Toni Bark has cancer

Toni Bark is an MD who, like too many other MDs, embraced quackery and antivaccine pseudoscience. She’s been a speaker at antivaccine “rallies”; appeared at antivaccineroundtable discussions“; and even been a featured speaker at the infamous Conspira-Sea Cruise, basically a cruise for conspiracy theorists. What I did not know until recently is that Toni Bark was also recently diagnosed with cancer:

Gastroesophageal cancer is a cancer that develops at the junction between the esophagus and the stomach. It’s a nasty actor, too, as it more or less behaves like esophageal cancer, which is not a good cancer to have. You might remember that Christopher Hitchens died of esophageal cancer. It’s a form of cancer that, even when it is diagnosed while it’s still surgically resectable, still has a low survival rate. So, right off the bat, I feel for Toni Bark. Her chances are not good. I feel for her son, too, whose mother is facing a disease that will very likely end up taking her life. Even with that empathy, though, I have to point out that another of her son’s posts expresses the epitome of everything about cancer quackery and alternative medicine that infuriates me, namely the piety and victim-blaming:

It saddened me at the time that Toni Bark’s son so clearly buys into the mindset that healthy people living super healthy lifestyles don’t get cancer and thus felt obligated to emphasize so much that it’s an “unlucky case of a genetic/immunological fuckup.” Well, yes it is. The problem is that so much alt med has a near-absolutist view regarding our ability to prevent disease and alt med’s ability to cure it, such that if you get sick you think it’s your fault and if your treatment doesn’t work you think it’s because you’re not doing it right. It’s the mindset. The message is that you have near total control over your health. The dark flip side of that message is that if you get sick you must have done something wrong. That dark side increases the suffering of cancer patients and those who love them. It even saddens me that Toni Bark has cancer. Even so,. when I saw this video of an interview she did with Polly Tommey of the VAXXED crew, I was irritated, because Toni Bark herself was promoting the same message:

The video opens with Toni Bark discussing how she underwent “immunotherapy” at a clinic in Vienna and how she’s undergoing chemotherapy for her cancer. My first reaction upon listening to the first five minutes was relief and amazement that she’s apparently undergoing standard of care treatment. On the other hand, she also went to what sounds like a dodgy cancer clinic much like Hallwang. I also can’t help but be a bit amused at how she touts how she’s using mebendazole, an anti-helminthic (anti-worm) drug against her cancer, and how great it is that it was repurposed to treat cancer. I wonder if she would approve of my research examining whether a drug for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis can be repurposed to treat breast cancer. After all, it was that research that led antivaxers to swamp my university with bogus complaints about an “undisclosed conflict of interest” several years ago.

But let’s move on. I want to discuss the part of the video around the 4:50 mark, where the interviewer asks Bark to address the questions that “they” had “poisoned you.” (Apparently, unsurprisingly, Toni Bark’s fans think that the only way she could have gotten cancer is because someone “poisoned” her.) Her answer is very much of a piece with the message in the meme I posted above:

So I’m going to say that if I can get cancer anyone can get cancer because at 14 I gave up white flour, white sugar and went to a plant-based based, not only, but I gave up animal meat at that time. For several years I had been living in ketosis. I was doing ketogenic nutrition with my patients, and I was using a ketogenic diet. I had an average glucose of 60 and no inflammation. So, how did I get cancer? It’s a good question, and even my oncologists were quite confused why I would get cancer. I have no risk factors. I was already metabolically doing all the things to make me uninhabitable for cancer, but it was at the GE junction—the gastroesophageal junction—and theoretically I had silent reflux and had chronic dysplasia over decades. This cancer is a cancer of younger people. It’s mostly people in their late 30s or even 20s. It’s also weird. I’m, like, on the older side for this. So, I don’t know what to say, but it was the last thing on my list of what could be going on. I thought I had an ulcer, and, really, I was at a case testifying in a courtroom in California when it was like, I gotta get out of here, it was so bad.

Later in the video, she goes on about how shocked she was, how shocked her family was, and how everyone was saying, “It can’t be cancer.” Actually, yes. Yes, it can be cancer, even for someone like Toni Bark

There’s that attitude again! Toni Bark had made her body “inhospitable to cancer,” had (to her mind) done “all the right things” to prevent cancer, but ended up with cancer anyway, and a particularly nasty form of cancer at that! Earlier in the video, she recounts how she now has a J-tube. That’s a jejunostomy, a tube placed into the jejunum, the proximal part of the small intestine, in order to provide liquid nutrition, because she couldn’t take in enough nutrition orally.

She even almost died, according to this video. A couple of months ago, Toni Bark suffered a severe upper GI hemorrhage that dropped her hemoglobin to 4. (Normal is around 12-15.) That’s serious bleeding. That’s life-threatening hemorrhage. Apparently, she even underwent surgery for this bleeding and had been told by her surgeon that if the bleeding was coming from her tumor that she might not survive. According to Bark, though, it was not her tumor, but a stomach ulcer that was bleeding.

According to Bark, her cancer is all because her immune system “glitched,” with her macrophages “colluding” with the dysplastic cells at her gastroesophageal junction, which is why she opted for immunotherapy first. Of course, one can’t help but note that this is a very simplistic view of how her cancer formed, so simplistic that it’s likely wrong. One also can’t help but note that the immunotherapy that she received, whatever it was, didn’t work. It didn’t eradicate the cancer. That’s why she’s now undergoing chemotherapy. She also blames her cancer on stress due to her “doing a lot of cases.” You might recall that Bark actually made the news a couple of years back because of her business as an expert witness. Her specialty? She testified for antivaccine parents in divorce cases in which the other parent wanted to vaccinate their child. Indeed, there are even GoFundMe pages by parents seeking her services:

I am separated from my daughter’s father and he has hired a lawyer and is taking me to court to force our daughter to get vaccinated against my wishes. My heart breaks thinking that my daughter may be force vaccinated and my perfect little girl could be vaccine injured.

In response, I have hired my own lawyer to defend against his application. I am trying to raise enough money to hire a doctor to prepare an expert-medical opinion on my daughter’s medical situation.

Dr. Toni Bark, MD, MHEM, LEED, AP, from Evanston, Illinois is willing to provide an expert medical opinion and attend trial in my daughter’s case. She has testified as an expert witness in previous cases, has a particular interest in the issue of vaccines and has authored a number of medical papers on vaccines.

Dr. Bark’s fees are $450/hour for writing the expert report and $550/hour for testifying at trial. Because I live in Canada, I will also have to pay for Dr. Bark’s flights and hotels. I have estimated that the cost for this process is going to be around $10,000.

That’s a cool hourly rate. In fairness, I note that what Bark charges is not out of line with typical physician expert witness fees. Her fees are very much typical fees for expert witness work by physicians. Even so, it still disgusts me that an antivaccine physician can make standard expert witness fees for preparing reports and testifying in favor of dangerous pseudoscience. It also irks me that she portrays her work as being somehow necessary and heroic, when it’s anything but. In the video, Bark goes on about how she’s the “only doctor” in the US and Canada willing to take on what she refers to as “vaccine custody cases” because other doctors are too afraid to take them and don’t want to take them on. She also blames negative publicity for the stress, because news media started to notice her role as an “expert witness” in these cases and to publish stories about her.

Near the end of the video, Toni Bark is escorted to see the VAXXED bus, which has many signatures all over it by parents of “vaccine-injured” children. She asks if she can sign, too. Tommey asks her if she is “vaccine-injured,” and Bark relates how she received multiple doses of the hepatitis B vaccine in her 20s as part of a trial of the then-new vaccine. The implication, of course, is that the hepatitis B vaccine caused her cancer or somehow “injured” her.

I wish Toni Bark well. No one deserves cancer, particularly a nasty cancer like esophageal cancer. I also hope that she sticks with conventional treatments, including, if it comes to that, science-based palliative care. On the other hand, don’t fall for the messaging from her and her son that it’s such a surprise that “even she” can get cancer. Everyone—you, me, any of your relatives—can get cancer. There are lifestyle choices we can make that increase the risk (i.e., smoking, excess alcohol consumption) or decrease the risk (weight loss, exercise, healthy diet), but the risk can never be completely eliminated. We can only hope that Toni Bark’s misfortune to have developed cancer gets that message through to alternative medicine believers, but I fear that it will not.