Miracle or medicine? A throat cancer patient's life-changing encounter

By Ron Dzwonkowski (As published in the Detroit Free Press on August 19, 2012)

Frank Acosta had a lot on his mind, none of it good, when he pulled into a Costco store just outside Toronto on Nov. 10, 2010.

Ten days earlier, Acosta had been diagnosed with advanced throat cancer. He was facing weeks of grueling treatments and an uncertain outcome. A media broker, Acosta had made the trip to Canada to see one of his largest customers “to let them know what was going to be going on with me.”

The Costco in Scarborough, Ontario, was a regular stop for him. He’d have a hot dog before getting on Highway 401 for the drive back home to Farmington Hills.

There weren’t many people around when Acosta took some extra napkins and went to a table to slather his snack with the usual combination of ketchup and mustard. So he was a little surprised when a man approached and asked to sit down.

 Acosta remembers the guy as bearded, about 5-foot-7, wearing a short-sleeve shirt on an unusually warm November day.

“Can I have a napkin?” the man asked.

“I gave him one,” Acosta said. “It had two mustard spots on it.”

“Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?” was the next question. Acosta, who describes himself as “a good Catholic,” was taken aback. But after a moment he said yes, he did.

The man took out a pen and began printing words on the napkin. He handed it back to Acosta.

“Say this,” he said, looking the traveler in the eye, “and you will be healed.”

Acosta, who had no outward signs of his illness, glanced at the napkin and “really, because I didn’t want to be rude,” folded it into his pocket. The man left. Acosta drove home.

“I couldn’t make sense of it,” he said of the brief encounter. But he read the napkin. It was a prayer that began with “Jesus loves you …” Acosta put it in his nightstand.

“I had seen a lawyer; I was getting my affairs in order, preparing for the worst,” said Acosta, an Oklahoma native who has lived in the Detroit area since the early 1980s. “I was ready to give up everything I had just to stay alive.”

“I cried my guts out,” he said. “I had been a good man. I didn’t smoke or drink. Why was this happening to me? Why was I being punished?”

Some weeks later, ravaged by three rounds of radiation and chemotherapy and reduced to a liquid diet when he had any appetite at all, Acosta became violently ill one night, worse than ever. He took out the napkin and read it again, as he had several times during his ordeal.

“I sat on the edge of the bed and I asked the Lord to heal me,” he said. Then he vomited.

 “Something came up, came out, I don’t know; it smelled terrible,” he said. “I had my hand on the (toilet) handle, and I immediately flushed it away.”

Five days later, Acosta reported as scheduled for tests and treatment at the University of Michigan hospital.

He can still hear the sweet words of Dr. Francis Worden, a medical oncologist, who examined him: “Frank, I don’t think you have cancer anymore.”

“Wow,” he said. “That’s unbelievable.”

He immediately called his son, Frank, who lives in New York City.

“We shed tears,” Acosta said.

The younger Acosta, 32, said he was “so relieved” to get the call, “so happy after knowing he was going through such a difficult thing.

“But I never lost confidence things were going to work out … that’s part of our faith, and you don’t give up on it,” he said.

At the recommendation of his medical team, a newly invigorated Acosta completed his treatments at U-M through late January 2011. At the end of

April, tests and examinations confirmed “the cancer had left me.”

After his most recent checkup in May, Dr. Gregory Wolf of the U-M Health Systems Department of Otolaryngology, who supervised Acosta’s treatment, wrote in a medical report that “all in all, he is doing beautifully.”

“He is probably cured of his cancer,” Wolf said in a telephone call Thursday. “He had a terrific response to the chemotherapy and radiation.”

Wolf said, “Some patients expectorate pieces of material, tissue” in the course of treatment. He added that, “I’ve seen things where you can’t always explain the why or the wherefore. …”

“We always tell patients there are two things they can control over the course of treatment — their nutrition and their mental approach, and both can make a difference. But they have to do that. We can’t do it for them. His outlook, his attitude, was very good, and we’re just very glad he’s doing well.”

For Acosta, now 67 and hardly looking like a man who’s survived an advanced cancer, (but he has medical pictures showing what he faced) the experience has driven him to share his story in a book, “God, Cancer and Me” that is due out later this year. All book sales proceeds will go into a nonprofit foundation he set up, www.frankacostafoundation.com, to raise money to help cancer patients pay for expenses such as transportation and lodging that often are part of a treatment regimen.

Acosta knows what the doctors say — and he knows what he believes: that a prayer written for him by a stranger at a Costco snack bar delivered him from a deadly disease.

“You have to have faith,” he told me last week in an interview. “You have to have it all the time, not just when you are desperate. You have to maintain that relationship.”

Acosta has been back several times to the Costco in Scarborough, wandering the store in search of the man who wrote on his napkin, which he has preserved in plastic, mustard spots and all. He has never seen him again.

But Frank Acosta is certain he knows who it was.