A cancer cure testimonial for “traditional healing” of leukemia

First-Nations1

Cancer cure testimonials due to alternative medicine have been a staple of this blog since its very inception. Unfortunately, another staple of this blog since very early on has included stories of children with cancer whose lives have been endangered when their their parents refuse effective cancer therapy for their cancer, in particular chemotherapy. The most recent such story is a particularly depressing one that cropped up last month in Canada. It was the story of an 11-year-old First Nations girl whose parents opted for what they called “traditional” medicine instead of effective chemotherapy for her highly treatable and curable leukemia, acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Unfortunately, the judge who ruled in the case seemed not to understand that what the parents had chosen for their child had nothing to do with traditional medicine. In fact, they chose to let a white quack from Florida subject their daughter to all manner of quackery.

I understand that, at its core, this case raised a number of issues, in particular issues of how much autonomy native tribes have and whether the Canadian government can compel treatment of a minor, with echoes of the horrible treatment the Canadian government and its predecessors treated native peoples hovering over the case like a black cloud of ill will. Unfortunately, the leaders of First Nations, instead of putting the life of the girl first and urging her parents to get her effective treatment (yes, chemotherapy), they glommed onto the case and, ignoring that what they were fighting for had nothing to do with aboriginal traditional medicine, used it cynically to push for more rights for their tribes.

Yes, a girl is very likely to die at the hands of a quack named Brian Clement, and this is somehow being sold as a victory for aboriginal rights.

It doesn’t help that now, two weeks later, we’re seeing stories like this:

An Anishnawbe man from northwestern Ontario says traditional healing practices “got rid” of his leukemia, and he’s concerned recent controversy over the treatment of two First Nations girls in southern Ontario will rob others of a cure.

On Nov. 14, an Ontario judge dismissed an application from McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton that would have forced chemotherapy on an 11-year-old First Nations girl. Earlier this year there were concerns that children’s aid would intervene in the case of another First Nations girl after her family withdrew her from chemotherapy.

“People who [were] trying to take the child away, they’re just close-minded about the possibilities of traditional healing,” said Daryl Archie. “I’m alive and well and a good example that it does work.”

As I read the beginning of this article, I was quite confident that I could predict what was coming. These stories are depressingly familiar and based on a misunderstanding of cancer treatment. There are two basic forms these alternative cancer cure stories usually take. The first involves not understanding the difference between primary curative treatment of a solid cancer and adjuvant treatment of cancer, most commonly (or at least the stories I see most often) for breast cancer. Basically, the patient usually undergoes surgery, but eschews chemotherapy and and sometimes radiation therapy too. The key to understanding these testimonials is to understand that surgery cures most early stage breast cancer, with the radiation decreasing the chances of the tumor recurring in the breast and the chemotherapy decreasing the chances of the tumor recurring elsewhere. It’s a sort of testimonial I’ve explained many times, beginning with Suzanne Somers and, later, Hollie Quinn. Notably, these stories tend not to turn out so well when the woman rejecting chemotherapy didn’t undergo surgery first, as was the case with Kim Tinkham.

The second variety tends to include stories just like this First Nations girl, as well as children like the Amish girl Sarah Hershberger. These cases rest on the misunderstanding of the rationale for such long courses of chemotherapy in pediatric malignancies. For most pediatric tumors it takes a lot more than just a round or two of chemotherapy, a lesson painfully learned by pioneering pediatric oncologists back in the 1960s and 1970s. For the type of tumor that, for example, Sarah Hershberger has, lymphoblastic lymphoma, the duration of one standard treatment is two years. For chemotherapy for pediatric hematologic malignancies, there are at least three phases. The induction phase is designed to put the patient into remission. Consolidation chemotherapy is given to patients who have gone into remission and is designed to kill off any residual cancer cells that might be present, thus increasing the chance of complete cure. Maintenance chemotherapy is the ongoing, longer term use of chemotherapy to lower the risk of recurrence after a cancer has gone into remission. It’s basically lower-dose chemotherapy given for two to three years to help keep the cancer from returning. In the case of the First Nations girl, who has lymphoblastic leukemia, the treatment would have involved at least three phases: remission induction, consolidation/intensification, and maintenance lasting a similar amount of time.

But what about Daryl Archie? What kind of story is his? Let’s see if you can figure it out before I explain it:

Archie, a 47-year-old from Big Grassy River First Nation, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 19 years old. He was sent to Winnipeg for chemotherapy where he said doctors gave him a 50/50 chance of survival. (Doctors for the 11-year-old in southern Ontario said she had an 80 to 85 per cent chance of survival with chemotherapy.)

“Some of those medical treatments they do are pretty painful. They stick a big needle into your hip bone for marrow with no pain killers at all,” Archie said, recalling that the chemotherapy drugs made him feel “antsy and anxious.”

“Eventually I got tired of the drugs and all those needles.”

After about six months of what he called unsuccessful treatments, Archie left Winnipeg. “I guess I felt like I’d just go home and, I don’t know,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I wondered why is this happening to me?”

First of all, it’s important to note that this was 28 years ago, and that chemotherapy for leukemia in the 1980s was not as effective as it is now. Second, Archie had six months of chemotherapy. He called them “unsuccessful,” but it’s unclear what he meant by that. Was the tumor still present? We don’t know. Was the treatment unsuccessful because it caused side effects that Archie had problems dealing with it? Again, we don’t know. However, if you listen to the interview accompanying this story, you’ll learn that Archie described himself as being tired of the chemotherapy and tired of the needles, as well as depressed. So he left and went home without telling his doctors that was his plan.

Most likely what happened, though, is that Archie had undergone the first part of his chemotherapy, had a good response, and was one of those fortunate enough not to recur after incomplete chemotherapy without consolidation therapy. Then, as so many breast cancer patients do after surgery and as Sarah Hershberger did after only induction chemotherapy, about a month after he went home Archie undertook ineffective “alternative” treatment, in his case, a traditional medicine man healer named Eddie Two-Teeth. This healer, according to the article, told him Archie that there was a 100% chance that he could cure his leukemia. Not bad, eh? Particularly when conventional medicine, if Archie’s story is to be believed, only offered an approximately 50% chance of survival. So this is what happened:

He travelled to Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba and took part in traditional Anishnawbe ceremonies like the sweat lodge and shaking tent and was introduced to a healer named Eddie Two-Teeth from Montana. Two-Teeth conducted more ceremonies and Archie travelled with him to the United States.

“He gave me some medicine, it was a small tree and he told me to wrap it in a circle (it was about six to eight inches across) and to boil that and drink the water from there and to drink it for 30 days,” Archie said.

The healer told him to keep a positive attitude and when the 30 days were up to go to a doctor for a blood test.

“So I did and my doctor, after the test came back, he told me my blood was just as good as his,” Archie said. “So that told me I was rid of the leukemia.”

So did Eddie Two-Teeth cure Daryl Archie? Almost certainly not. Prayer and sweat lodges do not cure leukemia, nor is it likely that any plant products used by a healer like Two-Teeth would cure leukemia. Again, what most likely happened is that chemotherapy cured Archie, and that, as do so many people who choose quackery after an incomplete course of conventional therapy actually cured them.

What is truly annoying and disturbing is how this story was written; i.e., with complete credulity:

Archie said he has remained healthy in the decades since he was cured.

He’s not sure why traditional medicine worked for him when chemotherapy didn’t.

“I did believe in the traditional ways, because Eddie Two-Teeth gave me a 100 per cent chance of survival from leukemia. He gave me confidence and hope that Western medicine didn’t,” he said.

“With traditional medicine, it’s with the help of the Creator and with Western medicine it’s all just all chemicals and drugs that they put into your body. With the ceremonies, the Creator is right there. They don’t even talk about that in the hospital.”

Nowhere in the article is any significant challenge to Archie’s claims. The closest the author comes is to mention the First Nations girl who was at the center of the legal action last month and Makayla Sault, another First Nations girl treated by Clement who has since relapsed and, at last report, was in bad shape. Jody Porter, the woman interviewing Archie, even asked him, as above, “Why do you think traditional medicine worked for you when Western medicine didn’t?” That is, of course, completely the wrong question to ask, because there is no convincing (or even mildly compelling) evidence in Archie’s story that traditional medicine did anything for his leukemia. It’s yet another example of someone who chose woo instead of real medicine after having undergone considerable treatment with real medicine and attributed his good fortune of surviving to the woo instead of the conventional medicine.

Even worse, this story serves as an intentional bit of propaganda for traditional healing for cancer. Near the end of the article, at least, Archie acknowledges that Brian Clement, the quack who is treating the First Nations girl, is not using traditional medicine. So he makes a pitch to the family to give up Clement’s quackery and turn to the “healing” he used:

Archie is also concerned about the path the girls’ parents have chosen.

“I wish the parents would find and take their children to a real Anishnawbe traditional healer, not someone like this,” he said. “I fear the children and others will die…”

Archie said he felt confident about Eddie Two-Teeth’s skills as a healer from talking to the people in Roseau River and hearing stories about people who were healed.

“That kind of reinforced my belief in him,” he said.

He’s right. The First Nations girl whose case was decided last month, and particularly Makayla Sault, will almost certainly die of their disease because their parents chose quackery instead of effective medicine, and the tribal leadership who supported their decision and, indeed, used their decision to win a political victory against the government of Canada, will be complicit in their deaths. As I’ve explained many times before, I can understand why parents, seeing their children suffer through chemotherapy, can so easily be seduced by the lure of vile quacks like Brian Clement, who promise a cure without the side effects of chemotherapy. However, someone in the tribal leadership should have known better.

Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some more of these cases of aboriginal people with stories similar to that of Daryl Archie popping up in the media. The cases of this First Nations girl and Makayla Sault shined a bright, unflattering light on the quack chosen by their parents, Brian Clement, and how her case was used politically. The case of Daryl Archie is thus useful because it gives the impression that traditional medicine can actually cure leukemia, even though it can’t. I’m sure Archie believes that it was the traditional medicine, and not the evil, poisonous “Western” chemotherapy that cured him. People who reject conventional therapy and choose alternative medicine are virtually always true believers, a belief that, thanks to their misunderstanding of what really cured them, seems to them to have been validated by their survival.

That’s the problem. Brian Clement might be a real quack preying on people under stress from dealing with their children’s serious illness and struggle to get through chemotherapy, but those who promote these stories really do believe. That only makes them seem more credible to most people who don’t understand cancer.