People & Power

Cancer Sell

People & Power goes undercover to investigate the clinics offering cancer patients little but false hope.

By Sarah Macdonald, a reporter on People & Power’s film Cancer Sell.

Taking an electric shaver, I ploughed through my hair until it was all gone. I then punched a hole in the side of my handbag, stuck a tiny lens through it, securing it with gaffer tape and drove to the medical clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. The doctor was not expecting me. He emerged from the building in a T-shirt, but sensing a potential client, welcomed me into his office and began explaining how he could save my life.

Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It turned out I had a 13cm tumour in my left breast that seemed to come from nowhere. I underwent chemotherapy, a mastectomy and then intensive radiotherapy that left me drained and exhausted. Fortunately it worked and my condition went into remission, but throughout it all I spent hours on the internet searching for websites that could give me my statistical chances of survival. They always came out at 50/50.

Alongside the cancer chat rooms and online supplements stores I came across a plethora of websites promoting alternative cancer therapy clinics, many based in Tijuana, Mexico. They offer an eclectic range of treatments – everything from hyperthermia and Sono Photo Dynamic therapy to the more widely known Laetrile (cyanide derived from the apricot kernel) and shark cartilage. Over the last 40 years these clinics have attracted high profile names like Farah Fawcett, the actor Steve McQueen and, more controversially, the wife of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. Coretta Scott King had advanced ovarian cancer. In 2006, she booked into a clinic called Hospital Santa Monica under an assumed name and died there three days later.

This film came about because I wanted to find out more, to investigate these treatments and the clinics behind them. At first it seemed easy enough. The facilities promote their services through glossy brochures and online video testimonials, such as one from a woman called Lorraine Weaver, who describes how she reacted to suggestions for conventional medical treatment for lung cancer: “They said they were going to do chemo and radiation and I said I don’t think so. I walked out and called my niece and she said you go to Oasis of Hope … and I came down and I was cured and I thank God every day, don’t ever give up hope.”

I found that this kind of statement was by no means unusual. The clinics often claim survival rates that far outweigh anything a conventional oncologist could offer – a complete cure when all else has failed. When you have just been told that there is nothing else conventional medicine can do for you, it is easy to understand the attraction. So you abandon rational thought, phone the travel agent and find yourself in Los Angeles about to take a bus tour around the Tijuana clinics.

When I arrived in L.A. to begin my investigation one such tour was about to head south to Mexico. Its departure point was the 39th Annual Cancer Control Society convention at the Sheraton Hotel in Universal City – one of a number of gatherings offering alternative therapies through which the Tijuana clinics seek to attract new business. I arranged for my film crew to go ahead of me on the tour bus but I drove separately to Tijuana, with the aim of going undercover into two clinics. We had tried to get access to film openly in these clinics but that had been denied. Now, having good reason to believe that the claims of cures were at best questionable, we were having to go down another route. 

‘Hungry for life’

But first I went to talk to Diego Ballesteros Pino, the director of oncology at the Baja California Health Authority and a conventional cancer specialist in Mexico, who is deeply concerned about the flood of foreigners seeking medical salvation in his country.

“When a person gets a cancer diagnosis they are so hungry for life. It is human nature to not hear what the oncologists are saying and this gets even stronger when the oncologist has to tell the patient there are no longer treatments that are available for him, that they can no longer guarantee survival and that’s when they start looking for hope.”

And that, he said, is where the alternative therapy clinics stepped into the breach. But “they are definitely predatory. They’re only out to make money”.

Dr Ballesteros Pino says that most of the clinics in Tijuana operate on a palliative care license, a permit for giving hospice treatment at the end of life, not a license for curing people. He says he sees too many patients who have gone to the alternative cancer clinics first and then come to him when it is too late.

“I see many people that come after being cheated out of their money with more advanced stages of cancer. They missed the opportunity to have the conventional medicine. Our first duty is to try to convince them to stop doing the alternative medicine and that is one of the hardest things. And some of them do get better, some of them we are able to save. Some we cannot.” 

‘Preying on the vulnerable’ 

It was time to visit the Alpha Medical Clinic. After shaving my head to give me back the appearance that I had when my conventional treatment in the UK was underway, I secured my hidden camera and set off to meet Dr Humberto Barboza. He is the clinical director at the Alpha, which has been renamed. It used to be the Hospital Santa Monica, the facility where Coretta Scott King died. As we sat in his office I told him that my cancer had returned. His response was to try and sell me a course of therapy at his clinic.

“You have to be very careful here in Mexico because Mexican law is not too tight like in the US and the United Kingdom,” he replied. “We have to go by the book, sometimes we go under the book, but what we can offer you is Hydrogen Peroxide, Vitamin C, Sono Photo Dynamic therapy, hyperthermia and a hydro chamber. I just spoke with one patient, she didn’t believe what we were doing here but she just called me and she’s cancer free, she had ovarian cancer. She was going to die, they told her that she was only going to live for a couple of weeks, but after four weeks she found out that everything was gone. She was very sceptical. So I said don’t pay me until you see the results. Now I am waiting for my cheque!”

I asked him about statistics for survival – scientific evidence or proof that his therapies work – and he said they were all on the Alpha Medical Clinic’s website. I had already looked, of course, and they weren’t. His website had just the same kind of enthusiastic testimonials from contented patients as appear everywhere else – and there is no way of knowing if these are genuine.

Dr Barboza said he could treat me for around $21,000 for a two week course, but I would have to stay in a hotel down the road at my own expense. Then there would be the extras for treatment once I return to London.

As he told me all this, I reflected on what I knew of his old clinic, the Hospital Santa Monica. It used to be run by an American called Kurt Donsbach. On the internet and in public appearances in front of potential patients, Donsbach regularly claimed he had three doctorates of alternative therapies. It turned out he had none of these qualifications. It didn’t stop him making money, though. An FBI investigation revealed that over an 18 month period he made $32.5m from selling treatments. Dr Barboza, who used to work with him, was paid $1.1m.

In April 2011, Donsbach was jailed for a year after pleading guilty in a San Diego court to 13 felony charges including: impersonating a doctor, spiking his internet ‘natural’ supplements with dangerous and banned pharmaceuticals and falsely telling an undercover FBI agent he had a 60 per cent success rate for treating terminal cancer patients.

Gina Darvas, the San Diego deputy district attorney, collected over 400,000 pages of evidence against him. She says: “Throughout the prosecution he remained fairly defiant and again tried to promote himself as a victim of overzealous prosecution, that the medical establishment was out to silence him for alternative medical opinions …. He said, I have a 60 per cent success rate in getting you another five years of life, and it’s only going to cost you $23,000 cash up front and that’s a very powerful and persuasive incentive to someone who has maybe six months to live. It’s preying on the most vulnerable victim that could possibly be found in my view. To run a con on somebody in that situation is a terrible thing to do.” 

Let down by the medical profession

Meanwhile, 50 or so people had joined the tour of the Tijuana clinics on the bus tour leaving Los Angeles. They were driven south and taken to see a half a dozen clinics, where staff would describe the alternative therapies on offer. They had a variety of motives for going on the trip. Some were looking for treatment for themselves or relatives, others were more interested in gathering information, but they were united by a sense of having been let down by the medical profession.

Frank Cousineau, the well-meaning president of the Cancer Control Society, has been running the tours for 40 years and he clearly and genuinely believes in the efficacy of alternative cancer therapies. He says people do not need statistics, they need love. “They don’t come seeking peer reviewed studies, they come for hope, because hope has been destroyed in the conventional oncology community. Too many oncologists, with a very almost cold hearted demeanor, will tell a patient that nothing can be done for them.”

Later, back in London, I put this point to my own oncologist, Professor Ian Smith at the UK’s Royal Marsden Hospital.  He says that while he has never seen a patient cured by alternative therapies, he accepts that the medical profession still has a lot to learn about supporting terminally ill patients who have reached the end of the road as far as conventional medicine is concerned.  

“It’s an important criticism of us I think. We are getting it right now, much more of the sense that we have to support people all the way through and hopefully that’s a way we can combat this pressure on patients to go and sell their house and sell everything and have some valueless treatment.”

I have been fortunate in that I have successfully emerged from my own treatment for breast cancer, so I completely understand the desperation that people will feel when they are told their condition is terminal. It is a death sentence. I understand why many patients or their families will begin to scour the internet in search of a cure and will seize on anything that offers hope. However, as our investigation has shown, at least some of the Tijuana clinics are offering nothing but false hope. There is little or no evidence to support their claims that their strange therapies actually work and there is plenty of evidence that vulnerable people have parted with large sums of money for no reason.