Scared to death
Frightened because she thought she had breast cancer, a Charleroi woman treated herself with useless potions and therapies
Tuesday, December 07, 1999
By Ellen Mazo
Erika Zelem was a smart woman. She had a master's degree in counseling and had a private practice working with bereaved, chronically ill, elderly and adolescent clients. She wasn't a stranger to inner suffering and stress.
But when she discovered a lump on her right breast in October 1990, she became terrified. She had lost her other breast to cancer 15 years earlier. She didn't want to go through the disfiguring surgery again.
So the Charleroi woman turned to mail-order practitioners who sold her thousands of dollars of products to rid her body of the poisons and the parasites they said were invading her system.
She swallowed parsley, carrot and celery juices. She rubbed her body with aloe vera creams. She bought one machine that zapped her with electrical currents. She spent $1,200 on another that produced water bubbles that were supposed to make her feel better.
Her sister, her mother and other relatives begged her to see a doctor. They made appointments. Zelem canceled them.
"I would watch my aunt swing a chain because a woman in California told her that its movement would tell her what herbs she should take," said her niece, Jennifer Stile. "It was like giving her a death sentence. She listened because she was desperate."
Zelem died on Sept. 9. She was 54.
Her family knew she was in intense pain, but didn't realize the extent of her overwhelming fear and despair until after her death, when they found her notebooks. Over the last year and a half of her life, Zelem had outlined the increasing pain that pierced her body, the treatments that she gave herself and her refusal to get medical help.
They also found thousands of dollars worth of canceled checks to people and companies across the country for mechanical devices, herbal combinations and purified waters.
"These people took advantage of someone who was scared," said Zelem's older sister, Alix Garlitz, who's also from Charleroi. "They played on her fears. At one point they had her putting cabbage and potatoes on her breast. They said that helped pull the poisons out of her body. One person told her that cancer was a symptom."
Garlitz, 57, said the family had accepted Zelem's death. "Then, when I saw what she had paid, and for what, I didn't know what to think," she said. "And when I read her diaries, I see how much pain she was in, for so long. My sister is in pain, and she's taking cleansing agents and zapping herself with electrical currents."
Local doctors who are becoming increasingly involved with alternative, or complementary medicine, are frustrated over the growing accessibility of unregulated products hawked by charlatans who promise impossible cures.
"The saddest thing in our society is knowing there are people out there taking advantage of others," said Dr. Paul Lebovitz, medical director of Allegheny General Hospital's Center for Digestive Health.
He partly blames traditional caregivers who dismiss anything other than Western medicine.
"I think this occurs because allopathic medicine has not yet met the needs of patients. It's easier to do alternative medicine than allopathic," Lebovitz said.
The December issue of the University of California, Berkeley's Wellness Letter addresses medical quackery, pegging its report to the huge amounts of medical advice being dispensed on the Internet.
The Federal Trade Commission has started a campaign called "Operation Cure All," to challenge the Web sites that promote phony cures.
"The agency can force the sites to stop making claims, but it cannot shut them down or prevent them from doing business," the Wellness Letter reports.
Zelem's experiences illustrate the still uneasy relationship between traditional and alternative medicine, doctors and other medical professionals say.
Her family acknowledges that Zelem's earlier mastectomy affected her more deeply than they realized.
Zelem, who was single, told a relative: "You never had disfiguring surgery. You don't understand."
The relative, a nurse practitioner who works in an oncologist's office, tried to explain that breast cancer treatment had advanced significantly since Zelem's first surgery, that she might have been a candidate for just having a lump removed.
Zelem would have none of that. To her, doctors could not offer the comfort of the herbalists and other practitioners who promised that their methods could cleanse her system.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates the distribution of drugs; herbs have not been classified as drugs. At the same time, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, is funding research of alternative medicine and therapies at more than a dozen research centers at U.S. universities.
But what about the snake-oil scams that seem to offer hope to sick, desperate people, like Zelem? Garlitz asked.
"Yes, she was an adult, an educated adult. But aren't these people taking advantage of someone who is in pain and afraid?"
Lebovitz speaks of both traditions with ease. He spent a month last year traveling to Europe and the Far East to look into alternative medical practices. Lebovitz returned with a new respect for some of the healing traditions of other countries that are looked upon with skepticism in the United States.
"We have evidence-based medicine," he said. "Most alternatives don't. But it's very important to know that patients are doing this already. Doctors have to be aware of that."
In the past year, Lebovitz has led the hospital's integrated medicine program, bringing in Dr. Arvind Kulkarni, a radiation oncologist with 30 years practice in both mainstream and alternative medicine in Bombay, India.
At Medical Wellness Associates in Jeannette, Dr. Martin Gallagher, a chiropractor who runs the alternative care practice, finds himself battling extremists who refuse to accept alternative therapies as a complement to traditional care.
One of his patients was Erika Zelem.
"That stuff happens out there," said Gallagher, who has medical doctors on his staff. "People disenchanted with the medical system go out there and do these other things. They need to enter our world."
Gallagher said he explained to Zelem that a 65-year-old patient with a hip problem likely would require a hip replacement. Vitamins alone would not repair the worn out joint. Chiropractic treatment alone would not ease the pain.
"But for a person going into surgery, we can assess their nutritional needs so they can remain healthy. Afterward, we can help with physical therapy," he said.
After he told Zelem that she needed to be treated by a medical doctor, she never returned.
By September 1998, Zelem felt even more desperate, her diaries indicate. Her mother, Petrine Zelem, now 91, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. While her mother had a mastectomy and was prescribed Tamoxifen, Erika Zelem continued her own treatment. A month later, she had a hair analysis that showed her body had too much aluminum, silver, mercury zinc and iodine.
She did not say how she dealt with that, but wrote on Oct. 21, "Everything hurts inside, especially left side."
Through April and May of this year, Zelem kept track of her pain, almost by the hour. Her handwriting became increasingly feeble. She prayed a lot. She downed a lot of herbal pills.
"That's why she couldn't eat," said Garlitz, who had moved Zelem to her home. "Her body was filled with pills."
Two months before she died, Zelem sent a Polaroid picture of herself to a California company that claimed it could analyze her ailments and prescribe treatment based on her appearance. Zelem, who at 5 feet, 2 inches, weighed about 110 pounds before her illness, was now a skeletal 75 pounds. She bought potions Garlitz found after her death, so many that dozens of bottles were in their boxes, still unopened.
Lebovitz and Gallagher believe that as the medical profession comes to accept alternative medicine more people will find that they don't have to turn to quackery for cures. Medical schools now are teaching students to talk with their patients about alternative medical treatments they may be using.
"No one has the answers," Gallagher said. "There is no one answer in traditional medicine or nontraditional medicine. It's integrative. By making more forms of natural medicine available to patients we may be able to help them from being lured into going to extremes. They are scared to death, literally. We have to help them overcome that fear."
Cancer QuackeryWatch appealThe Pittsburgh area is a hotbed for alt. medical wackos. Ellen Mazo wrote another article about Martin Gallagher, most of it was nothing more than a non-paid advertisement for his practice: Please write letters to the Post-Gazette commenting on cancer quackery articles?
Letters can be E-mailed to
Other Pittsburgh Post-Gazette articles :
Pittsburgh Post Gazette - Dead letters office
A collection of letters written by Patrick Curry - skeptic and health fraud guru
John Craig, Editor
To the Editor:
The article "Scared to Death" in the 12/7/99 Health Section dramatically
However, the most amazing thing thing about this article is that the
Reporter Mazo's continuing blind support of CAM despite this awful
The victim, Erika Zelem, had been a longtime patient of one of the worst
When Zelem's cancer worsened, Gallagher, as a self-interested
Clearly, the victim's beliefs stem in large part from the long-term
This is not the first time that reporter Mazo has done Gallagher a
Reporter Mazo then included information on how to contact Gallagher's
Gallagher has been so irresponsible that in April of this year he ran an
[see below for my 4/9/99 letter to the PG concerning this. An
The continued defense of alternative medicine spewing from the pages of
E. Patrick Curry
Here is a prior letter that I sent concerning Dr. Gallagher's support
Subject: Letter to the Editor Re: Alt-Med Cancer Treatments
Thanks to the Post-Gazette for the front page story of Patti Davis's
It is ironic that just two weeks earlier the Post-Gazette Your Health
As I explained in a prior letter to the Post-Gazette's Health Editor,
Contreras was invited to Pittsburgh by Chiropractor Martin Gallagher to
The Federal Trade Commission has recently begun cracking down on false
E. Patrick Curry
member National Council Against Health Fraud
Note: I have attached a section of the communication that I had
3)Next to the St. John's Wort article is an advertisment by Three
For your edification, you should read the history of the laetrile fraud at
Dr. Contreras latest book "Health in the 21st Century: Will Doctors
It's sad, but Dr. Contrera's visit to Pittsburgh, sponsored by Gallagher,
As you know the Federal Trade Commission just cracked down on the
Editor Linn, I hope you take the information I pass on to you