Helen Lawson and black salve: Cutting, burning, and poisoning “naturally”

Black salve? There was no way I was going to let this one pass.

If there is one thing about alternative medicine, it’s that no one is immune to its pseudoscientific call. No one. Education doesn’t necessarily inoculate one against it. Background doesn’t, either. The power of this sort of quackery comes through the power of story, the power of narrative. Perhaps the most powerful kind of story is the alternative cancer cure testimonial. It is, in essence, a resurrection story—or at least a salvation story. First, a person is, in essence, sentenced to death by being diagnosed with a cancer that is currently incurable. That person is lost and searching for a way to live. Eventually, the person finds an alternative medicine practitioner who says that he can help him. There is, of course, opposition. The person’s friends and family, alarmed at his choice, try to keep him from following what is in essence his new guru or prophet. Faith, however, abides, and the person is not swayed from the path of righteousness. As a result, he is healed and goes forth to preach the gospel to others.

Of course, regular readers of this blog know that the seeming “healing” in these narratives usually is not. The number of alternative medicine “testimonials” (and “testimonial” is the perfect word for them) that I’ve analyzed over the years have shown me that, when the ending of a testimonial is happy, one of two things are going on. The alternative medicine is not the cause of the good outcome, and the person giving the testimonial has misinterpreted cause and effect. This misattribution is particularly common among patients who have a tumor that can be surgically removed. The seem to forget that the surgery is what was curative and that the chemotherapy and/or radiation (which are almost always the modalities they reject in favor of quackery in these narratives) are really the “icing on the cake” in that they decrease the risk of recurrence but are not in and of themselves curative. They also don’t realize that many are “cured” with surgery alone. Indeed, this misattribution over breast cancer alternative “cures” was literally one of the first substantive posts I ever wrote for this blog, albeit in the first version of it. Another good example of this sort of story is Chris Wark, who had his colon cancer removed surgically but attributes his survival not to his surgery, but to the quackery he embraced instead of the recommended adjuvant chemotherapy.

The other explanation for these testimonials is a more tragic one. Specifically, the person giving the testimonial hasn’t died yet, but is going to. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve gone back to find out what happened to patients whose stories I investigated, only to find that they had either gotten worse or died during the time since I wrote about them.

Which brings me back to this tragic story of black salve in Australia:

Helen, 50, had shunned mainstream cancer treatment.

Her grieving family says the “bright and successful” woman had fallen under the influence of a self-described healer and hypnotherapist who told her not to undergo surgery.

Instead he allegedly prescribed an aggressive and painful treatment called black salve, which ate away at her flesh, leaving her swollen and in pain.

Dennis Wayne Jensen claimed he had cured his own brain tumour twice and had cured hundreds of others of cancer, Helen’s family says.

Her partner of 21 years, Belinda Davies, said she would drive Helen out to his North Warrandyte home on the bushy outskirts of Melbourne and watch in disbelief as he put his hands on her body, already “mutilated” from his treatment, and say he was driving out the illness.

“He put his hands on her stomach and would breathe out like he was trying to blow away the cancer, telling us that the cancer was gone, and there was only a tiny little bit still there,” Belinda said.

“And here she was so swollen and distended and just unbelievably ill.”

Helen Lawson was an emergency room nurse who developed ovarian cancer, which was diagnosed after she sought medical care after having noticed a mass in her pelvic region. Imaging studies showed a 17 cm ovarian mass thought to be almost certainly malignant, and she was scheduled for surgery. However, she canceled at the last minute after a visit to Jenson the day before she was due to go in for surgery. She came home and told her partner of her decision:

“She came home and said she wasn’t having a surgery now,” Belinda said.

“She said ‘Denn [Jensen] said the surgery is not going to work, and I’m just a number to them, and the black salve will draw out the cancer and the black salve will do what the surgeons can’t.

“I had a huge fight with her. I was just saying, ‘This is insane, give yourself a chance. For God’s sake, just give yourself a chance.’ ”

Belinda believes that Helen, an emergency department nurse at the Austin Hospital, received a recommendation for Jensen from a paramedic she worked alongside.

Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, she returned to her home with what looked like black tar all over her stomach, which eventually ate away at her flesh.

“It rots the skin away. It looks like third-degree burns,” Belinda said.

“It was just disgusting.”

That is, of course, exactly what black salve does. It burns. It’s caustic. That’s the intent. One variety of black salve is actually sold under the brand name Cansema, but black salves usually consist of primarily bloodroot extract, which isolates sanguinarine, a compound with a toxic polycyclic ammonium ion that kills cells and leaves a massive scab. Other ingredients can include zinc chloride and chapparral (creosote bush). Basically, it’s very nasty stuff, referred to as an escharotic because of how it destroys living tissue. I’ve written about black salve before, of course. It’s not for nothing that I referred to such salves as “cutting, poisoning, and burning naturally.”

Here’s the funny thing about black salve. It can, under some circumstances, actually cure smaller skin cancers. There’s nothing magical about its activity in such cases, though. It burns the skin cancer away. Basically, it’s a way of removing or destroying the cancer, but it accomplishes this in a manner that is far less elegant and precise and more disfiguring than surgery. That’s because, in addition to killing tumor cells, it kills the skin skin and tissue surrounding it as well. If you want to see the damage that black salve can do, Quackwatch has examples, and a Google Image Search for black salve

Obviously, for a cancer like Lawson’s, which was internal, black salve was not going to work. Yet, “healers” using black salve frequently claim that it can “draw out” the cancer. I suppose if that were true, then pouring acid or lye on the skin overlying a cancer could just as well “draw it out,” because that’s basically the same thing as pouring black salve on it. Tragically, and not the least bit surprisingly:

Helen was rushed to hospital on April 6 after collapsing at home, and died that night. Belinda sent Jensen a message saying that “we lost her, she was riddled with cancer”, but hasn’t spoken to him since.

There’s a blurred photo of what Lawson’s abdomen looked like after repeated treatments with black salve. Even through the blur, I could recognize the huge area of black eschar. I just don’t understand how anyone could subject herself to such disfigurement and burning, but Lawson did:

“You have never seen anything like what happened to Helen. It is so confronting,” she said.

“Literally above her pubic bone, all across her abdomen almost up to her rib cage, she was raw, mutilated bubbling flesh.”

Belinda said that within a few weeks of Helen applying the black salve the wound was so large that surgeons could not have operated even if they had wanted to.

After screaming matches in which Belinda begged Helen to go hospital, she said she gave in and focussed on trying to be there for her partner.

Here, you see the dilemma faced by all families of patients like Lawson who choose quackery instead of effective medicine to treat a life-threatening disease. What do they do? Their loved one has made a horrible choice. She’s deteriorating before their eyes, and nothing they say can change her mind.

Here’s another common trait of such stories:

As Helen became progressively sicker, Belinda said, Jensen continued to insist she had been cured.

“He promised her that she would get well and the cancer had died,” she said.

It was only in the final weeks of her life that Helen’s contact with him began to diminish, but only because Jensen was ignoring many of Helen’s increasingly desperate calls, Belinda said.

Quacks have the luxury of abandoning their patients when they aren’t doing well. Real doctors do not. It’s also very common to hear patients whose stories of quackery do come out and who don’t do well to relate stories of how their “healer” became increasingly hard to get a hold of as their condition deteriorated. Also, as the news story points out, Jensen still claims that his methods, which include not only black salve but “vitamin B-17” (a.k.a. Laetrile) as well, which is so 1970s as a cancer quackery.

Meanwhile, the Health Complaints Commissioner is investigating Jensen and has issued an interim order not to say he can cure cancer and not to provide any health service as the matter is investigated. If Jensen violates the order, he could face a large fine or up to two years in prison. He could also face a permanent ban. Of course, what I can’t figure out is how Jensen could get away with what he’s been doing for so long. Of course, I ask the same question about Stanislaw Burzynski, who’s been plying his quackery for forty years now.