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Can cancer be cured by hope?

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15:54pm 31st January 2006

Professor Kathy Sykes

When TV presenter Kathy Sykes started work on a study of alternative therapy for BBC2, she had no idea how closely the issue of health and the power of the mind would come to affect her. Then her father developed a mysterious degenerative condition. Here, Kathy, 39, reveals how her father’s illness ran in an eerie parallel to her TV show.

This time last year my father, John, a scientist, was a strong and active man of 65. He and my mother, Pauline - still devoted to each other after 42 years of marriage - were looking forward to spending their retirement pottering in their home in Abingdon, near Oxford, or spoiling their grandchildren.

But in March, Dad started to lose weight and by May, his weight loss was noticeable. More seriously, he was struggling to walk and slurring his words. His GP did a series of blood tests. At first she seemed to be concerned that my father had bowel cancer, but the tests came back showing nothing untoward.

In the meantime, I had started filming a TV series on alternative medicine. I was travelling around the world to visit clinics and research laboratories to try to understand the science behind such treatments as acupuncture, herbal medicine and spiritual healing - mind over matter.

'I remember looking at my dad and weeping'

I would come back to the UK after a couple of weeks away, rush home to Abingdon, and as soon as I saw Dad I would know he had deteriorated again. It was heartbreaking and terrifying to see this proud, strong man disintegrate so quickly before my very eyes.

By the summer, he was in such a bad state that to get around the house he had to grab hold of furniture or people.

Mealtimes became an ordeal - he regularly missed the plate by several inches - and we agonised over whether or not to offer to feed him. His eyesight had become so bad that he could no longer read and often his speech, when he managed to form the words, was slurred and loud. By now it was clear to everyone that Dad was suffering some sort of neurological disorder.

All sorts of possibilities flickered through our minds. I had returned from filming a doctor who was treating Parkinson's disease: was that what Dad had? Was it multiple sclerosis? One scientist friend rang and asked me if I had considered the possibility - please God, no - of it being CJD.

My father was referred to the John Radcliffe Hospital, in Oxford, in July and in late August the appointment came through - for October. I remember looking at the letter and weeping, thinking that by October, Dad would surely be dead.

Fortunately the severity of his deterioration meant that he became a priority and in September he was taken into the neurological department of the John Radcliffe for tests. The team was brilliant; they tested him for everything known to man.

'Even his medics were baffled'

All tests came back negative. My father used to joke that he was the healthiest guy in the hospital - even though he could hardly get out of bed.

All we wanted was a diagnosis, to know what battle we were supposed to be fighting. Instead, even his medical team was baffled by what was happening to him.

As a scientist - I have a PhD in physics and I am currently professor of public engagement in science at Bristol University - I want to see hard, scientific proof before I commit to saying that something can work.

But I have to concede that the series opened my eyes and made me rethink some of my attitudes. I watched, for example, a young lady having open-heart surgery in China with only the use of acupuncture with some local anaesthetic as pain relief. She was completely conscious as her sternum was cracked open and a hole in her heart sewn up, without showing any discomfort - there could be no faking that.

In the most relevant parallel to what was going on in my private life, we devoted an entire programme to the healing power of the mind.

In one incredible segment, I visited Dr Bruce Moseley, a knee surgeon in the U.S., who carried out an experiment on patients with damaged patellas - knee caps.

With one set of patients he carried out the conventional operation - he cut the knee open, scraped away the debris from the worn-out patella and sewed it back up. With the control group, however, he cut the knee open and then sewed it back up without removing the debris.

'As dad hit rock bottom, he received a diagnosis

Amazingly, the control group - who were unaware that they had been selected - reported recovery of the use of the knee at exactly the same rate as those who had undergone the conventional surgery and, five years on, the knee was still performing well.

Dr Moseley used eye contact and avoided looking at their notes, or his computer. Finally, and most vitally, he repeatedly told his patients that he, personally, expected them to get better as a result of the operation. And that seemed to be the crucial point. If the patient thought he was going to recover, then he did - even without the proper operation.

Dad deteriorated to the point where he was no longer interested in anything. We couldn’t even get him to listen to music and he spent hours sitting in his wheelchair in the kitchen, in the dark, with his head slumped.

Finally, just when he was reaching rock bottom, we received a diagnosis. I had been scouring the internet and had come across what I thought was his illness.

At about the same time the hospital called us in to tell us - me, Mum and Dad - that Dad was suffering from the incredibly rare Paraneoplastic Cerebellar Degeneration, or PCD.

On a very basic level, PCD is an auto-immune disorder. My father had a tiny speck of lung cancer, so tiny that the X-rays and scans had been unable to pick it up, but his immune system had noticed it and had gone into overdrive in an attempt to destroy it.

'Even before chemotherapy, dad began to improve'

But the immune system had got out of control and instead was attacking the cerebellum - the section of the brain which controls the speech, the eyes and the co-ordination of limbs.

The symptoms of PCD fitted perfectly with Dad’s symptoms, and when further blood tests picked up the tiniest hint that he might have cancer, the diagnosis was confirmed.

After another MRI, the cancer was finally spotted in his right lung. To receive a diagnosis was such an utter relief that it obliterated any fear we may have had on hearing that he had lung cancer.

Strangely enough, the treatment for his cancer - chemotherapy - would also help to control the PCD. One of the side effects of chemotherapy is to shut down the immune system. So chemotherapy it was.

But the amazing thing was that even before Dad started the chemo, he began to improve.

He started to communicate with us, to be part of the family and to take pleasure again in things like music and conversation.

It was as if having been told that he had a good chance of recovery - however short-lived it might be - his body had started on the recovery process without the aid of medical treatment.

He certainly turned a corner, and he couldn’t wait to start the treatment. Now, there was a light at the end of the tunnel and as far as he was concerned he was going to survive.

The doctors had confidence that he could get through this, and that really did make a difference. From this incredibly bleak place, he was optimistic, with fighting spirit and he was suddenly determined that he was going to be OK. He wanted to live again.

Studies have shown that when doctors tell patients that treatment can have side effects, the patients are more likely to suffer those side effects. It’s all about expectation - and in this case, the doctor’s diagnosis moved my father from despair to hope, even before he’d had any treatment.

As for the chemotherapy, it does seem to be working so far. Dad is still in a wheelchair, but he was at a family wedding at the weekend and managed to take five steps, which is fantastic.

His recovery has been like a miracle. He has put on lots of weight, he can talk clearly and we are all thrilled about it.

We have learned so much from his illness. I understand better what it means to love someone deeply, even when they are in a black place and have no hope.

Experiments have shown the impact the mind can have on the body and we would, as scientists, be very silly not to appreciate and embrace that, particularly when it comes to healing.

Certainly, my father and I are two scientists who now know all too well the vital significance of hope.

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