coenzyme Q10. Coenzyme Q10 is a naturally occurring substance in the body (and is widely available in supplement form). It has been shown to play a significant role in causing cancer cells to self-destruct without killing healthy cells or harming their DNA.”
“I hope that, as a result of learning about this study, my readers will put more faith in the body’s ability to heal itself and see that excessive medical testing doesn’t really provide them with better health.”
- Zahl, P., Maehlen, J., Welch, H. G., 2008. The natural history of invasive breast cancers detected by screening mammography, Arch Intern Med. 2008;168 (21):2311-2316.