Copyright 1990-present Joe O'Shea, Jr.
O'Shea Communications

With a little help from her DFCI friends . . . .
Margie Levine proves there is life after cancer

From the pages of Inside the Institute (May 2003)

Dana-Farber patient Margie Levine, the world's longest survivor of mesothelioma, makes a point in Dr. David Sugarbaker's office.

By Joe O'Shea

While hemmed into a magnetic resonance imaging machine about 14 years ago, Dana-Farber patient Margie Levine experienced the polarity-switching pounding of the machine in a slightly offbeat way.
"I pictured angels chipping away at my tumor with golden axes," Levine says of the MRI's deafening clanks, painting a peaceful portrait of an otherwise frightening experience.

Fourteen years after her near-death experience with malignant pleural mesothelioma - an aggressive thoracic cancer most frequently associated with asbestos exposure - Levine is considered the longest-living, cancer-free survivor of this disease, which typically carries a very bleak diagnosis.

"For my own career, I would consider Margie to be the patient who demonstrated that what I was doing is worthwhile," says David Sugarbaker, MD, of Medical Oncology, who performed the groundbreaking surgery that has extended Levine's life. "What 'Jimmy' was to [DFCI Founder] Sidney Farber, Margie Levine has been to me. Because of her, I've devoted the rest of my career to this disease."

On May 1, Sugarbaker, division chief for Thoracic Surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital, performed similar surgery that was webcast live as part of BWH's ongoing effort to educated surgeons and the public about innovative surgical procedures.

When she learned of her condition, at age 43, Levine prepared for death before engaging in a fight for life that continues to this day. Although a pair of doctors had recommended end-of-life palliative care, the Newton resident kept searching for someone who might work with her to combat the vine-like cancer growing in her chest.

She found him in Sugarbaker, and together they felt the best chance to prolong her life was to combine a pleurectomy (surgical removal of the pleura, the lining of the lungs and inner chest wall) with an aggressive chemotherapy wash of her chest cavity during surgery. Ideally, this would scrub away the microscopic cancer cells that are "masters at hiding in normal tissues in the local area," according to Sugarbaker.

"Fourteen years ago, this innovative therapy was akin to landing on the moon," he recalls. "No one knew what was going to happen."

While her top-notch medical treatment was a major reason for her survival, Levine believes the key to her ability to pull through such radical surgery and to thrive in its aftermath has been her strong belief in complementary healing therapies.

"I encourage people to reach out, take risks, and take charge of their own healing," says Levine, who has written "Surviving Cancer," a self-help book that's hit best-seller lists in Boston and beyond. "By fostering a strong mind-body connection through prayer, meditation and visualization, we can help ourselves so much."

Margie Levine chats with Dr. Karen Marcus.

Not just for cancer patients
Technically, the book is a guide to surviving cancer, however, anyone can apply the lessons in this somewhat slender volume to their own lives. There are 41 steps in Levine's guide, but when pushed, she highlights just a few, including positive visualization (such as the angels with golden axes, or envisioning the expulsion of cancer cells through her pores); forgiveness of ourselves and others to lighten your emotional load; self-empowerment through taking an active role in your treatment; practicing stress deflection, or avoidance; maintaining a journal; and recording healing thoughts and uplifting meditative reflections in your own voice on tape.

"I believe the physical makeup of a patient, the biology of a tumor, and the medical treatment received are the most important factors in a positive outcome," says Karen Marcus, MD, who once treated Margie and is now the division chief for Radiation Oncology at Children's Hospital Boston.

"Although I'm a strong believer in traditional medicine, I think complementary techniques and faith help give a person the will to live, the ability to get up in the morning," adds Marcus. "Scientifically, we can't measure the effects of complementary therapies, but emotionally they make a tremendous difference. Margie's decisions say a lot about her faith in humanity, which is something we can all learn from."

For more information, visit or contact Margie Levine at, (617) 323-1800, or (508) 398-6234.