Despair is a powerful motivator. While some people travel to Mexico for pleasure and relaxation, others are prompted by despair. If you have been diagnosed with stage IV cancer and your doctors have run out of solutions, but you hear that a state-of-the-art clinic in Mexico can help where conventional treatments have failed you, why wouldn’t you pay for the trip? After all, what do you have to lose?
These types of establishments, often referred to as “quack clinics” for reasons that will become clear, are flourishing in countries like Mexico, China, and Argentina, not because their staff and technology are ahead of us in Canada and in the United States, but because of looser oversight. Patients do not get the same protections, which allows healthcare professionals in those countries to offer experimental interventions without the regulations that can curb in excess risk.
The bogus offerings from these quack clinics used to be easier to recognize. If you see the words “antineoplastons,” “coffee enemas,” or “laetrile,” run. These alternative treatments, concocted by would-be Galileos, have been thoroughly debunked as presenting no benefit and significant risks. But more and more, quack clinics are appropriating treatments that show real promise, and the line between avant-garde and fraudulent becomes blurred.
Quack clinics are now betting on immunotherapy, bypassing necessary steps to offer tomorrow’s treatments today. In embracing therapies derived from a patient’s immune system, they also get to legitimize an important value that is at the core of the medicine-deriding wellness industry.
The neverending stories
The allure of receiving ground-breaking treatment in a sunny destination cannot be denied, and desperate patients are often drawn in by testimonials. These show up on clinics’ websites, often highlighting that these patients had stage IV cancer (there is no stage V). They appear in lengthy crowdfunding appeals. They also, quite insidiously, make their way into newspapers and onto broadcast news, where journalists treat them as human-interest stories. The segments write themselves: devastated husband is diagnosed with terminal illness, is abandoned by the medical establishment, but his loving family and community rally around him to fund a salutary trip to Mexico to receive the kind of care that may save his life.
The problem is that this framing, which ignores if the treatments offered are even based in good science, fails to elicit the necessary follow-up. When Michael Marshall, project director for the Good Thinking Society, looked up 206 people who had raised money to travel to a questionable clinic in Germany, he found that at least 71 had passed away since their crowdfunding appeal. This important detail never makes it into the media.
Testimonials also tell an incomplete story. Proven cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy carry side effects. When a patient decides to give them up and move to a clinic offering acupuncture and herbal smoothies, they will feel better simply because they stopped harsh treatments. But how a patient feels is no indication of how the tumour feels. There is also the phenomenon known as “pseudoprogression” in the case of brain cancer. Brain tumours can temporarily swell when they are being treated, because of inflammation. Stopping treatment and going to a quack clinic will then make it appear as though the tumour is shrinking and the newer interventions are working, but it is simply a question of the inflammation going away and the tumour returning to its original size.
The spell that these quack clinics cast on desperate patients also comes from the language they use in their promotional material. Looking at their websites, I saw their treatments qualified as “breakthrough,” “non-toxic,” and “painless.” Their interventions are said to be “successful” and “proven.” Their staff knows English and they’ll send a shuttle to pick you up at the airport. They treat you “like family.” I saw one major centre regurgitate every old trope of the alternative medicine playbook: they treat the individual, not just the disease; they treat the root cause, not just the symptoms; they respect you as an individual, not as a statistic. This is everything a distraught person struck by a terrible illness wants to hear.
There are red flags to look for when evaluating the legitimacy of a clinic abroad. Beware of establishments run by chiropractors (denoted as D.C. and other letters depending on the country), naturopaths (ND and NMD), and practitioners of so-called functional medicine. The latter is particularly tricky, as it sounds like a branch of medicine, but functional medicine is predicated on useless laboratory testing and the prescription of stacks of equally useless dietary supplements.
Look out for regimens that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s and that have been denounced as based on little more than wishful thinking. Many of them have been classified under the umbrella term of “metabolic therapies.” They include detoxification through fasting and bowel cleansing; strengthening the immune system through the consumption of supplements; and attacking the cancer using so-called natural chemicals, like urea, cesium chloride, and hydrazine sulfate. Popular quack cancer treatments include injections of hydrogen peroxide, massive doses of vitamins, the use of DMSO, special diets, enemas, and laetrile, a substance derived from apricot kernels which can cause cyanide poisoning.
These approaches are based on the claim that cancer is caused by an accumulation of toxic substances in the body. Remove the toxins and the body will be free to heal itself. This simplistic narrative is religious thinking in medical drag. It’s the worn-out idea that something evil has corrupted the body and an exorcist needs to be called in. Following the casting-out of demons, the body must then be fed pure, consecrated food in order to divinely heal. Cancer is actually the uncontrolled growth of cells in the body, sometimes due to inherited genetic mutations, sometimes due to exposure to substances and radiation that cause mutations, and often due to unclear causes. The toxin story sold by quack clinics may be easy to understand, but it is ultimately shallow and often wrong.
While it is easy to warn people about Gerson therapy and Manner cocktails—debunked interventions meant to sway patients looking for an eleventh-hour salvation—many quack clinics have shifted to embrace much more scientific-sounding treatment options, like immunotherapy.
The cancer treatments of tomorrow
You are still likely to see mentions of ozone therapy and detox regimens on the websites of Mexican quack cancer clinics, but you will now also encounter much more credible yet opaque names.
T-cell modulation therapy. Cellular therapy. Dendritic cell immunotherapy. Some bio-immunotherapeutic regimens even have trademarked names that sound like the latest offering from Toyota.
All of these immunotherapies are based on the idea that our own immune system can fight the cancer if only it can be trained properly. Cancer can hide from our immune cells behind a cloak. What if we could coach our cells to see through the cloak and recognize the enemy? The promises of immunotherapy have allowed the types of quacks who love a good appeal to nature to have their cake and eat it too. Because immunotherapy is about training our body to do what it naturally does but better, it can be sold by quack clinics as being more in concert with biology and natural processes, and thus safer. And because immunotherapy has genuine research behind it, it can also appeal to people who don’t want chakra realignments in the face of cancer, but actual science. Immunotherapy is a way to get the body to heal itself, a phrase embraced by promoters of pseudoscience.
Immunotherapy was born from the observation, in the 1800s, that some cancer tumours would naturally regress when the patient caught a particular bacterial infection. William Coley, the father of cancer immunotherapy, subsequently tried to treat patients with cancer using an extract of inactivated bacteria to boost their immune system. There were issues, however, and his “toxins” were quickly supplanted by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. We would later learn that our immune system is always waging war on nascent cancer cells, keeping potential tumours in check until, in some cases, it loses and the cancer firmly establishes itself.
There have been genuine and much celebrated breakthroughs in immunotherapy, notably the use of ipilimumab for melanoma and other checkpoint therapies, as well as CAR-T therapy, in which some of the body’s immune cells are reprogrammed to better be able to detect cancer. But cancer immunotherapy, still in its early days, is not the gentle, side-effect-free cure often promised by quack clinics. So-called “immune toxicities” are very real and they range in severity from flu-like symptoms to life-threatening, multiorgan failure. When quack clinics offer these interventions and other experimental variations on them outside of a proper clinical trial by promising the moon to their patients in their promotional material, I doubt they have their patients’ best interests at heart and I have to wonder what kind of accountability they have when things go badly.
Immunotherapy is not the only technology being appropriated by questionable clinics who seek to sell bleeding-edge science as all-natural. In their hands, stem cells are ready-to-use panaceas and the microbiome can be restored like a well-understood Swiss watch in the hands of an expert. This attitude makes it look like our own hospitals are behind the curve. I saw one slogan proclaiming that the cancer patients of today are seeking the cancer treatment of tomorrow, and their Cancún clinic was basically a time machine taking you to the future.
This kind of hype is not, unfortunately, harmless.
What’s the harm?
Many cancer quack clinics benefit from celebrity endorsements, but these testimonials can backfire and reveal the harm these predatory clinics can cause. Civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., died while staying at one such clinic south of Tijuana in an attempt to heal from a stroke and from her ovarian cancer. The clinic, which had been run by a chiropractor and naturopath, was quickly shut down.
Those “miraculous” stem cells often deployed by these clinics can also have debilitating consequences. Jim Gass’ case was featured prominently in the media. He paid 300,000$ for stem cell treatments in and travel to Mexico, China, and Argentina, and he ended up developing masses in his spine. As Dr. David Gorski put it in Science-Based Medicine, “stroke victim Jim Gass went from requiring a cane and leg brace to walk to being confined to a wheelchair, thanks to dubious stem cell treatments.” That 300,000$ figure is also worth discussing. Crowdfunding is often used because these dubious treatments cost a lot. In the context of a legitimate clinical trial, a patient should not have to pay for the treatment. Quack clinics, however, do charge, if not for the treatment, then for “case management” and other exorbitant expenses. When the patient dies, it can leave an entire grieving family without a cent or worse, in debt.
Predatory clinics claiming to offer tomorrow’s therapies today don’t just exist in Mexico, and in the case of unproven stem cell interventions, the maps for Canada, the United States, Australia, Japan, Germany, and the UK are already dotted by clinics selling this seductive snake oil. It really is a case of buyer beware, and people dealing with advanced disease would do well to check the claims they find online against websites like Science-Based Medicine, Quackwatch, Cancer Research UK, and The Good Thinking Society.
We should visit tropical countries to relax, not to get defrauded.
- Many clinics in Mexico and abroad offer hyped-up treatments to desperate cancer patients, promising that they are non-toxic and painless.
- These treatments are often forms of immunotherapy, which is a real and promising type of cancer treatments, but they are sold in these clinics at a high price, are administered without the patient protections of a genuine clinical trial, and can cause serious side effects despite promises that they are safe and mild