Carissa Gleason: Embracing real medicine after fake medicine failed her

I wasn’t sure if I should do this post, mainly because I could find so little information to elaborate on a bit of information that I discovered. Then I thought about it a bit more. Perhaps my not being able to find out will illustrate my point better than a detailed progress report on a woman whom I blogged about once nearly 16 months ago. Also, it’s a hopeful story. At least I think it is, because it looks as though the young woman at the center of it has abandoned quackery.

Basically, this was the story of a young woman with a bad cancer who had eschewed conventional therapy, particularly chemotherapy, in favor of quackery. The reason she came to my attention was because her story appeared in a number of British tabloids, such as—of course!—The Daily Mail, but also a local Australian newspaper near where she lives under the title Cowgirl chooses alternative therapies to treat cancer.

What these stories all had in common was the portrayal of young Australian woman named Carissa Gleeson, who was unfortunate enough to have developed a nasty cancer but, in the manner of patients providing alternative cancer cure testimonials, decided that she didn’t want chemotherapy and that she would cure herself “natural therapies.” How did she come to this decision? While “doing her own research” about her cancer, she came across cancer quack Ty Bollinger’s The Truth About Cancer video series, which is as much a propaganda series for cancer quackery as Eric Merola’s movies about Stanislaw Burzynski are propaganda movies for Burzynski’s cancer quackery. As I pointed out at the time, the problem with propaganda films like Bollinger’s and Merola’s videos is that they can be effective. Cancer patients actually believe them and follow their advice—patients like Carissa Gleeson.

Before I get to what I know about what’s happening with her now, let’s review her story as it was presented in the credulous press in the spring of 2016.

A young woman, 22, who works at a cattle station, is trying to beat cancer by taking high doses of Vitamin C and using an infrared sauna daily.

Doctors told Carissa Gleeson, from outback Western Australia, chemotherapy would give her a 50 per cent chance at surviving five years of synovial sarcoma in her lower back, a rare cancer of soft tissue.

She had visited the doctor with a lump on her back, and was diagnosed with the rare cancer in March last year, when she was just 21-years-old.

According to her GoFundMe page (no longer active), she was also doing this:

In the last 12 months I have made some huge dietary changes, followed a strict supplement routine & done emotional healing. I have also done a lot of cleansing including juice / water fasting, infrared saunas, colonics and hyper baric chamber. We have managed to slow everything down with all of this but we are in need of stronger treatments to start killing off the cancer cells and reducing the tumour size.

I am now doing 3x weekly intravenous treatments including high dose Vit C, ozone therapy, UV blood cleaning, bi carb, polyMVA, glutathione and emotional healing. I am now working along with an amazing team of doctors both in Aust and the U.S and have 100% faith in what I am doing.

Yes, it’s a veritable cornucopia of quackery.

At the time, I noted that soft tissue sarcomas can be difficult to treat, particularly if they are on the trunk. Let’s just start out with this presentation. Gleeson had a lump on her back. We don’t know how large it was. Notice how the news story it says that chemotherapy would only give Gleeson a 50-50 chance of survival. The question becomes why that was mentioned. In actuality, most sarcomas require a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation to be treated effectively.

So what does this tell me? Well, the primary treatment for most sarcomas is surgery. Usually, if surgery can be done first safely and without too much disfigurement, it is. Certainly this is the case with synovial cell sarcoma, whose cell of origin is not clear, where wide excision with a negative margin of 1-3 cm all around is the standard of care, and frequently postoperative radiation is administered to decrease the chance of a local recurrence of the tumor in the excision bed. The use of chemotherapy, either before surgery (neoadjuvant) or after surgery (adjuvant) is somewhat controversial and only contributes slightly to survival, which is, roughly, 50-60% at five years and 40-50% at ten years, survival rates that assume successful excision of the cancer.

So Gleeson was briefly famous for her decision to pursue quackery instead of effective therapy. I never heard about her again—until last week, when a reader sent me a link to this image from her Instagram page:

It’s from only four days ago, which means that she finished chemotherapy back in February.

That was all I had to go on. For a while, I couldn’t find anything more and thought that I’d have to go with just this. It’s thin gruel, I’ll admit, but basically on her own instagram page, Gleeson showed a picture of herself with hair about the right length for her having finished chemotherapy around five months before.

Then I poked around her social media a little more. Her website was not helpful, having been scrubbed of prior entries about her cancer and her beliefs in alternative medicine. In fact, it was scrubbed of basically everything other than recipes and platitudes. There was, however, this photo of her:

This clearly showed her with very short hair typical of someone who’s undergone chemotherapy and is only just starting to see her hair grow back a little. So I did a little more searching. On her Instagram page, there was this:

Hiya, As we come into the beginning of Sarcoma Awareness week here in WA I thought it would be a great time to update you all since I went MIA after my last blog post a year ago. Short answer – I am doing really well. Long answer – A lot has happened in the past 12 months and I'm not quite sure where to start. After my last blog my Dad and I boarded a plane to Mexico where we spent 4 weeks at a holistic cancer centre with the intention of coming home cancer free. My doctor was very confident in my case and was pleased to see my blood results bounce back every week. Unfortunately my scans at the end of the 4 weeks were not what we had hoped for. This is when I disappeared from social media for quite sometime and stopped blogging. I couldn't bear the thought of writing again. The weeks that followed were spent contemplating undergoing the very treatment that was offered to me at the start. Chemotherapy. My oncologist at the time didn't give me a very good prognosis with this treatment which is why I went on a mission in the holistic world and said "Chemotherapy will be my last resort". After returning home from Mexico and weeks contemplating I found myself needing my 'last resort'. I was honestly blessed and was referred to an amazing oncologist by my new naturopath and I began what would be 4 rounds of aggressive high dose chemotherapy, followed by 6 weeks radiation and then surgery. My naturopath helped and continues to help me support my body with natural therapies and nutrition. I have had excellent results and now been given a very good prognosis. (Thankyou Universe)! NOW – I am still recovering from major surgery but I am currently studying psychology and nutrition and will soon be a recognised nutrition and health coach. Planning our wedding, waiting for my hair to grow and starting my blog up again to share everything I have learnt from my experience with anyone who needs it and raise awareness about prevention. Thankyou again to everyone for all your continued support, love and prayers! ❤️All straight back at ya! 😘 #staytuned #sockittosarcoma #tarastrong

A post shared by carissagleeson 🕉 (@carissagleeson) on

First, I have to say something that I rarely, if ever, say. This woman’s naturopath actually did the right thing and sent her to a real doctor. There’s a line in the Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force in which Harry observes, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” This naturopath did.

I also found a version of Gleeson’s story posted as an entry on her blog dated 4/28/2017) through the Wayback Machine at Archive.org in which she describes a bit more of the quackery that Gleeson tried:

Dad and I flew in a few days early and spent some time in San Diego, before we crossed the border to our new home for the next 4 weeks. The clinic was full of people of all ages from all around the world with a few others from Australia and New Zealand also, all with the same intention.

Cure.

Some people were there for treatment whilst others were back there for their check ups and having awesome results, with quite a few in remission. This was so reassuring to see and hear of other people having success with these therapies. My doctor was very confident in my case and was pleased to see my blood results bounce back every week. My therapies included IPT low dose chemotherapy, IV VIT C, IV PNC27, ozone therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chamber, PEMF, IV B17, Rigvir, whole body hyperthermia, local hyperthermia and recall healing. We ate a plant based diet with fish twice a week, juices and daily coffee enemas. My days were jam packed.

Unfortunately my scans at the end of the 4 weeks were not what we had hoped for. Absolutely gutted!! I had done everything I was told to, I prepared myself, I had gotten second opinions from world renowned alternative doctors, I done everything right.

Why me? Fuck you cancer!

This is a sentiment I’ve heard all too frequently from patients. Unfortunately, even the best conventional therapy doesn’t always work. Patients die despite optimal therapy. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. It’s horrible. The difference, of course, is that what was being done at that Tijuana clinic was quackery. It never had a chance of helping her, with the possible exception of low dose chemotherapy, which would have been, in essence, inadequate conventional treatment for her sarcoma. I was amazed, though, at the sheer range of quackery offered at what ever Tijuana quack clinic it was where she spent four weeks. “Recall healing”? Coffee enemas? It doesn’t get quackier than that. Not surprisingly, none of it worked. Gleeson didn’t really say what she meant when she said that the scans were “not what we had hoped for,” but it’s not unreasonable to speculate that there was either no change in her cancer or that it grew.

At least she had enough rationality left not to double down on the quackery. Although she wasn’t exactly open to conventional therapy, she wasn’t closed to it either. She was willing to consider another option. Here’s how she came to change her mind:

After returning home I found a new integrative GP and naturopath. After back and forth appointments, many tears and many phone calls I was willing to do radiation and surgery. At this stage there was still no way you could convince me to do chemotherapy. Not a chance.

I had a referral to meet my new medical oncologist, who then referred me to a surgeon and then a radiation oncologist who would all be a part of my recovery. My medical oncologist was freaking amazing and supportive of whatever decision I was to make. He looked into other alternatives and different trial drugs that may be helpful for me as he knew I didn’t have an interest in chemotherapy at the time. Although once again after many more appts, many more tears and many more phone calls I was somewhat willing to do chemotherapy. Honestly the hardest decision I have ever had to make.

Fast forward to now, I have completed 4 rounds of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of radiation and am waiting for surgery as I write. All the while still embracing a healthy lifestyle.

I won’t go into too much detail on my treatments just yet as I am working on another blog to share my experience with you all. Plus some of my tips to share with my fellow cancer warriors that helped get me through on my hard days.

Patients like Gleeson are very difficult to deal with as an oncologist. Notice how she talks about it took “many appointments, many more tears, and many more phone calls” before she was willing to undergo chemotherapy and the rest of conventional therapy, including the surgery and radiation. She refers to it in her Instagram post as “major surgery,” which suggests to me that the lump on her back was actually at least fairly large.

It’s clear from her accounts that Gleeson is still into pseudoscience, but reality has a way of not caring what you believe in. For all her desire to undergo a “natural” therapy (although how low dose chemotherapy or high dose vitamin C can be “natural,” I’ve never been able to figure out), her cancer didn’t care. Cancer doesn’t care. It simply is, and it behaves the way its biology dictates that it behave, regardless of what you believe. It will tolerate your adding some woo to treatment real science-based treatment that targets its biology. It will laugh at attempts to treat it that are based on fantasy.

I’m very happy that Gleeson learned that lesson.

However, I am not happy that the message that the reasons Carissa Gleeson is still alive is because she realized that the quackery she had pursued was not working, had a change of heart, and embraced conventional science-based medicine. She might not have embraced it whole-heartedly, but she embraced enough of it to have a reasonably good chance of living to be a ripe old age. That message needs to get out, and it needs to get out in the media outlets that promoted her story originally 16 months ago, outlets like The Daily Mail.

What are the odds of that happening? Obviously not good. Stories about people who embrace standard, science-based medicine are nowhere near as interesting as stories about people who embrace alternative medicine, even though a story about how Gleeson finally underwent chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation to treat her cancer and gave herself a good shot at long term survival would go a long way towards reversing the damage the irresponsible reporting about her last year.

It would also really irritate Ty Bollinger, which is an added bonus.