Cancer patients go where hope carries price tag
Mexico's clinics offer costly alternative
therapies, but there's no proof they work
Thursday, March 25, 1999
Told he had no hope, Ron Wilkins of New Brunswick refused to accept the doctors' verdict that his cancer was unstoppable. A pipe fitter, he was not rich, but he managed to fly to Mexico for alternative cancer treatment that cost him well over $20,000.
Like an uncounted number of Canadians, he went to Mexico in search of hope, however faint. Hope carries a large price tag, but his parents are glad he went, even though the cancer killed him four years ago at 42.
"We're sure that he had a year more time with us, and it was quality time," his mother Laura, of Sussex Corner, said yesterday.
Today those Mexican clinics are making national news in Canada because a 13-year-old Saskatchewan boy, Tyrell Dueck, the subject of a court battle over his parents' refusal to permit conventional cancer treatment, has flown with his family to American Biologics, which stresses alternative therapies.
Alternative clinics dot the Mexican side of the U.S. border from California to eastern Texas, and Tijuana and other Mexican coastal communities are festooned with them. These clinics steer clear of traditional methods of radiation and chemotherapy.
"We want to help the body heal itself," Michael Culbert, information director for the 32-bed American Biologics, established 23 years ago, said in an interview yesterday.
"We know that that can't be done by destroying the body's defences. It's kind of like the Vietnam War where they said we're going to burn down the village to save it. That way we got rid of all the Viet Cong. Unfortunately, we killed everybody else."
But although he says his centre is 2‡ times more effective than traditional cancer therapies in the United States, no such evidence of its effectiveness has been published in peer-review medical journals. "The orthodox medical community has almost zero interest in anything we do," he said.
How useful are the treatments provided by these clinics?
The Canadian health-care consumer gets little guidance from agencies such as the Canadian Cancer Society. "We just don't know about those places in Mexico," said Jennifer Moorcroft, a communications officer, explaining that the society's medical spokeswoman, Dr. Barbara Whylie, is not taking calls about the Mexican clinics.
Cansurmount, an organization of patients and their families affiliated with the Canadian Cancer Society, is not judgmental. "We don't like to use them as a replacement [for traditional treatment] for sure, but so much of this is psychological," said Miles Fournier, a spokesman for Cansurmount Victoria.
All this leaves consumers on their own to weigh the testimonials of families like the Wilkinses. In fact, Mr. Wilkins flew to Mexico because he knew a Moncton woman who went. The Duecks learned about the Mexican clinics from family and friends who had gone.
Several other Canadians are currently in Mexico for treatment. It is these testimonials that appear to constitute the main evidence for the alternative centres.
Mrs. Wilkins said her son had undergone surgery, radiation and chemotherapy in New Brunswick before heading in 1994 to Mexico's American Metabolic Institute, an eight-bed centre then treating several Canadians.
"In New Brunswick there is no compassion," she said. "You're going to die or you're going to live. 'Oh, you've got so long to live, and we can't spend any more money on you.' They told him that. The dollar talks."
At the Tijuana clinic, she said, a doctor and a nurse were waiting for him when he arrived in the middle of the night. "There's a lot of compassion and never a word that we can't do anything for you. 'We will try,' they say."
On the other hand, the late Mr. Wilkins's namesake, Ron Wilkins of Saint John, who knew the man, said he had been wrong to go to Mexico. He said he himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer but underwent surgery in New Brunswick and a year later is cancer-free at 72. "I think he was foolish. He spent all his money and he came home and died. So what did the treatments do for him?"
The American Cancer Society, unlike its Canadian counterpart, takes a strong position, urging patients not to seek treatment using metabolic therapies in the Mexican border clinics.
It provides a background paper about the clinics, which it calls "havens for self-proclaimed cancer specialists."
Metabolic therapies have three main foundations: detoxification, strengthening the immune system and the use of special means to attack the cancer. None has been shown to be safe or effective, the society says, adding that "there have been many instances where patients utilizing metabolic therapies were kept from timely, effective therapy, resulting in needless deaths."
Dr. Max Gerson, a German-born doctor, developed the concept behind these therapies in the 1920s, and in 1938 took it to the United States, where he practised for the next two decades. The therapies now offered vary widely, but their practitioners say they treat not the symptoms but the underlying cause of cancer, which they see as a buildup of toxins in the body that disrupt the immune system.
These toxins, they say, come from unhealthy lifestyles, from eating unnatural foods, from pesticides and pollution.
Often the treatments begin with a fast, with special enema solutions every two hours (some use coffee, which Dr. Gerson believed detoxified the liver).
Diets are promoted as organic and may include sea salt, yogurt, carob, kelp, garlic and wheat-grass juice. Patients may be given megadoses of vitamins A, C and B complex, minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium, enzymes, glandular extracts, amino acids and herbs. To attack and destroy tumours, several agents are used, including urea, based on the idea that urine has cleansing powers.
Research into alternative medical therapies received a boost in October when the United States set aside $50-million a year for the task.
In Canada, the Medical Research Council said it has received no more than five requests to fund research into alternative therapies in its four-decade history, and currently has no projects under way.