When New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici announced his retirement in October 2007 after nearly 40 years in office, he explained to a stunned press corps that he had a degenerative and fatal brain disease. Prognosis was bleak, and his health concerns eclipsed his political ones.
A year later, in early December 2008 the retiring senator issued a surprise announcement: His disease had gone away, or at least not gotten any worse.
Domenici got the good news when, earlier in the year, he had offered to take part in a clinical trial of people who had the specific type of disease he had been diagnosed with, frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Domenici was contacted by the lead doctor in the trial study and told he didn't qualify for the trial because the tests couldn't find a link between the Senator's symptoms and his frontal lobe.
"I concluded ... that I must not have the disease," Domenici said in an interview, adding that he may have been healed by God through the power of prayer. The senator may indeed have been miraculously healed by prayer, though a closer look at the facts suggests a different explanation.
Both the leader of the trial study and the doctor who first diagnosed Domenici say that there is clear evidence of Domenici's brain disease and resulting cognitive disorder; the disease did not go away. It's just that the specific cause of the disease didn't seem to be the frontal lobe, as the originally thought, and may not be as bad as had been feared.
The impression of a miracle cure can be created by something as simple as a misdiagnosis.
One sage piece of medical advice (especially for serious diseases) is "always get a second opinion." If doctors and medical tests were always right the first time, there would be no need to seek a second (or third) opinion or test. Modern medicine has an amazing track record of success, but it is not perfect. Doctors are only human and sometimes make mistakes, and all medical tests have a margin of error that includes false positives (finding that a disease or problem exists when it does not).
And, of course, diseases progress (or even regress) at different rates in different people. For example, the flu might be an annoyance to a healthy young person, but fatal to an older person with a compromised immune system. Similarly, some diseases are more aggressive than others, and some stall or even get better on their own without treatment.
A recent study by Norwegian researchers and published in the "Archives of Internal Medicine" suggested that some breast cancers may go away on their own, with or without treatment. According to lead researcher Per-Henrik Zahl, "Many cancers must spontaneously disappear or regress because we cannot find them at later screenings."
Hopefully the doctors and tests are wrong yet again, and Domenici's disease has indeed disappeared. Hope can be wonderful and healing, but patients who mistake a misdiagnosis for a miracle are setting themselves up for disappointment. We may fool ourselves with false hopes, but as the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman noted, "Nature cannot be fooled."
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Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.