featured on "Unsolved Mysteries"
by Gary P. Posner, M.D.
On May 5, 1995, NBC-TV's "Unsolved Mysteries" featured a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, woman who, a few years ago, allegedly experienced a "miraculous" healing, through prayer, of a breast lesion suspected of being cancerous. According to program host Robert Stack, on Friday, December 1, 1991 (Friday was actually November 29), 42-year-old K. B. (she was actually 44) underwent an ultrasound/sonogram "confirm[ing] a large lump in her right breast. [Her] doctors fear the worst -- cancer. She was directed to come back on Monday for a biopsy, and possible mastectomy." A mammogram performed on the same Friday was also said to reveal a suspicious "lump."
K. B., says Stack, "had read about the power of prayer and meditation." She then appears in person on the program to explain how she "concentrat[ed] my whole weekend on healing. . . . I [asked] God to heal me. . . . I just heard a still, small voice in my head, just like you read about in the books. I felt the peace that passes all understanding. . . . The [fear and] anxiety went away. I became very convinced that I was healed."
On the following Monday, another mammogram was performed "just prior to her [scheduled] biopsy. . . . K. B.'s doctor was dumbfounded," says Stack. The suspicious spot was gone. "He was cautious, and wanted to conduct the biopsy anyway [but] K. B. was adamant -- she was going home." Says K. B., "I [told] all the nurses . . . 'I'm healed. . . . This is an early Christmas present from God.'" And her follow-up exams have been normal ever since.
Dr. Brian Weiss, a psychiatrist and author specializing in past-life regression who was also on the program, comments: "For many years doctors have . . . explained [these phenomena] away, 'Oh, that's just a spontaneous remission.' But what is that? This is a healing. And we have to, as healers, find out how this happens, what are the mechanisms." Dr. Larry Dossey, author of "Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine" (see my Summer '94 review), claims on the show that "currently there are over 130 studies" scientifically establishing the efficacy of prayer in healing. Between the two, Dr. Stephen Barrett ("The Health Robbers") comments skeptically about the quality of the evidence regarding prayer and healing.
I contacted K. B. by phone on May 22 (her real name had been used on the show). She told me that "Unsolved Mysteries" gave her a $60 check to have copies made for them of her pertinent sonogram and mammogram films. Although nothing compares to visualizing the originals in person, the copies projected on television with sufficient clarity so as to immediately lead me in another direction, one shared by a radiologist to whom I showed the videotape. The lesion on the sonogram appeared very smooth and oval with few internal echoes, characteristic of a benign, fluid-filled cyst (or, less likely, a benign, solid fibroadenoma). The Friday mammogram also revealed a spot, circled on the film, which looked more nodular, but which did not appear to my radiology consultant to contain the density, spickling (pointy margins) or central calcifications so often noted in breast cancers (although they can and do vary widely in appearance). The Monday post-prayer mammogram did appear normal.
During our telephone conversation, K. B. informed me that her saga actually began well before that December, when a routine mammogram revealed a lesion in her right breast (neither she nor any of her doctors, to her knowledge, have ever felt any "lump"). She was to have had a biopsy that July but "fainted" during the preliminary needle localization procedure, and the biopsy was cancelled. The following is from the July 18, 1991, report (read to me by K. B. over the phone): " . . . nodular density seen on outside [i.e., done elsewhere] mammogram performed last month, [here] for pre-operative needle localization today. . . . Today's [low dose mammography] again demonstrates a 1.0 cm. non- calcified nodular density. . . ." (The report then describes the patient's fainting spell and the procedure's cancellation.)
A sonogram report dated November 8, 1991, notes comparison with "nodular density seen on outside mammogram of 4 October 91" and reveals " . . . a 5.0 x 3.0 mm. somewhat rounded lesion [with] some degree of [internal] echogenicity [and] a second 6.0 mm. somewhat oval-shaped lesion [also with] evidence of low-level echogenicity. . . . the walls [of both] are not well circumscribed. Impression: . . . two right breast lesions, neither of which have the sonographic criteria for cysts." This doesn't sound quite like what my colleague and I thought we saw on television, and the date of the report indicates that this sonogram was not performed on November 29. Further, the presence of more than one lesion within the breast is highly suggestive of a benign process. Although multiple metastases commonly result from the spread of a single breast cancer, it is exceedingly rare for multiple primary malignancies to arise within a breast or any other organ.
And from her December 2, 1991, post-prayer mammogram report: " . . . The right breast nodular density which had been reported on previous examinations is not definitely seen on today's examination. . . . compared with the previous mammogram of 18 July and previous sonogram of 8 November . . ." No mention was made of any mammogram or sonogram having been performed (perhaps elsewhere?) just three days earlier. And in none of K. B.'s reports are the findings said to be suspicious for malignancy, despite Robert Stack's comment that her doctors "fear the worst -- cancer."
Only after we said our farewells did I realize that the reports in K. B.'s possession fail to document any mammogram between Oct. 4 and Dec. 2, or any sonogram after Nov. 8. However, K. B.'s name and "29 Nov" are faintly visible on the TV show's sonogram -- the one that seems to reveal a benign, fluid-filled cyst that could have resolved in a few days, or simply not have been visualized on the mammogram (cysts often aren't) of Dec. 2. If a mammogram was also done on Nov. 29, it was apparently unavailable both to "Unsolved Mysteries" and during her Dec. 2 ordeal. The mammograms shown on TV must have been those from Dec. 2 and July 18 (not Nov. 29) -- although no dates are visible, identical nameplates indicate a common facility, and the Dec. 2 report notes only July 18 x-rays as being available for comparison. Even if K. B. had a benign, solid fibroadenoma in her right breast in July, or even on Nov. 8, there was ample time by Dec. 2 for a non-miraculous resolution.
K. B. would not reveal to me (nor have any other media been given permission by her to reveal) the names of her doctors and radiology facilities -- she says they want no related publicity. And because K. B. told me that she would never forgive me if I were to "ruin this very positive experience in my life," I have decided to use only her initials in this article, and to not call her back with my additional questions.
For K. B. there are no questions left unanswered. Besides "Unsolved Mysteries," she informed me that the story of her "healing" has appeared in "Good Housekeeping" magazine (in an April 1993 article entitled, "Do You Believe in Miracles?") and in Dr. Weiss' second "past-lives" book, "Through Time Into Healing" (in which she is referred to as "Frances"), as well as in a May 21, 1995, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel article for which I had also been interviewed on other matters. As K. B. said to me, "I am not a doctor and I don't care what the lumps were. I'm just glad they're gone. I believe God healed me."
[Note: A version of this article appears in the Sept/Oct 1995 Skeptical Inquirer. ]
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