Don't believe in miracles and cancer cures? Author Keane says he can change your mind
Donaghadee schoolboy Joshua Martin and Daniel O'Donnell's wife Majella attribute their recoveries from cancer to the miraculous, but are they right? Of course, says bestselling author Colm Keane.
Charlene, from Co Londonderry, believes that miracles really do happen. In 2003, aged 11, she developed a brain tumour. Doctors told her family to prepare for the worst. It was touch-and-go whether surgeons could operate. Her chances of survival were estimated at 20%.
One evening a man arrived at her hospital bed with a mitten of the Italian saint and miracle worker Padre Pio.
As her family prayed with the relic Charlene felt a strange pressure on the top of her head.
"There were tears coming out of my eyes and I also felt a sensation coming over my body," Charlene recounted for one of my books.
Two days later the surgeons operated. During eight-and-a-half hours in theatre the bulk of the tumour was removed and the tissue was found to be benign. Charlene eventually recovered.
"The doctors were astounded, they couldn't believe it," she recalled. "From the first night I entered hospital they thought I wouldn't survive. I really believe what happened was a miracle."
It is tempting to dismiss claims such as this as fanciful, or the product of chance. That's what scientists, with their emphasis on powerful drugs and modern technology, argue.
In the realms of science, everything must be explicable - the direct consequence of a vast network of nerve cells and molecules behaving in predictable and well-defined ways. To scientists miracles are the equivalent of voodoo.
Put that argument to 14-year-old Donaghadee schoolboy Joshua Martin and you will get an emphatically different response.
As featured in the Belfast Telegraph this week, following intensive prayer he not only survived intensive abdominal surgery and chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer, but he has now been declared disease-free.
"It was a miracle. That's the only word to describe it," Ian Atkinson, of Joshua's church the Elim Pentecostal in the Balloo area of Bangor, said of the boy's recovery. In the light of my research, Joshua's story comes as no surprise. Real-life miracles really do occur. Terminal illnesses mysteriously go into remission. Tumours shrivel and die. The lame cast off their crutches and walk. The blind recover their sight. The chronically sick become well.
I have encountered many such examples attributed to Our Lady and to saints including Padre Pio and Therese of Lisieux.
To this day I am enthralled by the story once told to me by Padre Pio devotee Mona Hanafin, who is from Co Tipperary.
Back in 1964 she developed cancer. Doctors scheduled the removal of her womb. "I'm going to Padre Pio and he will cure me," she declared.
During her visit to the Italian village of San Giovanni, where Padre Pio was living, she met with and was blessed by the future saint.
On her return the scans showed that the cancer was gone.
"I never got it back," Mona told me.
Also unforgettable is the story of Belfast songwriter Alex Quinn's young son. As a 15-year-old he was paralysed as a result of a brain virus. He couldn't walk or talk.
"We thought we were going to lose him," his father recalled. Having been blessed with a Padre Pio relic at the Royal Victoria Hospital, the teenager recovered. "I definitely believe in him," Alex said, regarding the Italian mystic.
Equally extraordinary is the story of David Doherty from Co Derry. Following a heart operation he became critically ill and plunged into a coma. He was, at one stage, given less than 12 hours to live. His family went home to prepare for his funeral.
Yet, once a Padre Pio mitten was brought to his hospital bed, he gradually got better. "I believe Padre Pio intervened," he said of his dramatic restoration to life.
What causes extraordinary revivals like these is a matter of controversy and debate.
These "miracles" are often dismissed as being imaginary and unreal, the product of fertile imaginations or ill-conceived attempts to establish connections where none exist.
As Thomas Paine, the American intellectual and revolutionary, put it: "All the tales of miracles, with which the Old and New Testament are filled, are fit only for impostors to preach and fools to believe."
Recent studies, however, stress the powerful role of thought, imagination and willpower in effecting cures. The importance of mind over matter is central. Intense belief can stimulate the mind and harness its powers. The use of positive imagery in the treatment of cancer patients has been shown to bring about dramatic improvements, ranging from tumour shrinkage to complete disappearance of the disease.
There is also the issue of chance. The eminent British mathematician John Littlewood argued that everyone can expect a miracle to happen to them at the rate of about one a month. He defined a miracle as something of significance that occurred with the odds of one in a million.
A miracle, in other words, is a function of probability, with certain coincidences happening from time to time. Some miracles, understandably, can be more profound and dramatic than others.
Then, of course, there is the matter of supernatural provenance. It was all down to a higher power, singer Daniel O'Donnell's wife Majella said this week of her recent recovery from breast cancer.
It was this higher power who may have given her the condition so that she could help others.
Her comments tie in well with the case of a young Limerick baby Jack Broderick, who suffered a series of mini-strokes and was written off as dead. His parents, too, believe a higher power intervened.
"Take your son home," one of the doctors told the parents. "I don't know how he's alive. I have never known anyone with this much brain damage to live." The child's recovery was, the doctor said, a miracle.
As for Joshua Martin, was his recent recovery a miracle?
Of course it was. He believes so. His family believes so. Those who wept this week when he recalled his story believe so, too.
And that's the key - belief. To be symptom-free after what he went through is nothing short of miraculous, no matter what anyone else might say or think.
Colm Keane has investigated cures for his books, including No 1 bestsellers Padre Pio: The Irish Connection and Padre Pio: The Scent )f Roses