Sharyn Ainscough dies tragically because she followed the example of her daughter, The Wellness Warrior

This being Breast Cancer Awareness Month and all, stories about breast cancer are frequently sent my way. This one is depressing and sad, mainly because it’s the story of death from breast cancer. From what I can gather, it is the story of a death from quackery, a death that didn’t have to occur. Even worse than that, it appears to be a death facilitated by the daughter of the deceased, a woman named Jessica Ainscough, who bills herself as the “Wellness Warrior.” It’s a horrifying story, the story of a woman who followed her daughter’s lead and put her faith in the quackery known as the Gerson therapy. Unfortunately, it’s more than just one story. It’s the story of the daughter as well, who, although she has cancer, is still alive. Her story is yet to be finished, but her mother Sharyn’s story is over:

As many of you know, my Mum had breast cancer for the past few years. She was diagnosed about a year after I started Gerson Therapy, and seeing how much the therapy helped me, she went straight on it herself. However, unlike my journey, Mum’s was fraught with complications. She had been doing well and seemed to make it through her obstacles, however a few months ago it became clear that the cancer was getting ahead of her. She was in pain, lost a lot of weight, lost all energy, and her health quickly deteriorated. We explored lots of options however Mum choose to see out the final months of her life in a way that was exactly right for her.

Last Friday, after putting up the bravest fight I’ve ever witnessed, my mum passed away. She went peacefully and was comfortable with no drugs, which is what she always wanted. Her whole family was in the room, my dad and I were holding her hands and Edie was at the foot of her bed. She flickered her eyes, took one last gasp and then went off to sleep.

Stories like this sadden me greatly. Even if her mother wasn’t potentially curable when diagnosed (and, as you will see, that wasn’t the case), to put her through the rigors of a useless therapy like the Gerson therapy through the last stages of her life was criminal, particularly if she wasn’t given access to modern palliative therapy, which is frequently the case.

Before I delve into this tragic tale, let me first provide a bit of background. I’ve written about the Gerson therapy before in the context about a medical propaganda movie extolling its virtues and discussed it again when a clueless Fox News host did a segment It’s basically a protocol developed by a man named Max Gerson back in the 1920s that is based on diet and “detoxification.” His protocol included a high potassium, low sodium, fatless diet regimen that incorporated mineral and vitamin supplements, and crude liver injections (preparations of raw calves liver). Also included in the regimen were (and are) coffee enemas, sometimes as many as one ever four hours. Gerson’s rationale for the enemas was that they helped to stimulate the flow of bile, thereby increasing the rate of excretion of toxic products from the body. As I’ve discussed before, liver “detoxification” and liver flushes do not do what they are claimed to do; in fact, they tend to be the purest manifestation of quackery. The current version of Gerson therapy, which has evolved since his death, is now claimed to involve an intensive “detoxification” program to eliminate “toxins and waste materials” that allegedly interfere with healing and metabolism coupled with an “intensive nutrition program.” As described at Quackwatch, the dietary part of the Gerson protocol involves low-sodium, low-fat, low animal protein foods high in carbohydrates with copious amounts of mineral supplements, as well as pancreatic enzymes and Lugol’s solution (an inorganic solution of iodine plus potassium iodide). You get the idea.

Now let’s go back to the beginning. To do this, you need to know a bit about Jessica Ainscough. It’s actually hard to find much in the way of details on her website and blog. The “about” section, where she tells her story, lacks much in the way of details, but there is an article entitled I’m healing myself from cancer naturally that tells more. Both articles reveal that Ainscough was diagnosed at age 22 with a rare sarcoma known as an epithelioid sarcoma. In 2008, lumps had been popping up on her left arm and hand, and she had them biopsied. Make no mistake, this is a rare cancer; recent figures for incidence are on the order of 0.1 to 0.4 per million. It’s a tumor of young adults, which fits with Ainscough’s presentation, and it nearly always appears on the upper extremities. Unfortunately, wide excision is the only effective treatment, as Ainscough herself relates:

Epithelioid sarcoma doesn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation, and my only chance of prolonging my survival would be to have my arm amputated at the shoulder. But essentially, my condition was incurable.

None of this made any sense to me. I felt so healthy, and I looked healthy. I could not understand how my life had come down to a decision about whether to have my whole, fully functioning arm chopped off.

I’m not entirely sure why she would have been told that her condition was incurable unless the tumor had spread to her axillary lymph nodes (the lymph nodes under her arm), because amputation would have been a very wide excision. Be that as it may, it’s hard not to feel great sympathy for Ainscough. It’s hard to imagine having to lose one’s arm at age 22 as the only chance to survive. She was even ready to have the surgery, but her doctors came to her at the last minute with an alternative, which was to do isolated limb perfusion. Basically, this is a technique sometimes used for soft tissue sarcomas of the extremity or multifocal melanoma that can’t be resected without amputation to try to destroy the tumor. As its name implies, isolated limb perfusion involves isolating the limb from the systemic circulation and infusing it with very (and I do mean very) high doses of chemotherapy. That’s what necessitates the isolation of the limb’s circulation; the dose of chemotherapy is so high that if it leaked back into the rest of the circulation the consequences could be disastrous. Isolated limb perfusion can often cause seemingly near miraculous results, and apparently that was the case for Ainscough. Unfortunately, tumors tend to recur, and that’s exactly what happened to Ainscough about a year later, which led to the doctors recommending an amputation of her arm at the shoulder again. So this is what she did:

I began looking at the different ways I may have contributed to the manifestation of my disease and then stopped doing them.

I swapped a lifestyle of late nights, cocktails and Lean Cuisines for carrot juice, coffee enemas and meditation and became an active participant in my treatment.

This research led me to Gerson Therapy which ensures you have a perfectly balanced diet for optimum health, assisting your body to flush out nasties whilst feeding it with all the goodness it needs to flourish.

The therapy involves drinking 13 fresh organic veggie juices per day (yes that’s one an hour, every hour of my waking day), five coffee enemas per day and a basic organic whole food plant-based diet with additional supplements.

For two years I devoted my entire life to healing, to the extent that I was effectively housebound.

I am ecstatic to report that it has worked for me. I have had no cancer spread, no more lumps pop up (they were popping up rapidly before) and I can actually see some of my tumours coming out through my skin and disappearing.

Since the Gerson therapy is not an effective treatment for cancer, what we are looking at is basically the natural history of the disease. One thing that is clear is that epithelioid sarcoma is not among the most aggressive of sarcomas. Its ten year survival overall is on the order of 61%, and for patients between 17 and 30 years (i.e., patients like Jessica Ainscough), it’s approximately 72%. Of course, that is with treatment with surgery; without surgery, five year survival is 35% and ten year survival is 33%. This implies that there is a subset of these cancers that is fairly indolent, as the vast majority of patients who are going to die of their disease do so within five years, with additional deaths after five years being relatively few. What this further implies, given that Ainscough never underwent surgery, is that she was lucky enough to be in this group. In other words, she’s another case in which the quackery didn’t save her; she was fortunate enough to have slowly progressing disease. Although her sarcoma is very likely to result in her demise; it may not happen for several more years. Worse, however, by refusing surgery, she decreased her chance of surviving 10 years by at least half. It’s very, very hard to say. This tumor is so rare that there just aren’t a lot of data about it. It’s also unclear what Ainscough’s clinical status is; if her tumors are still confined to her left arm, radical amputation might still greatly increase her chances of long term survival or even cure. If they have metastasized, as they are prone to do, then it’s too late.

Since 2009, unfortunately Ainscough has built quite the woo empire for herself. I don’t know, but I’m told by my Australian friends, that she is quite famous Down Under. Her website, The Wellness Warrior, is loaded with paeans to quackery, particularly coffee enemas, as can be seen in this video:

Note: In this video Ainscough shows how to give a coffee enema, although she doesn’t actually take it. I also note that two years ago, at least, she had several clearly visible lumps on her left arm that appeared to be ulcerating.

Unfortunately, Ainscough’s propensity for quackery has now claimed the life of her mother, who followed her daughter’s example and paid the ultimate price. Here’s what Ainscough wrote when her mother was first diagnosed:

My family has been pretty much consumed by this disease for almost four years, so when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in April this year we knew exactly how to deal with it. Following her diagnosis, my mum refused any sort of conventional interference. She said no to a mammogram and a biopsy, told them that she wasn’t interested in going down the path of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and instead chose the same therapy as me.

Which involved:

My mum, who has been my primary carer for the past 14 months, has just been told she has breast cancer. The carer suddenly becomes the patient and the former patient is now gearing up to become the primary carer. And because I’m still on the therapy myself, my amazing dad has stepped into the carer role as well (while still working six days a week). Mum is also on the full Gerson Therapy and she will have to stay on it for the next two years. She is now drinking 13 juices per day, having five coffee enemas per day and – much to her disgust – taking castor oil every second day. We’re now in this together! Our solid routine gets us through, but it’s just days like yesterday when I was sick and mum was feeling crook from castor oil that the pressure is on my dad to care for us both.

But what was her mother’s stage when she was diagnosed? We really don’t know. The video included with this post is private, and I can’t watch it. The best I can do is to make inferences from the limited information on the website. For instance, what we are supposed to learn from this video includes:

  • What my mum believes triggered her cancer.
  • The role hormones play in disease manifestation.
  • Why we believe that mammograms are useless, and even dangerous.
  • Why my mum refused to have her breast tissue biopsied.
  • Why she would refuse to have a lumpectomy (removal of the lump) and a mastectomy (removal of one or both of the breasts), and refuse to have chemotherapy and radiation.
  • Why Mum is so confident that Gerson Therapy will work.
  • The number one message she would like to get out to people watching this video.

From the limited information I can find about Sharyn Ainscough’s cancer, it seems to me that it was probably fairly early stage and therefore treatable with multimodality therapy including surgery plus chemotherapy, radiation, and/or hormonal therapy with a high probability of success. Unfortunately, Sharyn Ainscough followed her daughter’s path and opted for quackery. Once that happened, the end was inevitable. In fact, the natural history of untreated breast cancer is a median survival of 2.7 years. Her mother was diagnosed in April 2011. She died a few days ago. That’s roughly two and a half years, very close to the expected median survival of untreated breast cancer. Along the way, mother and daughter made the same rationalizations that I’ve seen from people who have chosen quackery time and time again. For instance, a few months after her mother began the Gerson therapy, Jessica Ainscough reported that her mom was having “flare-ups“:

When you choose Gerson Therapy as your weapon of choice, you must make peace with the fact that you are going to be in for some whopping healing reactions or “flare-ups” – how, where and the severity of the reaction is exclusive to each person. I guess I have been lucky because my flare-ups have been quite mild. My left arm swelled up (about a year ago and still hasn’t deflated), I’ve had headaches, a little nausea, a few days where I’ve been too exhausted to get out of bed, and countless days where I’ve cried uncontrollably and been moodier than a storm season, but the physical symptoms have been limiting. My mum, on the other hand, is having ALL of the textbook reactions. If we hadn’t gone to the Gerson clinic or spoken to fellow Gerson patients, I don’t think we would have been quite as prepared for what she’s been going through.

That “swelling” is probably lymphedema caused by her cancer obstructing the lymph vessels of the arm; so it’s not surprising that it’s never “deflated.” As for Sharyn Ainscough, she reported:

  • The left boob (the one with cancer) has what mum calls a string of pearls at about 12 o’clock high, a row of three or four small palpable lumps. She can feel action in this boob.
  • The right boob has also flared up, which was frightening at first before we realised that is was a healing reaction. Mum says it feels like a thickening with a swollen gland under the arm. She had a benign lump taken out of this boob about 15 years ago, so it is very likely that this is flaring up again as she heals.

No, what was likely happening is that the cancer in the left breast was growing and forming satellite lesions. What’s truly depressing about this post, however, is that virtually anything that a Gerson patient experiences is attributed to a “healing reaction” or a “flare-up.” For instance, in July 2012, when her mother wasn’t getting any better, a quack did a hair test and claimed that she was “copper toxic.” He also did live blood analysis (more utter quackery) and applied kinesiology (even quackier quackery) and concluded that she was suffering from candida. The result? Her mother was subjected to chelation therapy and “anti-candida” treatment, while Jessica Ainscough revealed her utter lack of understanding of cancer:

If Mum had followed conventional orders and had surgery or drug interference, there is no way that these underlying issues would have been addressed. Yet another reason why it is SO important to deal with the cause and not just eradicate the symptom. Lumps in breasts are not the issue. It’s the toxicity and deficiency of our bodies that cause an imbalance and lead to dis-ease.

How many times have we heard cancer quacks say this, that the cancer is not the problem but rather a “symptom” of the “real” problem or a “protective reaction” to the real problem? German New Medicine, Robert O. Young’s acid-base woo, Andrea Moritz’s quackery, Hulda Clark’s claim that liver flukes cause cancer, or many other alternative cancer cures, it’s a common theme in cancer quackery to claim that the cancerous tumor is not the “true problem,” a theme that the daughter echoes at every turn.

In the end, I have very mixed feelings here. As a cancer surgeon, I’ve made it very clear, particularly when it comes to Stanislaw Burzynski’s patients, that I don’t like to criticize cancer patients who choose quackery. I can completely understand why in their desperation they would be vulnerable to the blandishments of preachers of false hope. It’s ignorance and desperation, rather than ill intent. That resolve, however, wavers when I encounter a person like Jessica Ainscough. Think about it. She’s become a media figure in Australia because of her promotion of “natural” healing. She promotes Gerson therapy to cancer patients, and if you read the comments of some of her blog posts you will find people praising her for “changing their lives” by persuading them to choose “natural treatments” like the Gerson therapy (although how it is in any way “natural” to shoot coffee up one’s rectum has always evaded me). That means she might well have led cancer patients with potentially curable cancers to choose quackery instead of effective medicine, leading them to their deaths. Worst of all, her example led her mother, who, unlike her, appears to have had a very treatable, potentially curable breast cancer, to eschew surgery and other effective treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy. The end result was a dead mother, while Jessica Ainscough saying:

I do want to say this though. I know some of you have cancer and are on Gerson Therapy or you love someone in this position, and I don’t want this news to deter you from believing in what you are doing. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the past few years it’s that no one cancer therapy is right for everyone, just the way no one diet is right for everyone. We all have different bodies, different minds, different histories, and different journeys.

As angry as this makes me, surprisingly I still don’t have it in my heart to be too hard on Ainscough. You might think that, seeing her mother die might have been a wake-up call that leads her to change the course she’s on, but I know human nature. She won’t. After all, if she admits that Gerson therapy is useless, even harmful, quackery that failed to save her mother, then she would be forced to acknowledge her role in the death of her mother. She would also be forced to accept that Gerson therapy can’t save her, either. These are both conclusions that Ainscough would likely find too painful to accept. On the other hand, such a jolt might be a good thing. She might not be beyond salvaging with a radical amputation. At the very least, it would be a very good thing if Jessica Ainscough stopped dissuading cancer patients from undertaking conventional therapy and persuading them to pursue the same self-destructive path that claimed her mother and is likely to claim her.