When false hope leads well-meaning people astray

One of the frequent topics on this blog is, unsurprisingly, cancer quackery. Be it the Gerson therapy and its propensity for encouraging patients to take hundreds of supplements and to shoot copious amounts of coffee where it really doesn’t belong (where the sun don’t shine), the Gonzalez protocol, homeopathy, naturopathy, or various other nonsensical and dangerous cancer therapies with no scientific basis, I take them on because, as a cancer surgeon, I can’t stand seeing cancer patients abused this way. If they’re curable, I hate seeing them seduced into throwing away their chance for cure, and if they’re not curable I hate seeing them spend their life’s savings for something that can’t possibly help them—or even provide them with halfway decent palliation. When I see patients wasting tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars enriching quacks like Rashid Buttar or loading themselves up with so much carrot juice that they turn orange, cancer quackery has been a constant theme. It’s particularly hard to take when the patients become the most effective sellers of quackery, as well, like Jessica Ainscough, a.k.a. “The Wellness Warrior.”

I haven’t yet mentioned a very frequent topic of this blog over the last year or so, namely everybody’s not-so-favorite “cancer doctor” who is board certified in neither medical oncology nor even in internal medicine who thinks he’s cured cancer, namely Stanislaw Burzynski, who still manages to present his execrably bad science at national meetings and to recruit patients to lobby the FDA for him despite the many revelations of lost patient records, unreported adverse events, exaggeration of tumor responses, maintaining different sets of records on a patient who died, and general medical incompetence. It’s not for nothing that I support Bob Blaskiewicz’s efforts to lobby Congress to investigate how the FDA has let Burzynski get away with this for so many years. So does Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing.

By the way, have you acted yet?

For all the time I’ve spent on these and others whom I consider to be dubious doctors at best and cancer quacks at worst, I keep getting slammed in the face with reminders that the supply of such practitioners seems to be endless. Here’s one I hadn’t heard of before, and her story sounds painfully like that of the many patients who have gone to the Burzynski Clinic after spending so much effort fundraising to pay for the treatment. Her name is Stephanie O’Halloran, and she’s from Ireland. There’s even the same sort of credulous reporting of her plight that we’ve seen before for patients of Burzynski, custom designed to tug on the heartstrings of even the most hardened skeptic and presenting the “alternative” medicine clinic as a medically legitimate choice. In this case, we have a mother with stage IV breast cancer with an 18-month-old girl. It doesn’t get much more heart-wrenching than that:

A COURAGEOUS Limerick mother, diagnosed with breast cancer three months ago, has decided to go to the route of alternative treatment in the United States after being given no hope by conventional medicine.

Stephanie O’Halloran, a young mother of an 18-month-old little girl, was given nine months to live with treatment and just weeks without, by doctors at the University Hospital Limerick.

On September 12 last, just weeks before her 23rd birthday, the Garryowen woman received the devastating news that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, lymph glands, liver, lung and leg.

“I am very happy with the treatment and care I got at the Regional but there is only so far conventional medicine can go. I was given no hope and I have so much to live for,” Stephanie told the Limerick Post.

After two rounds of chemotherapy, Stephanie decided to look into alternative medicine as an option. The brave young Limerick woman then discovered the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida and was given hope by its director, Dr Brian Clement.

One of the world’s oldest complementary health centres, the institute founded in 1952 is at the cutting edge of using food and other lifestyle strategies as medicine.

Yes, this young woman is only 23 years old, an age range at which breast cancer is rare, but not unheard of. Here’s how she found out about the Hippocrates Center:

Declan said: “Ann’s sister in England heard about this treatment, which centres on a diet of raw vegetable, and she met the head of the clinic, Brian Clement, in Galway about two months ago.

“He told her he could help, but not to leave it too late.

“After the meeting we did a lot of soul searching and we prayed to the Lord.

“Stephanie is a very positive person and four weeks ago, she went to Florida where she spent 21 days starting on the programme. She came home at the weekend and is still very tired after the long flight. She feels much better.”

I had never heard of the Hippocrates Health Institute (HHI) or the doctor, Dr. Brian Clement before; so, as is my wont, I went to the source, the Hippocrates Health Institute website. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that its programs were a veritable cornucopia of nearly every quackery on the planet, including at least one I hadn’t realized that people did. Let’s just start with this list described in the HHI’s “Life Transformation Program“:

  • Superior nutrition through a diet of organically-grown, enzyme-rich, raw, life-giving foods
  • Detoxification
  • Wheatgrass therapies, green juice, juice fasting
  • Colonics, enemas, implants
  • Exercise, including cardio, strength training and stretching
  • Far infrared saunas, steam room
  • Ozone pools, including: dead sea salt, swimming, jacuzzi and cold plunge
  • Weekly massages
  • Bio-energy treatments
  • Med-spa & therapy services

Yes, indeed, there it is: enemas, “infrared saunas,” and all manner of other quack treatments. But what are “implants”? Oh, you naive and silly person! Wheatgrass “implants” are, in actuality, wheatgrass juice enemas:

When used as a rectal implant, reverses damage from inside the lower bowel. An implant is a small amount of juice held in the lower bowel for about 20 minutes. In the case of illness, wheatgrass implants stimulate a rapid cleansing of the lower bowel and draw out accumulations of debris.

It also seems that there’s nothing that wheatgrass can’t do. If the HHI is to be believed, wheatgrass can increase red blood cell count, decrease blood pressure, cleanse the blood, organs and GI tract of “debris,” stimulate the thyroid gland, “restore alkalinity” to the blood, “detoxify” the blood, fight tumors and neutralize toxins, and many other things. Basically, boiling it all down, I found that HHI advocates raw vegan diets, wheatgrass (as part of the aforementioned raw vegan diets), and various other forms of quackery plus exercises as a cure for, well, almost everything. I’ve often said that one undeniable indication that a clinic is a quack clinic is whether it offers a certain treatment modality? The HHI offers this treatment modality. Can you guess which one? Yes, it’s the infamous “detox” footbath:

The Aqua Chi is a revolutionary hydro-therapy detoxification treatment that combines the life-giving properties of water with a high-frequency, bio-electric charge. This process enhances and amplifies the body’s own ability to heal itself. Your meridians are permeated and re-aligned back to their original strength and placement. This occurs through the electrical fields emanating from the Aqua Chi’s negative ion generator. Since our bodies are 90% water, the Aqua Chi drains polluting toxins and chemicals through the natural channels of the feet into the water. In combination with oxygen, you will maximize the riddance of the many destructive poisons contracted through improper diet, environmental pollution, and stress.

All you need to know about this particularly ridiculous form of quackery, I’ve written about before. Suffice to say, the “toxins” that such footbaths supposedly remove through the feet don’t exist, and the water would change color regardless of whether a mark customer has her feet in the water or not. Of course, detox footbaths aren’t all. There’s also intravenous vitamin therapy, cranial electrotherapy stimulation, combination infrared waves plus oxygen, acupuncture, colon hydrotherapy (apparently with or without wheatgrass) and lymphatic drainage. There’s so much there, that the über-quack Joe Mercola featured Dr. Clement on his website a mere three weeks ago:

There’s some serious, serious woo in this interview, a transcript of which can be found here, if you can’t stand to watch a full hour plus of this stuff. There are a lot of parts where Dr. Clements says stuff like this:

Photons come down in the secondary stage, they hit the earth. They transmute into different frequencies. Those frequencies are what create the physical body or the energetic body we really are. When you and I are talking and thinking and people are listening, that’s the energetic body. The physical body that you’re sitting watching us here now, that’s created by the microbial effect in the soil, which are still the protons but recycled or re-cached protons. It’s great stuff.

Like, wow, man. So totally profound. So totally deep. So totally, transparently a load of BS. I stopped there, as I couldn’t take any more. Neither, apparently, could Katie Drummond, who wrote a hilarious takedown of the “health program” offered at HHI, who reassures us that if you’re not into wheatgrass enemas, don’t worry about it. HHI offers them “in ‘Original’ and ‘Coffee’ varieties.” Imagine my relief. Unfortunately, that relief is rapidly eliminated by learning that HHI also offers quack modalities such as “live blood cell analysis.”

Anyway, let’s move on.

Perhaps the most amusing form of quackery offered is something called colorpuncture:

Based on modern biophysics and ancient Chinese medicine, color frequencies are applied to acupuncture points using a light pen and crystal rods. This promotes hormonal balance, detoxification, lymph flow and immune support while reducing headaches and sleeplessness. Working on cellular memory where the cause of disease resides, color puncture promotes healing from within. 50 minutes $120

I love the science-y sounding technomedical babble. As is, sadly, so often the case, I’ve heard of this particular woo before. However, happily, as is so often the case, I’ve written about this particular woo before, over two years ago. It fits in well with Dr. Clement’s woo-tastic quackbabble.

All of this makes me sad. Very sad. It’s because I know that, however much I might laugh at the utter ridiculousness and lack of science behind Dr. Clement’s treatments and babble, I know that patients like Stephanie O’Halloran, whose story depresses me to no end. It would depress me enough just to know that a young mother with an 18 month old child has developed a tumor that is rarely seen in women as young as she is, being most common in women nearly forty years older, will not be able to raise her child, will not see her child grow up, will not see her girl build a career, and will never see her grandchildren be born. It is a tragedy that no one should have to endure, and contemplating her daughter losing her mother at a young age is guaranteed to cast a pall even during this festive season. Who knows how many more Christmases O’Halloran is likely to be able to enjoy? Probably not more than another two or three, maybe not even that. That’s the cold, hard fact that tempers my amusement at HHI. When O’Halloran should optimizing her palliative care and trying to spend as much of the time that she has left with her loved ones, she’s been seduced by false hope and false promises that HHI can save her life. Would that it were true! Sadly, it is not.

Worse, the only thing HHI can accomplish for the O’Halloran family is to drain its bank account, in much the same way that Stanislaw Burzynski drains the bank accounts of cancer patients. Indeed, as is the case for Burzynski, what is perhaps most disturbing about this story is how the worst quackery brings out the best in people, who pull together to raise money for something that won’t help the person they are trying to help. A local rugby team, the Limerick Leprechauns will be playing a combined team made up of two other teams who are fierce rivals, Thomond and St. Mary’s, on St. Stephen’s Day to raise money to continue O’Halloran’s treatment. It’s a heartwarming story of a town coming together to try to help one of its own; that is, if you can forget what the money is being raised for. Here, we have people with the very best, the very noblest intentions, putting their heart and souls into raising money for a terminally ill young woman, and the end result will not help her. It’s the sort of story that I’ve written about all too often about Burzynski patients and, occasionally, others.

The dilemma his captured well in an op-ed about Burzynski by Mike Weinberg entitled When caring puts a child at risk written about Elisha Cohen, a child with a brainstem glioma for whom the Jewish community is lobbying to persuade the FDA to allow Burzynski to treat him with antineoplastons under a compassionate use exemption protocol. Weinberg writes:

This situation evokes a parable about a drunk who loses his keys while stumbling home. When asked why he was looking under a streetlamp down the road, he replied, “This is where the light is.”

The only thing more tragic than Elisha’s terrible illness would be if his well-meaning family and friends stood underneath the Burzynski streetlight, not only giving credibility to a dangerous and ineffective treatment, but wasting time and other resources that could be used more productively.

The same sentiments apply to the unfortunate Stephanie O’Halloran, her family, and the three rugby clubs trying to help her.