An update on the youth who “cured himself” of melanoma, Chad Jessop

About a month and a half ago, I discussed an e-mail that was being propagated far and wide that described the case of the mother of a 17 year old male who, or so the e-mail claimed, cured her son of stage IV melanoma using “natural means” and was supposedly thrown in maximum security prison by the Department of Child Services in California for “failing to properly care for her child.” The e-mail, which was being used by an organization called Natural Solutions USA or Health Freedom USA (I was never quite sure), reproduced here, described what seemed on the surface to be a truly horrific abuse of governmental power–that is, unless you know something about melanoma. In any case, I deconstructed the letter, which was written by a man identified as Thomas Cowles II, Media Director, Natural Solutions Foundation, who, amusingly enough, also showed up in the comments to try to defend what was clearly his use of an urban legend to raise money for his organization.

After my two posts on the e-mail, I moved on to other things, filing the incident in the back of my mind. Perhaps you wondered if I ever found out anything more about this story. Thanks to a reader, over the weekend, I did. It turns out that there’s now a version of the story that’s been making the rounds of blogs, websites, and discussion forums that includes a lot more details but isn’t all that much more believable than the first version. I’ll explain, but first, here’s the version of the story (Mother Jailed, Put On Trial for Curing Her Son of Melanoma) that I was just made aware of:

An unholy alliance of California Child Protective Services (CPS) with a hostile doctor and judge is attempting to railroad Laurie Jessop, framed as a threat to her son and the establishment for finding a way to cure him of malignant melanoma. She is now on trial, under a gag order, since she had gone to the press. When she was arrested, she was put in maximum security, solitary confinement, in the Orange County, CA jail. They claim that everything about. her says anti-Establishment, so she was told, as she was considered a threat in starting a riot.

On the morning of Sept. 12, Gary Null read on KPFK, a Pacifica station in Los Angeles, an e-mail from Ron Miller, who had met Ms. Jessop at the Cancer Control Society annual convention during the Labor Day weekend. They had discussed this persecution by Big Brother in the guise of saving her son from this evil mother who has failed to protect him! She disobeyed doctor’s orders and found a natural way to cure her son. These forces arrayed against her and insisted he must have the cancer removed surgically and attacked with the standard chemical fare. The cancer is gone, but nobody in authority will accept that because her doctor doesn’t believe that’s possible.

This story about this adolescent (now revealed as Chad Jessop) is being parroted credulously about the part of the blogosphere prone to believing such stories. Nor is it confined to libertarian or right wing sources. Even the Democratic Underground has gotten in on the act, with the responses to the story being a mix between the painfully credulous and, fortunately, a fair amount of skepticism.

Not surprisingly, I was utterly unable to locate any reputable news source describing this story, despite using the search terms based on all the possible mispellings provided by the Angry Scientist, the main source of this “update,” including “Jessop melanoma” and “Jessup melanoma.” (I only used the two spellings of the mother and son’s last name provided.) So, right off the bat, we have apparently only a single unverifiable web source, with no reputable news sources to corroborate it. The story as presented by the Angry Scientist appears to be spreading across the blogosphere with pleas to send the story to “everyone you know” and some truly idiotic commentary wondering why the major media hasn’t picked up on it. That’s not a bad question, actually, if you actually think about it in more than a conspiracy-mongering fever dream. It couldn’t be because the story is dubious in the extreme, could it? Just a thought to consider. Of course, none of this prevents credulous twits from crying Nazi over the alleged abuse of “health freedom” by the state. Basically, we have Gary Null and a fan of Gary Null spreading this story. That’s it.

But even this embellished story isn’t particularly compelling if you know anything about melanoma:

The initial biopsy of the mole was done in February. Their regular doctor was on leave when test results came in. A nurse informed them of the bad news. On May 8, Chad Jessop had a follow up appointment with a medical group doctor, by the name of Dr. Masciana, who insisted he needed surgery to excise the site within a week, or he could die any day now! This doctor is a general practitioner, not an oncologist or qualified to do cancer diagnosis or surgery. Chad and his mom decided to pursue holistic treatment for him. Incensed, the doctor reported her to Child Protective Services on the grounds of gross negligent child endangerment. She yelled at Laurie “all of you Jehovah’s Witnesses are all the same,” never mind Laurie and Chad are not Jehovah’s witnesses. Dr. Masciana also told Laurie, with her son present, that his death was imminent. At the close of the appointment, Dr. Masciana informed Laurie that she was referring the case to Social Services. In further investigation, Child Protective Social Services is a misnamed government agency whose employees get paid bonuses every time they take children away from their parents.

That evening Laurie called an attorney who advised her that she had 48 hours or less before Social Services showed up. If she could not prove she was following doctor’s orders, they’d take her son. Since Dr. Masciana had created such a traumatic experience for Chad, he feared the doctors and threatened to run away

Not surprisingly, a search for “Masciana and melanoma” produced only the same blogs and discussion forums where this story was posted verbatim. I don’t know if this is the Dr. Masciana to whom the story is referring, but it seems likely. In any case, once again, there is no information on this story other than the same story provided by the Angry Scientist, with the story appearing verbatim on many blogs and discussion forums.

But what about the claim that Ms. Jessop “cured” her son using “natural” methods? Here’s that part of the story:

In honoring Chad’s wishes for continued holistic care, Laurie took her son to San Diego to continue holistic care using a number of various alternative treatments such as: ozone, hyperbaric oxygen chamber, hydrogen peroxide, energy work, Rife, nutritional supplements, and deep emotional work. Laurie also used “black salve” that she purchased from Canada to remove the mole tissue. Black salve was developed by Native American Indians more than 200 years ago, and used in the treatment of skin lesions, cancers, warts, and moles. Figures our FDA banned it, because it works.

No, the reason that the FDA has banned “black salve” products is not because they “work,” but rather how they work, a mechanism that can produce really nasty consequences. (Warning: Not for the squeamish.) Basically, such “salves” are claimed to “draw out” the cancer. In reality, what they do is burn. I find it truly ironic that advocates of alternative medicine would rant about how “allopathy” does nothing but “cut,” “burn,” or “poison” cancer but then can advocate for a “salve” that is nothing but a highly corrosive agent that burns the skin, sometimes horrifically. The description of the Jessops’ use of the salve would be hilarious were it not so disturbing:

They applied “Black Salve” directly to the area in question, thus giving Chad a holistic version of a large border excision. It took about two and a half weeks for the wound to heal. When it was healed Laurie took Chad to a Del Mar dermatologist for a biopsy. The test results were negative of any signs of melanoma! The next two weeks were concentrated on once again healing the tissue to get another biopsy. Upon the wound site being healed, a melanoma specialist did a punch biopsy and a complete lab analysis on Friday, June 15.

For a small melanoma, this is certainly possible. However, the mechanism of action is little different than putting an acid paste on the lesion and burning it away. One thing about this story that struck me, though: What happened to the metastatic disease? If you recall, the original story claimed that Jessop was “cured” of advanced melanoma by “natural” means. Of course, I inferred that it was advanced because the letter claimed that pressure was being placed on the Jessops to undergo more surgery and chemotherapy. If you look at the story, though, it appears that the boy had nothing more than an isolated early stage melanoma, for which surgery alone is usually sufficient, except for thick melanomas, where biological therapy might be considered as an adjuvant. The followup essentially confirms this opinion:

Again, no sign of cancer could be found in the biopsy and the blood work was in healthy ranges with no distinguishing markers that would otherwise be present in a patient that would have advanced stage four melanoma, as had been previously reported! Was it a miracle, or an activated immune system in a healthy young man, with some useful help, that healed the melanoma?

My educated guess on the answer: None of the above. Notice that the story says “if” Chad had stage four melanoma but doesn’t actually say that he does or give any evidence to allow us to asses whether he does or not. My guess is that he doesn’t have stage four disease and never did have stage four disease. As for the main claim, it was simply the melanoma being ablated by a caustic salve. It’s a method that can work for superficial tumors, but it’s a lot less reliable than a simple wide local excision. Indeed, the use of caustics in this case is actually much less precise and potentially more disfiguring than surgery. (Take it for what it’s worth, but one commenter who claims to have seen photos of Chad’s wound after using the black salve describes it as a “huge, deep, necrotic lesion that will leave a hideous scar, probably with keloid tissue, for life.” If that’s true, it would put a whole new spin on the case and would indeed justify a charge of child abuse, as far as I’m concerned.) Finally, burning the melanoma in this fashion also fails to evaluate the regional lymph nodes to see if the tumor has spread there, in which case a complete excision of the relevant lymph node basin can be potentially curative. But, hey, using a caustic, corrosive goo to burn away the tumor is “natural,” so it must be better, right? Even if it leaves a big necrotic scalp wound?

Given all the other inconsistencies in the story, I can’t really comment much on the part describing how Laurie Jessop was jailed and allegedly mistreated in prison. If it’s true, it is indeed appalling, but, barring corroboration by a reliable source, I find that part of the story about as convincing as the description of Chad Jessop’s “curing” melanoma using “natural” means. Indeed, look at this description of the testimony of a dermatologist supposedly retained by CPS:

Now Laurie is on trial, forbidden to speak under a gag order, by the very judge that had issued the bench warrant for her arrest, because she refused to go along with orthodox medicine. The dermatologist, appointed by Social Services, testified in court that the melanoma is playing hide and go seek, that they’d have to subject Chad to unnecessary and dangerous further biopsies and medical procedures to find where it migrated to. The dermatologist further stated that the melanoma had become even more deadly, claiming it has now traveled to different organs. The prescription for surgery is a large border excision to the skullbone.

Yes, I’m sure this dermatologist, conveniently never identified, said that Chad would have to be subjected to “unnecessary and dangerous” further biopsies. In any case, no melanoma expert worth his or her salt would have put it that way. The way I would have put it is:

  1. We don’t know if the caustic goo burned away all the tumor with an adequate margin of normal tissue to be curative. This means that a wide excision is needed to make sure that there’s no tumor left. It will also remove the nasty scar left by the caustic agent.
  2. We need to know whether the tumor has spread to the regional lymph nodes; so we need to do what is known as a sentinel lymph node biopsy, which involves injecting a special dye around the site of the tumor and removing the lymph nodes that the dye accumulates in. If the sentinel node is positive for tumor, then all the lymph nodes in that basin would need to be removed to have a chance of curing the cancer.
  3. We don’t know whether the tumor has gone to the rest of the body. Consequently, it may be necessary to do CT scans to look for suspicious lesions. If the nodes are negative and the melanoma is not thick, the chances that it’s spread to the rest of the body are quite small.

I also would point out that dermatologists, although they frequently diagnose melanoma and excise small melanomas, usually don’t do the definitive surgical therapy. Surgeons specializing in cancer surgery do. Be that as it may, the description of the dermatologist’s testimony sounds fishy. Certainly the characterization that this dermatologist thinks that Chad could die any day sounds really off-base. If Chad truly were in danger of dying any day, he would be really sick, to the point of being moribund. Even if the patient had metastatic disease, a melanoma specialist would know that a patient who is feeling and functioning well is not likely to die “any day” from his disease. It’s usually a slow deterioration.

Finally, there’s the gag order:

I’m helping her get her story out. One newspaper did a story, but in general, very little has been reported so far. I tried to find the story online, but no luck. A press conference was held on Sept. 6th, just before court. Two of the major TV news stations and one of the largest AM radio all news stations showed up. KFWB radio ran the story immediately that day. As soon as court started the judge announced that there was a gag order on this case and threatened jail time and contempt of court to anyone (including the minor in question), that spoke to the press or anyone else for that matter. One of the TV news stations didn’t want to run the story without interviewing Chad and getting his viewpoints. The judge denied a continuance six different times, ignoring all six times valid reasons for the requests. The judge also denied Laurie the right to hire her own attorney! She retained a law firm with her own money, but the judge insisted she has to keep her Public Defender, presumably as a public servant easier to control than a private attorney not so dependent on the system.

How convenient. Is it just me, or did anyone else wonder how no one but the Angry Scientist can get away with violating this supposed gag order? Or doesn’t the gag order apply to blogs? Be that as it may, I still can’t find the story online, other than on blogs like The Angry Scientist.

Particularly hard to believe is the last part. Last time I checked, a judge can’t prevent a defendant from hiring her own attorney. There’s a little something called the Constitution that prevents a judge from doing something like that. In fact, that last little bit is perhaps the most dubious part of the story. It truly insults my intelligence, but apparently not the intelligence of some of the Angry Scientist’s readers, one of whom asks:

SO WHY NOT APPEAL THE JUDGE’S DECISION?

AND REMOVE HIM FROM THE CASE?

HOW CAN A JUDGE REFUSE A DEFENDANT FROM HIRING AN ATTORNEY?

THIS IS ILLEGAL AND THE CALIFORNIA BAR SHOULD NOT STAND FOR THIS.

He’s asking the right question but fails to take it to the next level and wonder if perhaps the whole claim is false, and then take it up one more level and wonder if the whole story is dubious. After all, a fair amount of latitude is generally given to the wishes of adolescents on the verge of adulthood, as Chad Jessop, if he exists, is. Remember, this is a second hand story from an e-mail sent by Ron Miller and supposedly read by Gary Null on his radio show.

So what’s the bottom line? Is there any truth to this story? I have no idea. It’s impossible to tell, given that there is no way of corroborating it using reliable sources. I do know, however, that the story as told by the Angry Scientist has a lot of elements that set my skeptical antennae all atwitter. Indeed, the story has the look and feel of an urban legend, this latest embellishment on the story notwithstanding. There’s the horrific story that plays on common fears of loss of control and an overreaching government, combined with a convenient (albeit unconvincing) reason why the story hasn’t shown up in the mainstream press. My guess is that there is probably a real case upon which this story is based but that it’s been exaggerated and twisted beyond recognition in the service of a political end, be it raising money or eviscerating child protection laws, so that quackery is on an equal footing with evidence-based medicine, at least in the eyes of the law.

Sadly, I’ve yet to find much in the way of a skeptical treatment of this story, other than mine. If you look at the comments in any of the blogs or forums where this story is posted, invariably the comments are all outraged, with only the occasional questioning comment. More’s the pity, because this story has so many holes in it it you could use it as a sponge.

ALL POSTS ON THIS STORY THUS FAR:

  1. The story of the 17-year-old with melanoma being forced to undergo chemotherapy: Urban legend?
  2. Thomas Cowles twisting in the wind defending the “cancer boy” urban legend
  3. An update on the youth who “cured himself” of melanoma, Chad Jessop
  4. One last update (for now) on the youth who “cured himself” of melanoma, Chad Jessop
  5. “I have seen the light! The Chad Jessop melanoma story happened. Really.”
  6. Lee Woodard on the Chad Jessop melanoma story: “Why would I promote a hoax?”

OTHER SKEPTICAL TAKES:

  1. Legendary Legend or Mysterious Mystery?

PUBLICATIONS REFERENCED:

  1. Dear Health Freedom Fighters (September 12, 2007)
  2. The Gary Null Show 9/13/2007 (The relevant segment is at approximately the 11:45 minute mark.)
  3. Mother Jailed, Put On Trial for Curing Her Son of Melanoma (October 3, 2007)
  4. Mother Jailed, Put On Trial for Curing Her Son of Melanoma (published in the Los Angeles Free Press on 11/12/2007, PDF here)