Another young woman with cancer, lured into quackery by Ty Bollinger

Another young woman with cancer, lured into quackery by Ty Bollinger

It sucks to be diagnosed with cancer at any age, but it especially sucks to be young and diagnosed with cancer. The prompt application of science-based cancer treatment is important for anyone with cancer, but it’s especially important for young people with cancer, because they have the most life-years to lose if they dawdle or pursue quackery. That’s why I get particularly perturbed about young people with cancer whose parents choose (or who themselves choose) quackery over science-based medicine, and it’s why I become the most perturbed of all when I learn of stories of children being subjected to alternative medicine instead of effective cancer treatment. Examples have, unfortunately, been fairly common over the years, and include children such as Sarah Hershberger, teens such as Abraham Cherrix, and young adults like Jessica Ainscough, a.k.a. “The Wellness Warrior.” Add to that credulous stories in the media these people who reject conventional therapy in favor of whatever woo has attracted them, and it’d enough to infuriate a cancer surgeon.

Unfortunately, here comes another one

This one comes from Down Under, and it’s about a 22 year old woman named Carissa Gleeson, who hales from Western Australia and, as is so often the case, is portrayed as the picture of health. (Actually, before getting cancer, she was the She and her partner own a farm; she does lots of outdoorsy things. Before her cancer was diagnosed, she did a lot of farm work. Now she has a GoFundMe page to raise money for the quackery she has chosen to use. Meanwhile, I learned of her story in—where else?—The Daily Mail, although subsequently I found a more in-depth story on in Sunshine Coast Daily, a local paper, entitled Cowgirl chooses alternative therapies to treat cancer, complete with a photo of Gleeson and her partner looking like, well, a cowboy and cowgirl.

Over the last decade-plus, in assessing these alternative medicine cancer cure testimonials, I’ve learned what to look for and how to read between the lines. Those skills came in handy looking at Gleeson’s testimonial as told in these two sources and her GoFundMe page, as you will see. First, let’s take a look at how the Daily Fail presents her story:

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.

Let’s just start out with this presentation. Glesson had a lump on her back. We don’t know how large it was. (At least, I haven’t been able to find out anywhere, and that includes both news stories, Gleeson’s GoFundMe page, and her blog My Journey Back to Health.) The reason it’s important will become clear in a moment. Notice how above it says that chemotherapy would only give Gleeson a 50-50 chance of survival. First of all, most sarcomas require a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation to be treated effectively. One wonders why she didn’t mention surgery. Elsewhere, on her GoFundMe page, Gleeson states that she “decided against chemotherapy and radiation as I did not like what they had to offer” her.

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.

The relevance of these observations is as follows. The fact that nowhere does Gleeson mention that she would need surgery tells me one of two things. Either she has already undergone surgery to excise the cancer and she is being offered adjuvant chemotherapy. Personally, I hope this is what’s going on, because then at least Gleeson would have had the tumor excised and therefore might have a chance of long term survival close to what I mentioned above. The second possibility is that her tumor is too large to excise and she was being offered neoadjuvant chemotherapy to shrink it and make it possible to remove. This would be a much worse possibility, and I hope that’s not the case. I tend to favor the first possibility as the most likely explanation of what’s going on because if she had a mass so large that it couldn’t be removed on her back it would be difficult to hide and likely now, a year after her diagnosis, very symptomatic. Also, I doubt the oncologists would have quoted her a 50% five year survival if she still had her primary tumor in place, because her odds of surviving that long with a completely untreated high grade sarcoma. (Synovial cell sarcomas are nearly all high grade.)

As usual, though, I’m speculating. It’s an educated speculation, but speculation. I just can’t know because, as is the case with pretty much all of these testimonials, the information released is too little to make more definitive predictions and conclusions.

What is provided in great detail, though, is a breathtakingly inapt analogy:

Carissa uses a simple analogy to explain why she walked away from traditional chemotherapy.

“If you walk into a restaurant, and they only have three things on the menu but you don’t like any of them, you are going to walk out and find another restaurant.

“When I say three things, I am referring to chemotherapy, radiation and surgery because they are the only three things offered by conventional medicine when you have been diagnosed with cancer.”

“There is a lot more out there that can be more effective, every caner is different but you have to find what’s right for you. And you have to believe and trust in what you are doing.”

Sigh. Medicine is not a restaurant. The reason there are only three treatment modalities for Gleeson’s tumor on the menu is because those are the only three treatment modalities that are efficacious. That’s the cold, hard reality of the situation. When you’re facing a life-threatening disease and your options are all bad options, it’s entirely understandable to want to reject those bad options and look for something else. It’s human nature, and there’s no doubt Gleeson got a raw deal to have been diagnosed with a cancer with a 50-50 chance of cutting her life short within five years. Unfortunately, nature is not forgiving. Sarcomas don’t care about what you want. They care about getting nutrients from their host, growing, and ultimately spreading. It’s what cancers do, and all the wishful thinking about other miraculous treatment options in the world won’t change that.

And when I refer to “miraculous,” I should have said “magical.” Just look at some of Gleeson’s treatments:

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.

None of these treatments are effective, and some are potentially dangerous, such as ultraviolet “blood cleaning” and IV ozone therapy. The first involves treating the blood with UV irradiation, either through withdrawing it from a vein or doing it “transcutaneously” (through the skin). Often for the first, just a few millileters of blood are withdrawn, irradiated, and reinjected, an amount too small to be plausible as a means of producing a major therapeutic effect even if irradiating blood did all the magical things its advocates claim. Actually, it’s been known since 1970 that UV blood irradiation is ineffective against cancer. Ozone therapy involves mixing of the ozone with various gases and liquids and injecting this into the body, including the vagina, rectum, intramuscular, subcutaneously, or intravenously. The result when ozone is mixed with an aqueous solution is hydrogen peroxide. There is no evidence that it is effective against cancer. Nor is there any evidence that infrared saunas, like the one Gleeson is photographed lying in, have any healing effect on cancer.

Then there are, as usual in these cases, many, many bogus lab tests:

These past few weeks I have done a whole range of different tests for a variety of different things. A few weeks ago I done a really important and quite expensive blood test which was sent to a lab in Greece. Here they are able to take malignant cells out of my bloodstream and grow them out in different dishes over a period of a few days. They can then test the sensitivity of the cancer cells against different therapies and also find out if they are resistant to any therapies. This is extremely important as we can then personalise my protocol a lot more with different therapies and supplements which are shown to have an effect on my type of cancer. (and also take away different things that are shown to have no effect.) Good news is the infusions I am currently doing showed different levels of effectiveness in killing the cells. ?? The cells are also sensitive to hyperthermia.

Last week I received my results back for a food intolerance test which is also done via a blood test. This is really important as I need every system in my body working correctly and to also keep inflammation in my body as low as possible. Different foods can cause severe inflammation in the body and different foods can also drastically reduce inflammation in the body. My test showed that I had an intolerance to 26 different foods including nuts such as almonds, Brazil, hazelnuts and peanuts. Also broccoli, white cabbage, sunflower seeds, chicken eggs and a range of dairy products. I was quite surprised with the results as I consumed a LOT of broccoli, almonds, brazil nuts and white cabbage. I did suffer from bloating before and since cutting out these foods I have not had any bloating after eating meals. ??Depending on the severity of my intolerance to the food it will need to be cut out of my diet for a minimum period of 2 -12 months. After this time frame I can slowly reintroduce and see how my body responds.

Many have been various tests that take tumor cells from the primary tumor and test them for sensitivity to various chemotherapeutics to guide therapy. They have all thus far been disappointing in their ability to identify effective chemotherapy regimens “personalized” to the patient. These days, companies have been offering tests that purport to isolate and test a patient’s circulating tumor cells for sensitivity to various drugs. These tests suffer from the same problems and shortcomings as tests examining cells from the primary tumor plus the added problem of whether the lab knows what it’s doing when isolating actual circulating tumor cells. These are the sorts of tests that are particularly loved by functional medicine quacks. As for the food tolerance tests, there is no evidence that cancer is due to food intolerances or that an “antiinflammatory” diet can treat an already established cancer.

So where did Gleeson learn about these quack treatments? Apparently, while “doing her own research,” she came across the video series by Ty Bollinger, The Truth About Cancer. We’ve met him before, and his video series is a cornucopia of cancer quackery credulously presented. It’s a load of pure nonsense. In retrospect, I’m now regretting that I didn’t expose myself to the series when it was available for free, the better to write a series of blog posts taking it down, but it just seemed like too much work, even for me, at the time. I might have to rectify that situation the next time Bollinger updates his series.

Be that as it may, here is the danger of quackery propaganda movies and video series. They persuade desperate cancer patients like Gleeson, desperate for another way other than conventional treatment, that there does exist a way of curing their cancers without pain, without the need for toxic drugs or potentially disfiguring surgery. Would that it were true! It’s not. But videos like this can lead cancer patients to believe that it is true and thereby lure them away from their one best shot at surviving their disease onto a path where they will not survive. Even worse, that path is very, very expensive. On her GoFundMe page, Gleeson informs us that her treatments alone average $5,000 a week, and that cost doesn’t even include the supplements that she is taking. When I read that, I wondered just what the heck could cost over $20,000 a month? A lot of conventional chemotherapy regimens don’t cost nearly that much, the greedy depredations of big pharma notwithstanding. What on earth are these quacks selling that costs that much, or is it, as I suspect, that their markup would make Martin Shkreli hesitate and exclaim, “That’s highway robbery”?

Stories like Gleeson’s saddens me. She’s yet another in a depressingly long line of young cancer patients lured by quacks to throw their lives away unnecessarily. It is not, however, Gleeson who angers me. She is a victim, as clueless as her statements to the press have been. What angers me are the quacks who seduced her with their siren song of a no-pain cure for her disease and the press, which, despite its perfunctory and obligatory quoting of cancer experts saying how ineffective these treatments are, presents stories like Gleeson’s in a glamorous light. It’s a combination that kills.