On Tuesday the 15th of August at a Holiday Inn conference room in Liverpool two of my colleagues from the Merseyside Skeptics Society and I attended a talk entitled “Censored for Curing Cancer”. Also in attendance were around 70 members of the public – some of whom were cancer patients.
The talk had been promoted as a tell-all in spite of censoring and was open to any member of the public through Eventbright ticketing for £20 in advance or for a cost of £30 on the door. The speaker, Patrick Vickers runs the Northern Baja Gerson Centre clinic in Mexico where, as Patrick described it, “we’re treating advance terminal diseases. Not just cancer but virtually every single disease we’re successfully treating, and we’re doing it with Gerson Therapy”.
I heard about the talk through social media, the poster was shared around by alternative medicine proponents with promises of an “epic story of Hope and Truth” about an “effective alternative therapy for advanced degenerative diseases including “terminal” cancer”. This is quite a bold – and scientifically testable – claim about a therapy that, despite the therapy having been around since the 1930s has no sound scientific evidence to support its efficacy.
What is Gerson Therapy?
Gerson Therapy is an alternative therapy pioneered by Max Gerson in the early 1900s based on an intense regimen of 13 organic juices, taken precisely on the hour, every hour, and following a strict protocol and a minimum of 5 daily coffee enemas. In addition to this demanding regime, patients must take a huge list of supplements including doses so high of potassium that (again quoting Vickers) “if a medical doctor learned how much potassium we give patients every day they’d be frantic” due to the risk of cardiac arrest.
The Gerson diet is specifically devoid of any salt other than that found in the juices and the patients must take castor oil – four tablespoons every other day in the first month, with a tapered reduction over the first months – in order to ‘detox’ from supposed toxins. The patients also take supplements of pancreatic enzymes and stomach enzymes as well as crude liver extract and niacin.
If all of that weren’t bad enough, Vickers’ clinic in Mexico offers a range of “adjuvant” therapies including rectal ozone, hydrotherapy in which they supplement heated water with hydrogen peroxide (bleach) and laetrile (made from apricot kernels and containing cyanide). All of this first takes place at the clinic during a minimum 2 week stay but Vickers’ goes to some length to stress that most people decide to stay for 3 weeks. This costs patients $5800 (over £4000) per week plus travel to Mexico. Not to mention the hundreds of pounds they will spend every month to continue the protocol for up to three years (or indefinitely) after they have left the clinic.
It is important to categorically state that there is no good evidence that the Gerson Therapy will cure cancer. However one foundation of our medical system is the right to informed consent – it protects the right of any individual patient of the age of consent to make a decision on the treatment path they follow; it protects the rights of any patient to follow alternative therapies should they so choose. But the most important element of that right is the informed part. The content of Patrick Vickers talk was fundamentally against adequate information provided to patients.
Encouraging a distrust in medical professionals
Even before beginning his talk, Vickers seeded distrust in medical professionals: he prefaced his 90 minute lecture with:
“I promise you, by the time you leave here today you will know more about cancer and reversing advanced degenerative disease than any medical doctor on the planet”.
To say this is hubristic is an understatement: a trained oncologist in the UK must undergo many years of training before they earn their specialism and must keep on top of the most up to date research in order to treat their patients to the standards expected by the NHS. This is not something that can be taught during a three hour public presentation. Even my own expertise in cancer research has taken five years to cultivate and I don’t have any responsibility to individual patients.
Compared to his later comments, Patrick’s insinuation that he can convey a complete understanding of one of the our most complicated range of diseases in the space of a single lecture might actually be one his more relatively mild transgressions – elsewhere in his presentation he advised a breast cancer patient to come off her Tamoxifen, told a set of parents that they should not take part in the immunotherapy trial they’d been offered, and told a blood cancer patient that she needed to be weaned off any medication she was taking if she were to undertake Gerson Therapy because it is “incompatible”. All of this “advice” was given with absolutely no understanding of the circumstances of those patient’s cases, since they were simply patients asking questions in the Q&A session after the talk, and the extensive patient history a medical professional with a duty of care would have needed before offering any advice was not be forthcoming in that setting.
Local media coverage
There was (at least) one patient in the room who might have been well known to Pat Vickers, however. Sean Walsh, a singer from Liverpool is a patient of the Northern Baja Gerson Centre clinic who has recently returned to Merseyside following his stay in Mexico. I first became aware of Sean when his story was hailed in the local media as an uplifting success because he survived longer than the 8 months his team of haematologists had predicted despite, eschewing their advice for his treatment and instead undergoing Gerson Therapy. The Liverpool Echo published a story about Sean headlined “Man with cancer beats 8 month prognosis despite shunning hospital treatment”.
At the time, I and my colleagues at the Merseyside Skeptics Society, along with a dozen cancer researchers from the University of Liverpool and North West Cancer Research, responded with a letter to the paper asking that they acknowledge their responsibility to not publish potentially dangerous information as though it were true despite the lack of evidence. The letter was published in the print edition of the Liverpool Echo.
What’s the harm?
According to Vickers’ seminar, should a patient decide to attend the Northern Baja Gerson Centre they would be taken off any conventional treatment they are already taking and weaned off any medication. He told the audience that it takes 3-6 months before a patient is ready to go on the full protocol due to an apparent risk of “chemotoxicity”, and then a further 6-12 months for the tumour to be “destroyed”.
He also recommend that patients on the treatment ought to have no scans in the first 6 months – a staggeringly dangerous message when a patient is stopping all conventional therapy and will have absolutely no indication of what the potentially lethal effect on their cancer during this crucial time period.
In my opinion, the danger of this lecture is threefold. Firstly, Vickers is directly claiming that Gerson Therapy will cure cancer. He says so categorically, and frequently. Not only is this dangerously untrue, but it almost certainly breaks the 1939 Cancer Act, which prohibits an “offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof”. The Act serves to protect the basis of informed consent fundamental to our medical system.
In addition to this, Vickers claimed that the media, the government and all of the medical professionals are lying about cancer treatment, stating, “It is important to know who is lying to you, how they’re lying to you, why they’re lying to you and when they’re lying to you”. He is promoting a potentially deadly distrust in the scientific consensus on effective cancer treatment, and what’s worse is that he makes these claims at a time when cancer treatment success has more than doubled in the UK in the last forty years. Scientific progress is huge in this area and promoting this distrust could have disastrous consequences for patients.
Thirdly, he is telling patients that the “only” way to cure cancer is the Gerson Therapy, and the only way to do this successfully is to spend thousands of pounds on a clinic stay, organic produce, juicing equipment, coffee enemas and supplements. Not only are some of these treatments dangerous in themselves, but the crippling costs can make the last few months of a patient’s life intolerably difficult, and the complicated and specific regime can make those last few months of a life unbearably miserable. To subject patients to that, on top of insisting that they have a three week stay in Vickers’ expensive clinic, often away from their family at a crucial time in their disease progression, is astonishingly irresponsible.
As a cancer researcher, I find it galling that this lecture can be hosted in a UK hotel with very little criticism. My concern is that information like this is at the very best, unethical and at the very worst leads to the unnecessary death of cancer patients in the region.