12/9/2008 6:56 AM
Print this page
The Body Can Beat Terminal Cancer — Sometimes
They should be dead. But a tiny number of people conquer lethal diseases.
by Jeanne Lenzer
John Matzke was just 30 years old when he was told that he had only 18 months to live. At 6 feet 4 inches tall, with blue
eyes and broad shoulders, Matzke cut an impressive figure. He’d been a football player at Dartmouth College, where he
studied geology. That was also where he met his wife, Lyn, who worked in town. In 1973, Matzke and Lyn moved to
Wisconsin to run a small homestead, where they grew organic vegetables and raised chickens and a pig. Just seven
weeks after the birth of his first son, in 1974, Matzke noticed a lump in his armpit. A biopsy showed that the lump was
, a particularly fatal form of skin cancer. He would have that tumor and then a few others removed
Painting by Benjamin Adcroft
By 1984, the cancer had spread to his lung. Having served in the Army’s Fifth Armored Division in Ulm, Germany, Matzke
went to the Veterans Administration hospital in White River Junction, Vermont, to see his oncologist, Joseph F.
O’Donnell. Knowing that his patient’s chances of surviving the cancer were slim—and would only lessen with each
passing day—O’Donnell urged him to undergo immediate treatment. The oncologist told Matzke that once melanoma
invades an internal organ like the lung, the invariable outcome is death—usually within months—without immediate
treatment. Even with treatment, his outlook was guarded. Only half of all melanoma patients with lung metastases are
alive 30 months after surgery.
But Matzke didn’t follow his doctor’s recommendation. Instead, he took a month off to strengthen his body for the
treatment that he knew would most likely be a grueling ordeal. He went on long hikes in the mountains, he ate healthy
foods, and he meditated. He also spent a lot of time picturing himself healthy and visualizing good strong blood cells
destroying the cancer in his body.
Matzke later flew back to Vermont, where O’Donnell repeated the chest X-ray to document the size and location of the
tumor before starting treatment. But instead of the large cancerous lesion in Matzke’s lung, he saw . . . nothing. O’Donnell
recalls, “When John came back a month later, it was remarkable—the tumor on his chest X-ray was gone. Gone, gone,
Call it remarkable, call it miraculous—such spontaneous remissions are as fascinating to physicians and scientists as
they are rare. Doctors would like to understand cases like Matzke’s, who was given just 18 months to live but would
survive another 18 years. And although a recurrence of the cancer—this time in his brain—would eventually claim his life
on November 8, 1991, the fact that his lung tumor disappeared completely begs for an explanation.