terrible apprehensions were among the people.

—Daniel Defoe

A Journal of the Plague Year

The captain rapped on the door of my hotel room promptly at 6 a.m. He was eager to get this expedition under way. He had a decision to make, and his time was running out.

First of all, just 30 hours remained on his VA hospital pass. If he didn’t make it back in time, they might find out about this peculiar below-the-border mission. Worse, they might search his room and confiscate whatever magic potion he managed to bring back.

And the time was fast approaching when they were scheduled to do that CAT-scan on the Captain’s liver, get a picture, give a local habitation and a name to that vexing shadow on his last X ray. They had already cut a malignancy out of his intestines—this shadow could be the dread metastasis.

“No use pretending you’re brave or whistling past the graveyard,” the Captain told me as we headed south on 405. “I know I’ve got it again.”

But this time the Captain was going to be ready with a plan of his own. That’s why he’d asked to hitch a ride with me on my exploratory trip to the cancer clinics of Tijuana. There were at least a half dozen establishments down there offering every kind of exotic therapy and esoteric substance driven below the border by U.S. authorities—everything from the mysterious decades old Hoxsey elixir to coffee enema cures, fetal sheep cell injections and three varieties of metabolic enzyme treatments. The Captain wanted to scout them all so he’d have his escape route ready when the CAT-scan delivered its diagnosis.

“I know surgery is not the answer,” the Captain declared. “I can say that from experience. I took chemotherapy and it was rough. I couldn’t take it anymore, and from experience, from the statistics, I know it doesn’t work. So they told me, ‘Why don’t you try immunotherapy?’ That was equally rough. They inject dead cells in an alcohol base into your back. I still have the scars. Devilish rough. You can see it in the doctors’ eyes—they know they’re up against something they can’t beat.”

The Captain does not say the word “rough” from the perspective of a man who’s lived a life of ease. Not counting his wartime Marine Corps service, he’s spent most of his 60 years working as a mining geologist in one rough place or another, prospecting for platinum in the Bering Strait, seeking rare earths and precious metals in the feverish interiors of Central America. The Captain never minded the physical privations of the prospector’s life, he told me—it was malignant fate that had treated him roughly.

“Had a reef of platinum off the Aleutians,” he sighed. “Would have made my fortune. I was back in the States getting ready to sell shares of it when a goddamn earthquake wiped it out.”

The same thing happened down in Yucatán, the Captain said. Titanium this time, a sizzling vein of it. Another earthquake and it was gone.

These reverses left the Captain—who has no fortune or family to fall back on—at the mercy of the VA when the malignancy first showed up. He complains bitterly of the degrading, no privacy, prisonlike confinement at the hospital, but he has nowhere else to go.

Still, circumstances have not deprived the Captain of his drive, his prospector’s instinct, and this time he is on the trail of something more valuable than any of the precious metals he sought in the past. This time the Captain is prospecting for a cancer cure.

So are we all, of course. Who hasn’t felt the crablike pincers of cancer panic? In Defoe’s time those who spotted the first deadly tokens of the plague on themselves ran madly through the streets shrieking their despair. In our time cancer patients commit suicide on public TV.

While cancer itself is not contagious, the fear is. Defoe’s plague year narrator reports that the weekly bills of mortality often featured two or three unfortunates whose cause of death was inscribed: “frighted, that is, frighted to death. But besides those who were so frighted as to die upon the spot, there were great numbers frighted to other extremes, some frighted out of their senses … and some out of their understanding.”

While only one in four of us will get cancer, who among the other three is not “frighted”? Who, today, does not suffer from some degree of cancerphobia—a disease that does not cause death but does exact subtle ravages upon life.

Yes, cancer is just another disease, as Susan Sontag strenuously reminds us in Illness as Metaphor. We shouldn’t attach any special mystery or dread to it. But we do. And until our medicine men can come up with the magic bullet to kill it, we can’t help thinking about it as something more than a disease—some dark curse in the chromosomes, perhaps the symptoms of original sin let loose at the cellular level, a clue to the bittersweet mystery of life.

There would be less temptation to indulge in such speculation if medical science were offering us evidence of inexorable progress toward a cure, or at least an explanation. But no …

Among the healers, the prophets and the alchemists, you find less greed than evangelical fervor—the rapturous conviction of religious visionaries.

In the temples of orthodox medicine even the high priests are acting confused and uncertain these days. Public bickering broke out this year between the American Cancer Society and gynecological specialists over such elemental matters as how frequently women should have Pap smears, whether mammographies do more harm than good, even over the once sacred ritual of the annual checkup—leaving laymen confused over how often they should see a doctor or whether it makes a difference if they do.

At a synod this fall commemorating the tenth anniversary of the launching of the great war against cancer (remember when Nixon predicted victory by the end of the seventies?), Dr. Vincent DeVita Jr., the director of the National Cancer Institute, conceded that despite a decade of heavily funded holy war, the overall incidence of cancer appears to be creeping relentlessly upward at the rate of nearly 1 percent per year, while the cure rate has risen little more than 2 percent in 25 years. And the nature of the enemy still remains shrouded in mystery. “We still don’t know whether it’s something that goes wrong with a single switch within a cell or whether it’s many different switches for different cells,” Dr. DeVita said. “We don’t know what the heck it is” that causes the continued rise in cancer rates, Dr. Frank Rauscher, the research director of the American Cancer Society, added.

While cure rates (actually five-year survival rates) have risen for certain types of cancers—some childhood leukemias and certain localized tumors—two out of three stricken with cancer still die of the disease when treated with what the American Cancer Society calls “proven methods” (surgery, radiation, chemotherapy). And many people suffer more from the side effects of these proven methods of treatment than from the disease. Even the American Cancer Society concedes that “standard management … unfortunately may be so fearsome in itself that many people are strongly tempted to seek unproven methods of treatment.”

Unproven methods: Defoe’s narrator reports that in those plague years, when people despaired of their physicians, they turned to “charms, philtres, exorcisms, amulets and I know not what preparations … as if the plague was not the hand of God but a kind of a possession of an evil spirit.”

Today, again, the fear of evil spirits—those insidious, invisible carcinogens that possess our precious body fluids—is upon the land. The faith of the people in the cathedrals of orthodox cancer cures is falling away, and thousands are turning for exorcism to the heresies, the sects, the cults, the curious theories of unorthodox cancer cures.

We’re not just talking about laetrile here, we’re talking about a whole subculture that has existed in this country for at least the century and a half since “Doctor William A. Rockefeller, the Celebrated Cancer Specialist” set himself up for business in the 1840s and sold some black viscous gunk that he claimed would result in “all cases of cancer cured unless too far gone, and they can be greatly benefited.” (Doc Rockefeller never made his fortune from his cancer cure; it was only when his son John D. Rockefeller found other uses for the black gunk that petroleum made a little money for the family.)

Still, the popular impression about the unorthodox cancer cure world is that it is composed mainly of cash hungry charlatans and snake oil salesmen eager to make an easy killing off the sufferings and hopes of cancer victims.

In fact, among the healers, the prophets and the alchemists, you find less greed than evangelical fervor—the rapturous conviction of religious visionaries. Each healer has his own biomystical theology, a eucharist that may be apricot kernels or sheep cells, his own vision of the nature of the beast, of the evil spirits that possess the flesh and ravage the body with tumors. Each cancer cure prophet suffers the sublime torment of having absolute knowledge of the secrets of life and, yet, being disbelieved. Let me cite, for instance, the agony of the author of The Grape Cure. This book, still sold in health food stores, was first published in the twenties by a South African immigrant named Johanna Brandt. Unable to convince stiff-necked doctors that a diet of grapes and water would cure cancer she cries out: “To hold the key to the solution of most of the problems of life and to have it rejected untried as worthless, that is to pass through the dark night of the soul …. To offer the gift of deliverance from pain … and to see it spurned—that is crucifixion—Calvary.”

But wait. There’s one kicker to this, to gazing condescendingly at the cancer cure subculture as a case study in the anthropology of religion: One of them might be right. What if one of the alchemists or biomystics in this murky nether world may have somehow stumbled on to something that has eluded the one-track minds of orthodox cobalt and cyclotron technology? We all know the French Academy laughed at Pasteur and his ridiculous “invisible organism” theory of disease.

Even the American Cancer Society concedes that there is something going on with “unproven methods” of cancer management: “A common pattern is that of the proponent who has tried a remedy in several people with what seems to be good results.” The American Cancer Society disparages such good results as “often based entirely on the subjective response of the patient, which may result from the false hope instilled in him.”

Whatever the explanation, false hope cures seem to spring up and sweep the nation like religious revivals, a new one at least every decade. In the twenties it was Coley’s toxins and Koch’s glyoxylide injections; in the thirties it was the Coffey Humber extract and Hoxsey’s herbs; in the forties, the Gerson coffee enema and liver extract regimen; in the fifties orgone energy and Krebiozen. The sixties saw the birth of the laetrile cure, the seventies, the Wobe-Mugos and other metabolic enzyme cures, and the eighties seem to be headed for a revival of mind cures—some synthesis of self-hypnotic visualization and psychic self-healing techniques—but who knows what’s next.

The natural history of these cancer cure cults is, curiously, not unlike the natural history of the tumors they attack. First they swell rapidly with the revivalistic fervor of the faithful and the testimonials of the cured, then they undergo fierce attacks from orthodox medicine. But at a certain point—just as a malignant growth succeeds only in destroying itself when it kills its host—these cults either collapse of their own pathology or go into remission, shrinking and retreating to below-the-border clinics, surviving or providing in their demise a fertile subculture of unorthodox adherents ready to nourish the next eruption.

Although relations between rival healers within the subculture are frequently characterized by fierce infighting and subtle character assassination, they tend to suspend their intrigues once or twice a year and assemble for mass ecumenical rallies of the unorthodox believers, gatherings that are part therapy theory tournaments, part Renaissance Faire and part revival crusades for the cancerphobic faithful.

And so it came to pass that on the Fourth of July of this plague year, I joined more than a thousand pain-filled pilgrims, healers, herbalists, alchemists, doctors of medicine and doctors of metaphysics converging on the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles for the eighth annual convention of the Cancer Control Society, one of the leading unorthodox alliances. It was there that I met the Captain and we made our plans for a caravan to the clinics below the border.

The Los Angeles Convention:
Strange Alliances and Palace Coups

Breakfast with Peter Chowka in the basement coffeehouse of the Ambassador: I’d known Chowka off and on in the seventies as an antiwar activist and journalist. Since we’d last seen each other on George McGovern’s press plane he had become a leading figure in a new kind of antiwar movement—the growing protest against the medical establishment’s war against cancer. Chowka thinks that the new movement will become in the eighties what the antiwar and no nuke movements were in the sixties and seventies, that the medical establishment is the last bulwark of authority to have escaped the exposures and upheavals that have shaken almost every other establishment in American society, and that now its number is up.

The alliances in this new movement are far more complex and peculiar than those in the antiwar movement. Here you have laetrile lovers of the John Birch persuasion lined up with postsixties holistic health food fanatics to defend freedom of choice and the purity of their precious body fluids. You’ve got laetrile smugglers and marijuana smugglers (for chemotherapy patients) and little old ladies in Adidas on the same side of an extraordinarily emotional issue.

Still, Chowka tells me, the similarities to the struggle over Vietnam are striking. The generals in the medical establishment’s war against cancer are, he argues, using the same doomed, destructive strategies against an enemy they just can’t figure out, much less defeat. The cancer patient undergoes, he says, “a Vietnamization of the body.” He’s hit with surgical strikes, burned, poisoned with toxic chemicals, while in most cases the elusive enemy melts away and soon surfaces in more deadly forms elsewhere. The generals destroy the body in order to save it and accompany the process with ceaseless proclamations of the nearness of victory, the need for more funds and hardware.

The new critique of orthodox cancer cures is based not on religious allegiance to some single alternative cure, Chowka tells me, but on the work of the growing number of dissident scientists, disillusioned doctors and Ellsberg-like dissenters from the pentagons of medical orthodoxy (doctors Dean Burke, formerly of the National Cancer Institute, and Ralph Moss, formerly of Sloan-Kettering, for instance). The new critics are less likely to claim that they have the one true cure than to attack conflicts of interest built into the economic structure of orthodox institutions. For instance, one of the financial supporters of the now revered Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center made his fortune as head of Phelps Dodge mining company and invested heavily in the future profitability of radium mining. Orthodox medicine’s subsequent enthusiasm for such radium-based cancer treatments as radium implants in the ovaries, the new critics believe, is subject to suspicion—and surpassed in its destructiveness by few of the outright fraudulent practices of unorthodoxy.

Unfortunately, Chowka tells me, some sectors of the new opposition movement are plagued by financial conflicts of interest of their own, and the movement is as schism ridden, sectarian and all around factious as the antiwar movement was in the sixties. “Wait till you get upstairs; you’ll see,” Chowka warns.

It doesn’t take long. I pass the registration desk of the Ambassador lobby, and before I can advance very far toward the entrance to the ballroom someone thrusts into my hands a copy of a paper called Public Scrutiny. A banner headline assaults me: palace coup fails at national health federation.

I make my way toward the ballroom and come upon a woman wearing something I’d never seen before ….

An Ultrasuede sandwich board, that’s the best way to describe it. Kind of a two-sided suede apron on which large white messages have been printed in big block letters. The front side reads: why was ida honorof’s name removed from the program? And on the back: betty lee strikes again.

It is quickly evident that the suede lady is one of the participants on the losing side of the palace coup, and her newsletter consists of vitriolic attacks on the people in the palace: “The deposed executive director, who like a vampire continues to suck every drop of blood that is left! … entrenched on their own gravy train … snake oil exhibits … in no way related to health …. ”

Bad Thoughts and Cosmic Kicks

Inside the ballroom at last. It’s hard to forget the look of the place from all those clips of Bobby Kennedy at the podium delivering what were to be his last words. But I’m early, and the action isn’t around the podium. The action is around the vast gold-draped periphery of the near empty ballroom, where exhibitors are rushing to unpack the wares they’ll display for the next three days of the show.

At the back of the ballroom, in a prime position for crowd flow, I spy a big banner pinned to the wall proclaiming the availability of Betty Lee Morales “Signature Brand” Supplements. And there, below the banner, I spot Betty Lee herself, a large, jolly but formidable woman, president of the Cancer Control Society, our hostess for this convocation and the object of the suede lady’s sandwich board attack.

Betty Lee is busy helping her husband unpack the Signature Brand samples he will be taking orders for during the convention. Betty Lee has put her personal signature on her spouse as well as her vitamins—both she and her husband are wearing identical bright-blue Polynesian-style shirts. Betty Lee designed these matching husband and wife outfits, a different one for each day of the convention.

Of course, Betty Lee and her husband are not the only entrepreneurs busily setting up wares to display for the health seekers now streaming into the ballroom for the opening session. Along the three sides of the ballroom and spilling over to two adjoining indoor and one outdoor room you can find tables and booths offering the following goods and services, to name a few: Lone Star Cancer Only Life Insurance Policies, Cancer Book House, air ionizers, water distillers, Vit-Ra-Tox Seven-Day Cleansing Program, Gerovital (GH3) rejuvenation tours, Novafon Ultrasound vibrators, DMSO, Hydrazine Sulfate, three kinds of laetrile, Vita Florum healing water, Britannica 3, Polarity Therapy, Computer Nutritional Analysis from Donsbach University, Wheat Grass Therapy at the Hippocrates Health Institute, Biomagnetic Therapy in Puerto Rico, two clinics from Tijuana, trampolines (rebound physiology energizers), slanted posture beds, Selenium, Iridology, Holistic survival food, Moksha Prem (massage and polarity specialist), Dr. Cayenne (laxative specialist), Silica B-15, Bee Propolis, Gerson Therapy, and Life-Force.

This Bartholomew Fair atmosphere is a little confusing to the newcomer. Betty Lee’s remarks from the podium this morning concede that the unorthodox forces don’t present the seeker with any single answer. “You’ll hear contradictory advice in the next few days,” she tells the thousand or so people gathered for the opening. “You’ll hear some people say low protein is the only way, others will say it has to be high protein, same with vegetarian and nonvegetarian.” But Betty Lee, whose Signature Brand happens to include animal gland extracts, has a peppery piece of advice of puritanical veggies who speak of the sacredness of animal souls. “I’d advise you to read The Secret Life of Plants,” she says. After reading about the terror and anguish plants feel at being plucked, you’ll never again blame yourself for taking the life of an animal, she tells us.

Terror and toxicity, anguish and blame are the recurrent themes of the morning’s program, which concentrates on the prevention of cancer rather than the cure. Betty Lee strikes the keynote of blame when she says, “Our hearts go out to those who have already produced cancer in their bodies.” If you’ve got it, it’s your fault—you produced it.

Some even go so far as to say you’re practically seducing an otherwise innocent carcinogen into performing an unnatural act within your flesh. Thelma Arthur, a little gray-haired M.D. who’s spent 40 years advocating mass screening of the population with her controversial Arthur Metabolic Immuno-Differential, describes the seduction this way: “A wandering little carcinogen happened by your system. He wasn’t strong, but you were weak. He looked around for some real estate. Found a place to build a cocoon.” He’s just a cuddly little creature until he’s turned into an insatiable beast by your own sinful toxicity.

Whence comes this shameful toxicity? For years the constipated colon has reigned supreme in the realm of the unorthodox as chief seat of the carcinogenic enemy within, and colon-cleansing advocates are out in strength at this year’s convention.

“You don’t read much in the newspapers about bowel movements,” Dr. Harold Manner, keynote speaker at the CCS banquet, tells us in the middle of our meal. “But it’s not really true that you are what you eat. You are what you digest, assimilate and properly eliminate.”

While the late cancer cure theorist Wilhelm Reich had been ridiculed for his assertion that regular orgasmic spasms of sufficient potency are essential to preventing cancer, are the connection to the healing rhythm energy of creation, the current cancerphobic fanatics seem to have regressed in asserting that intestinal peristalsis is the central rhythm of life and the key to curing cancer. I think my appreciation of one of the world’s great paintings has been forever besmirched by the colon-connected comment Count Anton Schenk makes at this convention. The count specializes in fetal lamb cell cancer cures. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to go into a panegyric on the central importance of colon cleansing to human happiness, concluding, “When I see the famous picture of the Mona Lisa… the reason she seems to smile so, I think I have found it. She must have received a successful enema.”

But there are signs of a shift lately, signs that the new locus of terror will not be the bowels but the brain, the new focus of cure will not be the cleansing of the colon but of the cortex—brainwashing, some might say. There’s a terrifying new enemy in the unorthodox cancer world—bad thoughts. Our own thought processes may be as deadly as processed foods. Guilt, repression, anxiety not only make you a drag at parties, but these negative emotions also add up to a vaguely defined “carcinogenic personality.” To be healthy one must think healthy thoughts all the time or face dire physiological consequences. This analysis has opened the way for all sorts of new age shrinks, encounter-group therapists, meditation, visualization and hypnosuggestive healers to enter the cancer cure field. One of the most sophisticated syntheses of all these approaches is represented at the convention by a group called Life-Force, whose cancer project offers psychotherapeutic counseling to cancer patients.

One of the leaders of Life-Force, a charismatic minister and psychotherapist named Dr. Richard Turner, goes so far as to tell the cancer conventioneers that even when one does contract cancer, one should not allow oneself bad thoughts about the diagnosis. One should, instead, welcome it, embrace the malignant growth as an opportunity for personal growth. Dr. Turner cites one client who came to him for counseling after a cancer diagnosis and “realized it gave her a cosmic kick!” Another Life-Force cofounder explains, “When you have cancer you can do anything you want!”

Of Fathers and Sons and Apricot Kernels

During the intermission following the first block of speakers, thousands of conventioneers and scores of cancer cure subculture celebrities mingle amidst the exhibits and swirl through the corridors with the noise of ionizers, massagers, juicers and food millers buzzing away in the background.

It’s late morning, and in the midst of the corridor swirl I am privileged to witness the grand entrance of Ernst T. Krebs Jr. Krebs bears himself with the immense dignity of a hereditary prince in exile come to survey the squabbling disarray of his émigré rabble. He glows with a grandiose serenity that is, in part, a hereditary legacy. Krebs and his father, E. T. Krebs Sr., were the first to apply an apricot kernel extract called amygdalin to the cure of cancer. Krebs’s father’s father was a German apotheker, and both son and grandson inherited the magisterial dignity, the imperious certitude of that elite class of chemists.

Now, at last, 35 years after father and son collaborated on the discovery that led to laetrile, several states, including California, have legalized the apricot kernel compound, and four of the nation’s top cancer centers—Mayo Clinic, Sloan-Kettering, UCLA and University of Arizona—are, under the auspices of the National Cancer Institute, administering it to human cancer patients in controlled clinical trials. The patients are mostly terminal cases on whom orthodox therapies have failed. If there are any positive results, Krebs may well be elevated to the instant sainthood status of great healers like Jonas Salk. The man who cures cancer will stalk the earth like a colossus, and strong men will weep to see him as he passes by.

If the tests go badly Krebs will be condemned to spend the rest of his life at conventions like this, a pretender to the throne recognized only by terminal true believers.

Krebs radiates total confidence of vindication. A large man with luminous straw-colored hair, pale jowly flesh encased in a luminous blue suit, he exudes a combination of W.J. Bryan’s passion (thou shalt not crucify mankind on a cross of carcinogens) and W.C. Fields’s imperious grandiosity. Buoyed by the prospect of imminent transfiguration Krebs’s voice swells as he describes his father’s and his discovery of B-17 as “a Copernican revolution” in the biological sciences. “Laetrile offers hope for not just cancer but for the entire range of degenerative diseases that affect mankind.” The discoveries of the Krebs family will return human health to what Krebs claims was once, long ago, an Edenic state.

There is a whole theology of a Fall implicit in Krebsian biology. Once, Krebs tells the throng around him in the corridor of the Ambassador Hotel, once, long ago, “the flesh of all the fruits we know today contained sufficient quantities of B-17” to prevent the development of the diseases that plague us today. But civilization and hybridization tainted these trees of life and the fruits thereof, driving the redeeming biochemical essence deep within the kernel, inaccessible to the bite. The final fall came with the Romans, says Krebs. “When they grafted the sweet almond shoot onto the bitter almond root, the last dietary source of laetrile was lost because the bitter but not the sweet almond kernel contained B-17.” The fall of Rome followed soon thereafter.

Not until 1,500 years later did Krebs’s father rediscover that which had been lost, and he died without seeing his healing vision fulfilled. The son has dedicated his life to liberating the promise of redemption encapsulated in the kernels and to restoring to mankind this enzymatic eucharist that has the power to transubstantiate tumors and make possible the remission of civilization’s carcinogenic original sin.

If you think I am exaggerating the religious dimension of the laetrilists’ cause, that’s obviously because you haven’t read a book called Thank God I Have Cancer! It is the work of the Reverend Clifford Oden of Garland, Texas, who says he cured his colon cancer with laetrile but whose more important contribution is to make explicit the religious righteousness of the theory of laetrile cytochemistry.

The Reverend Oden argues that since God created all flesh, benign and malignant, cancer cannot be bad. God made cancer. It must have a meaning, a purpose. A malignancy is, in fact, a message from God embedded in the flesh.

In the midst of Krebs’s triumphant laetrile litany, a short, intense, dark-eyed figure persists in interrupting him with a passionate and unorthodox dissent from Krebs’s own unorthodoxy. He says that the laetrile of the father hath not the magic of the laetrile of the son, that the son has betrayed his father’s legacy.

The dark-eyed dissenter is a naturopath from Pasadena named Richard Barmakian, and his story of a lost laetrile formula clearly disturbs Krebs’s serenity. Barmakian describes a quest he went on when “a dear friend of mine was dying of cancer.” It took him down below the border to Tecate, Mexico, to see a man he regarded as a kind of wizard of unorthodoxy. Tracking the wizard to his Tecate lair, 34 miles east of Tijuana, Barmakian begged him to reveal “anything he knew about curing cancer that I didn’t because I just wasn’t going to let my friend die. I was determined to save her.

“He was very hesitant to come out with this information. It took him over an hour before he finally opened up and began to explain certain things to me. He told me how when he had lung cancer he had gone to see Krebs Sr., who gave him some little tiny capsules. In very short order his lung cancer disappeared. This was the original effective product with all the enzymes in it. Finally he opened up and told me the story of the real product versus the so-called laetrile of today.” Unfortunately Barmakian left Tecate empty-handed; the wizard had none of the real stuff left.

As soon as he got back Barmakian “called a source I knew in Krebs’s lab. The source was reluctant to talk, and when he finally realized I knew what I was talking about he yelled, ‘How did you hear about this?’

“After much persuasion he sent me two vials, one of which I sent to my friend airmail special delivery. In three months time—she’d already been taking laetrile, the present kind, for her adenocarcinoma without results—she recovered.”

In the corridor I ask Krebs whether his product differs somehow from his father’s potion. “No,” Krebs the younger thunders. “No. I have never deviated one micrometer from the original formula my father and I perfected.”

Still, Krebs acknowledges the confusions about real laetrile and false laetrile. I ask Krebs as he makes his way, throng in tow, into the ballroom, which of the laetrile brands is the best. He frowns. “The question is which is the worst.”

Dr. Sierra’s Magnetic Mystery Tour

The final hours of the first day’s program offer a special sort of strangeness: Dr. Ralph Sierra’s magnetic mystery tour de force.

He’s a spry little guy, Dr. Sierra. He operates a biomagnetic research clinic in Puerto Rico, where, he claims, he cures cancer by the application of north magnetic force and the ingestion of north magnetically charged water.

The belief in the healing power of magnetism goes back to the rogue aristocrat Austrian doctor Franz Anton Mesmer, who used iron magnets over the bodies of afflicted patients—including many susceptible women in Marie Antoinette’s court circle. Before long Mesmer decided it wasn’t the magnets but his own “animal magnetism” that induced the convulsive healing crisis his patients went through.

Dr. Sierra has put the magnetism back in mesmerism, and, indeed, contemporary biology is hot on his heels in returning to serious investigation of the somatic effects of magnetic fields on living organisms. But Dr. Sierra’s prescriptions seem, shall we say, almost too simplistic to be true. “Take a glass of magnetized water two or three times a day … because when that water becomes part of your body it’s charged with energy and will keep you well,” he tells the audience in his evening lecture. “We cure cancer, we cure heart diseases, all the degenerative diseases with the magnetism.”

I might have been able to take the magnetic practitioner more seriously if it weren’t for his weird demonstration. But here is Dr. Sierra bustling around the stage of the ballroom setting up something that looks ominously like an electric chair with a gleaming copper disk for a backrest, and there is a woman volunteer seating herself in the chair, and now Dr. Sierra is hooking up some wires and electrodes to some kind of generator. He then places goggles—big, weird, space welder goggles—over her eyes and calls for the houselights to be dimmed. 

Suddenly the place is dark and there is a strange, loud buzzing sound. Sparks begin to explode from the goggles, and it looks like sparkler sticks are burning inside each goggle eye. I don’t think the volunteer is prepared for this.

“Don’t worry,” Dr. Sierra reassures her, “Every cell in your body is being revitalized by the magnetic polarity we are inducing.” The next thing we know he brandishes a yardlong fluorescent bulb and asks the sparkler-goggled lady to put it in her mouth.

She does. Apparently the revitalized magnetic potential in her body is supposed to light up the bulb.

More sparks. More buzzing. Not a flicker from the tube. Anxious, apologetic reactions from Dr. Sierra. He scurries about, frantically making adjustments in the buzzing spark generators. Still nothing.

The audience becomes restive. Some are visibly nervous about the fate of the volunteer in the electric chair. Finally, Betty Lee steps forward to try to rescue the situation. She takes the microphone from the frantic Dr. Sierra. She takes the sparkler goggles off the woman’s head and the fluorescent tube from her mouth.

“Do you feel any differently yet?” she asks the electric chair volunteer. “Of course, it’s very quick, but I’m sure people would like to know if you feel different.”

There is an inaudible response from the woman in the chair.

“You feel more relaxed?” Betty Lee interprets. Cheers from the audience. Who wouldn’t feel more relaxed with several major electrical appliances removed from her body orifices?

Missing Persons at the Feast

There is a ghost hovering over the great Cancer Control Society banquet, haunting Dr. Ernesto Contreras even as the smiling Tijuana clinician steps forward to accept his Humanitarian of the Year award at the climax of the ceremonies in the Ambassador’s Coconut Grove.

No one at the banquet has the bad taste to touch on the troubling presence of the phantom at the head table. But the death of little Chad Green—whose parents resisted court-ordered conventional chemotherapy and who fled with him to Dr. Contreras’s clinic in Tijuana—the conflicting stories surrounding the child’s final days, have cast shadows on the humanitarian reputation of the man who’s been called the godfather of laetrile.

Every effort had been made to spare Dr. Contreras the indignity of having to confront questions about Chad’s death. During last year’s convention Chad’s name was on everyone’s lips, and everyone loved and blessed the little bambino in his brave struggle. This year Chad’s inconvenient death makes his name something of an embarrassment. He’s no longer a live martyr, no longer a dead person. He’s become a virtual nonperson.

Nor have Chad’s parents, Jerry and Diana Green, been made to feel particularly welcome anymore. While the convention program had promised their appearance, they turned out to be no-shows—and under puzzling circumstances at that. Jerry and Diana Green had been scheduled to speak just prior to Contreras’s presentation. It turned out that the young couple could not afford travel expenses to the convention, and the CCS declined to help, forcing them to cancel.

Peter Chowka, who was with the Green family shortly before Chad’s death, is not surprised at this development. Bitter acrimony, angry charges and countercharges broke out between Contreras and the Greens when Chad died. Even the actual cause of the child’s death is still, Chowka says, a subject of dispute between the doctor and the parents.

Contreras sheds no new light on this mystery during his appearance at the convention. He never once mentions Chad’s name. But three days later, below the border at Contreras’s clinic, we would confront the godfather of laetrile with the ghost of Chad.

The Mexican Connection:
Goat Glands and Horse-Sore Salves

It was on the final afternoon of the convention that the Captain and I made our connection with the woman who would guide us on our below-the-border odyssey. Her name is Marilyn Merrill, and our first stop the next morning was her home in Laguna Hills, where we were scheduled to rendezvous with the other pilgrims and curiosity seekers who would make up our border-crossing caravan.

As we took a Laguna Hills exit off 405, the Captain was in the middle of telling me a surprising story about the premedical uses to which the legendary Ernst T. Krebs the elder had applied apricot kernels. It seems that back in the twenties, before Repeal, the Captain’s father was running a small distillery and sought out Krebs in San Francisco.

“That’s when I first met Krebs,” the Captain explained. “He was supplying apricot kernel extract, essentially amygdalin, to bootleggers.”

“Why would bootleggers want laetrile?” I asked.

“This was before it was laetrile,” the Captain said, before it became a cancer cure. “Back then it was just an apricot pit extract they used to improve the taste of bootleg liquor. Took the edge off.”

Although fashions in prohibition have changed—with liquor now legal and laetrile bootlegged—a Prohibition atmosphere still prevails in the cancer cure world with the prohibited elixir the object of smuggling, adulteration and intrigue. In its Unproven Methods pamphlet, the American Cancer Society warns darkly against “the ‘underground railroad’ whereby cancer patients from all over the United States are directed to Mexico… for treatment with worthless or unproven methods.” Reading that, I had visions of frightened cancer patients crouching in dank basements, moving only at night, the FDA hot on their heels.

But there were no dank basements in Laguna Hills, a prosperous Orange County suburb. In fact, the gathering of patients and guide at this “underground railroad” way station looked more like an angry suburban kaffeeklatsch.

They were angry because we were late. When the Captain and I pulled into the driveway we found that our fellow pilgrims—two women cancer patients, the husband of one of them and Peter Chowka—had been pacing around for an hour, impatient to get our Tijuana safari under way. Our schedule called for us to see no less than five clinics in a single day and, considering the difficulty of finding one’s way below the border and the urgency that the possibility of redemption on the journey promised, they were in no mood to waste any more time.

Indeed, there was some grumbling as efforts to consolidate cars into a more compact caravan caused confusion. All this and an unexpected seat switch caused one of the eager pilgrims, a pleasant middle-age woman we’ll call Renee, to burst into tears.

None of this seemed to faze our jolly guide, Marilyn, who finally got us straightened out and under way. How did Marilyn get into her strange business of being travel agent for the underground railroad?

It began with the phone calls. A few years ago, when she became head of the Orange County chapter of the International Association of Cancer Victims and Friends, she began to get calls from time zones all over the world, sometimes in the middle of the night. They were pleas from cancer patients eager for something to hope for below the border, fearful of the unknown, asking her, “What’s it really like down there on the other side?” not just “Will this save me, or my mother?” but “Is it safe? Is it clean? Is it for real?”

She began ferrying friends across the border to see for themselves. When some local clubwomen asked her to take the whole club, Marilyn rented a bus. It became a regular practice, then a kind of business: bus-along tours to the Tijuana cancer clinics with Marilyn acting as tour guide, speakers from the cancer cure subculture, lunch at the Gerson clinic, chats with patients and doctors.

For all her boundless cheerfulness, Marilyn’s work is not a lighthearted lark. Many of the bus-along people are cancer patients. She’s come to recognize certain characteristics of the cure seekers who come to her.

“Take that woman Renee,” Marilyn said to me, “the one who burst into tears because there was some confusion about car assignments.” I had been assigned the front seat of Marilyn’s car, which was the lead car of our three-car caravan. The backseat was piled high with sandwich-stuffed coolers, Thermoses full of hot coffee and cold juices, plastic bags dewy with well-scrubbed fruit—enough, more than enough it seemed, to take Cortés to the Seven Cities of Gold, just enough for a Jewish mother guiding her brood to Tijuana.

“Now, I like Renee,” Marilyn went on, “but that’s behavior you see a lot from some of these cancer patients.

“One of the things you discover when you read about the personality studies they’ve done with cancer patients is this sense of confusion and uncertainty. And you can imagine what it’s like for them when they’re trying to choose from all the alternative therapies. Now, she’s typical. When she arrived she had to take off her blouse, show me all her scars, tell me about her operations in detail, and it turns out she’s been on several different therapies and hasn’t stayed with any one. I run into this type all the time. It’s as if they’re reluctant to give up their disease. I call them ‘shoppers.’ They shop around, they do a little of one, a little of another, just enough to stay alive, not to ever really get well. They don’t want to, they don’t have the will to go through the incredible discipline some of the alternative therapies require. I mean, Charlotte Gerson’s coffee enemas are not easy. But the ones who really want to live, they’ll stick with a decision.”

That’s Marilyn’s theory about the cures people report from unorthodox treatments. She thinks that those who go below the border with the will to fight will come back up with a greater chance to live regardless of which therapy they choose: It’s the border-crossing process itself that is decisive—the decision to go beyond the bounds of the death-sentence certainties of orthodox medicine.

Still, Marilyn is, in effect, a connoisseur of cancer clinics, and I was eager to find out from her which one she’d choose if she faced a personal emergency. While she wouldn’t commit herself unequivocally, she did confide that when her mother was diagnosed with skin cancer Marilyn wasted no time in dragging her down to the Hoxsey clinic in Tijuana where, Marilyn said, the Hoxsey tonic cured her. She’d go there herself, Marilyn said, if she had a similar malignancy.

I was somewhat taken aback: the Hoxsey cure is—especially when considered in light of all the sophisticated, holistic, enzymatic, crypto-scientific cures and prevention regimens mushrooming in the alternative cancer cure world—the oldest and purest throwback to the age of magical elixirs, secret potions, snake oil peddlers with cancer salves. I wasn’t even aware a Hoxsey clinic existed anymore, although I had read something of its colorful, controversial history.

The legend of the Hoxsey elixir takes us back to the 1840s, when “celebrated cancer specialist” Rockefeller was still selling his cancer salves at medicine shows. The Hoxsey cure had an even humbler origin: as a horse-sore salve.

Great Grampa Hoxsey had this prize stallion, you see, who developed a big cancerous growth on his hoof. He put him out to pasture to die. Well, suddenly, the story goes, the old stallion started to get better. The tumor shrunk, and Grampa Hoxsey decided it was because of something the horse had been eating out there in the far pasture. He watched what herbs he went for, compounded them into a salve and started to treat other farm animals with it

The formula stayed in the family as a horse cure until Harry’s father began to try it out on human cancers with amazing results. When the father died the story takes a kind of biblical turn. Seventeen-year-old Harry was the youngest of twelve children, and because he was his father’s eager assistant in the cancer salve business, it was to him that the dying old man passed the birthright for the secret formula. He made him memorize it. Later the other brothers and sisters greedily tried to wrest the rights to the formula from Harry, but it existed only in his head—and he kept it there.

Harry Hoxsey built his birthright into a headline-making healing empire. His clinics swelled with devotees claiming cures every place he set up shop, but Hoxsey never bothered to get an M.D. degree and ended up in fractious litigation with the AMA wherever he went, eventually making his last stand in Dallas. Hoxsey won most of his legal battles—including a sensational slander suit against AMA spokesman Morris Fishbein—but eventually the fierce struggles took their toll, and after two heart attacks he moved his clinic below the border in the early sixties and put it in the care of his longtime chief nurse, Mildred Nelson. Now on a hilltop in Tijuana, she presides over a little adobe house that is the shrunken remnant of the once vast Hoxsey empire. It was to be, Marilyn told me, our first stop.

Marilyn is worried about Nurse Mildred’s situation, she told me. She’s worried about the whole future, in fact, of what remains of the Hoxsey enterprise. Unlike Harry Hoxsey, Nurse Mildred isn’t evangelical. She’s content to cure whoever happens to come to her. She doesn’t have promotional booths at the cancer cure conventions the way the other unorthodox healers do. The only pamphlet she’s printed up is primitive compared with those of other clinics.

There are some clinics inside and outside the United States that peddle what they purport to be Hoxsey elixir, but according to Marilyn only Mildred has possession of the original formula. Marilyn fears for the preservation of the true Hoxsey formula in Mildred’s fragile exile outpost.

Just before we reached the border our cancer cure caravan stopped to regroup in the parking lot near Motel 8 in San Isidro. This particular Motel 8 has become a popular way station and outpatient residence for cancer victims. They go for below-the-border treatments during the day and return for a good old-fashioned cheapo American motel at night. Motel 8 offers shuttle-bus service to most of the clinics, some of them driven by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who for religious reasons prefer the unorthodox treatments.

In the parking lot Marilyn opened up the back of her car and offered sandwiches, coffee and snacks from the massive supply she’d packed. The Captain emerged from the black Cadillac he’d switched to and offered a selection of the plastic, foil-sealed, watery fruit juices he brought from his VA hospital stash. Across the parking lot, across a mile or so of scrub, the hills of Tijuana rose in a jumble ahead of us, a maze of crooked streets and alleys covering their contours.

For years Tijuana and other Mexican border towns have been a refuge for an extraordinary array of health dissidents and quacks whose prescriptions and procedures had gotten them in trouble with U.S. authorities. First and still perhaps the strangest of the border town healers is the notorious Dr. Brinkley who pioneered the goat gland operation and built up a huge medicopopulist following in the Midwest and South during the thirties, twice coming within a few votes of getting elected governor of Kansas.

Dr. Brinkley’s goat gland operation—he actually transplanted the testicles of goats into the scrota of men for what he claimed were curative and rejuvenative effects—never really went over big with established U.S. medical men. So he was forced to pioneer some of the border town clinical protocols that cancer cure dissidents would later emulate, using one of the ultrapowerful clear channel X stations based below the border to evangelize half the nation with his messianic medical messages, thus attracting attention to the clinic in a way FCC and FDA authorities couldn’t control.

Forbidden cures, like forbidden thrills, have become an enduring part of the lore and the lure of border towns in the popular imagination. Since things have loosened up above the border these days, there aren’t too many fantasies or forbidden visions—give or take a donkey or two—you need to go to Tijuana to fulfill, and cancer cure cults are the last refuge of the strange and forbidden exoticism that once seduced people below the border.

In Which We Get to Taste the Tonic

We got lost for about five minutes after we crossed the border. The route to the Hoxsey clinic goes through a part of town that has no street signs, and none of the passersby we asked knew the way to General Ferreira street. Marilyn usually has a hired Mexican driver for her bus-alongs who knows the way. “I’m facing backward giving the lectures, so I never know the route except from the back,” she said, explaining her difficulty. But she’s a remarkably calm pathfinder, and, suddenly, as we struggled up a crooked road whose potholes seemed to have been the work of land mine blasts, we crested a hill, and she shouted, “There it is.”

There it was, indeed. Not an impressive edifice from the outside, certainly not when compared with the huge Hoxsey clinic in Dallas. Marilyn recalled that when she first took her mother to the modest adobe and stucco building with the chipped and peeling exterior, the poor woman burst into tears and sobbed, “Why have you brought me here?” She changed her tune, said Marilyn, as soon as she met Nurse Mildred.

Inside, three or four patients sat in the rather dilapidated waiting room, which is graced only by a small black and white portrait of the late Harry Hoxsey, the vigorous hatchet-faced healer in his prime. Nurse Mildred was in the middle of a diagnostic conference with the Mexican doctors when we arrived.

While we waited for her I spoke with one patient in the waiting room. His name is Mr. Thomasina, he said in the accent of his native Greece. He lives with his wife in Canoga Park, California. His case history in brief: a diagnosis of prostate cancer with pelvic bone metastasis. “They wanted to operate,” Mr. Thomasina said, “but they didn’t give me much hope. I knew somebody who’d been cured by Hoxsey back in the fifties. So I came down here instead. That was last spring. I’m in good shape again. Take the tonic four times a day, come back every six months for a checkup.”

It wasn’t merely the apparent medical miracle of Mr. Thomasina’s recovery that struck me—orthodox scientists routinely dismiss this as mere anecdotal evidence. No, it was the similarity in his diagnosis to that of another stranger I had met in a hospital room in my hometown 3,500 miles away—and the difference in outcome.

I had been visiting my father, who was in a Long Island hospital for minor surgery. The guy in the bed next to him had the same diagnosis as Mr. Thomasina—prostate cancer with suspected pelvic bone metastasis. But this guy, Johnny, was following his doctors’ orders and, as he cheerfully put it, was “gonna let them carve me up.” He made much of the fact that his surgeon had a reputation for bluntness, for slapping his patients with downer diagnoses without any kid gloves.

“Yeah,” Johnny told us while I was visiting, “he just came out and said they were gonna carve me up, take out the testicles, see what they could carve out of the bones but that I shouldn’t expect much if the bones were involved. And I shouldn’t get too hopeful.

“I’ve been lucky with my health all my life,” Johnny went on. “I can’t really complain about this.” Somehow he seemed to take consolation in the fact that his cancer would balance out his previously good karma, and he seemed almost satisfied with the justice of it all.

I don’t know what was more astonishing—that kind of resignation or the kind of daring it took for Mr. Thomasina to defy convention, the advice of doctors and family, and come to this desolate hilltop in Tijuana for his cure.

I was talking to another patient who’d come all the way from Canada to get a lump in her breast treated when Marilyn appeared in the waiting room and told us that Nurse Mildred Nelson would see us now.

She was not what I’d expected. By this time I thought I’d run into just about every variety of cancer cure person you could imagine—the pseudoscholarly didact, the charismatic mystic, the martyred medico. I thought I’d heard every possible sophisticated, holistic, anticancer, megavitamin, nutritional supplement rap going.

Yet here on a hilltop in Tijuana was an old-fashioned nurse with an old-fashioned tonic—a tall, angular Texas woman who said she’d cured 80 percent of her cancer patients. She projected no charismatic healer vibes, she didn’t even feel it necessary to attack the claims of rival cures (“They may be doing good for people for all I know”). She just sat next to her battered metal file cabinets ignoring the paint peeling from the ceiling, the ringing phones and the chatter of the Mexican doctors scurrying back and forth, and told us how back in the year 1946 she’d left her quiet life as a practical nurse in the tiny west Texas prairie town of Jacksboro and gone to work for the notorious Harry Hoxsey.

Her mother had cancer, and her father devised a plan that he wanted to hide from his practical nurse daughter. “My dad was haulin’ heavy machinery into Dallas a lot so I didn’t think too much of it when he asked me to bring mom in on one of the trips,” Mildred recalled. “Then he tells me about this new doctor we’re goin’ to see, and we’d already been to every doctor far as San Antone, but when he starts describing this Harry Hoxsey, I said, ‘You’re going to a quack.’ ” She spit out the word “quack” with severe west Texas contempt.

She had no hesitation telling the great Hoxsey himself “You’re a quack” when he handed her mother his bottle of tonic. She was stunned when Hoxsey responded amiably by offering her a job in his clinic. “He said, ‘If I cure your mother’s cancer, will you come work for me?’ ” He did. She did.

At first, Mildred said, she couldn’t believe some of the results she was seeing. “Harry was quite the talker, you know, and he’d tell me one after another, each bigger than the next, and I wouldn’t believe it. Took me a year working there to get my feet on the floor, see the improvement month by month in the people coming in before I’d begin to believe it.”

The memory of the late irrepressible founder brought some warmth to her eyes, and the severe chief-nurse frown softened. But then I asked what seemed to be the wrong question around the place, and she snapped at me like I was some fool patient who couldn’t keep his mouth shut on the fever thermometer. “Isn’t one of the criticisms of the Hoxsey therapy that the formula’s a secret?” I asked. “What happens if, uh, you should pass away without—I mean, might it end up being lost to the world?”

“That’s not true,” she snapped at me. “For the longest time we’ve printed the ingredients right on the bottle. And that has been published a number of times.”

So would it be possible for someone to formulate it on their own?

“No, I have to put it together in a particular way,” she said.

“Well, what will happen if—”

“I’ll have someone right here who will do it. That’s in the works right now. When Harry died five years ago I wasn’t responsible for it, but at his death I became responsible for it.”

“Why has it been the feeling that the process should be kept a secret?” Peter Chowka asked.

“He wanted them to recognize it, and then he would turn it all loose.”

“So, you feel that because it hasn’t been subjected to a fair test, there’s no reason to let anyone know how it’s prepared?” Chowka asked.

“Right. Not only that, there are a number of them today who will tell you, ‘We’re using the Hoxsey medicine,’ and they know nothing about it. There are herb places that tell you they have the Hoxsey formula, but it isn’t the Hoxsey formula.”

Mildred’s assurances about the preservation of the genuine formula left me feeling uneasy. Was it in a safe deposit box somewhere or still in her head while the transition was “in the works”? So powerful is the aura of integrity of this woman, yet so strange and fragile the circumstances in which she works, that I found myself terribly worried that this elixir might be lost to the world. The impulse to believe or to suspend disbelief is that strong below the border. Perhaps it’s the Lourdes, the pilgrimage effect. You’ve come all the way to a strange place and you’re more likely to experience a miracle here than in Elm City General Hospital back home.

Well, at least I wouldn’t die without a taste of the real thing, because at that point Mildred was called away to another room, the Captain and Renee disappeared, and Marilyn emerged from another part of the clinic brandishing a big bottle of brown liquid.

“Want to taste?” she asked, removing the cap and giving me a sniff.

This place was the Alice’s Restaurant of cancer clinics. You can get anything you want.

It smelled like cough medicine, the awful elixir terpenhydrate my parents had to force down my throat.

At last, a taste. Marilyn took my palm and turned the lip of the bottle over onto it. I hesitated, looking at the ring of sticky residue she’d left. I took a lick.

It was bitter like elixir terpenhydrate, strong like cough medicine. Not too bitter, on the other hand. I was finishing up the last sticky bit when the Captain and Renee emerged from a back room, their faces red, their hands clutching brown paper bags. Mildred wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

Marilyn told us all it was time to move on to the next clinic if we wanted to finish by midnight. It wasn’t until we were back in her car bumping down the hill that she told me what happened in the back room.

“Mildred is terrific, isn’t she?” said Marilyn. “Did you see what she did for those two people?”

“What?” I asked.

“She gave them the medication. It was amazing. She took them into the back room and asked them what they’d been through, and they just burst into tears. They were sobbing and showing her their scars. Then she gave them each a supply of the standard medication and told them to call her and come back free of charge.

A Loyal Daughter and
Her Coffee Enema Crusade

Before we’d left the Hoxsey clinic Nurse Mildred had given us directions to our next destination. We were bound for La Gloria. That’s the name of the onetime resort hotel that has been converted to the Gerson coffee enema cancer therapy clinic.

To get to La Gloria we had to make our way through the maze of streets that surround the Hoxsey hilltop. Our directions called for us to look for a dead end and turn right before we hit it, but every street looked like a dead end, then turned out to be something else. Finally Marilyn asked a passerby for La Gloria, and we were on our way. “Everybody knows La Gloria,” said Marilyn as we emerged at last on the Old Ensenada Road, which took us there.

One glance at La Gloria and you feel as if you’re in a tropic deeper than Tijuana. Set back from the road, the well-trimmed lawns and the wide verandas reminded me more of a colonial planter’s outpost—a German plantation in Southwest Africa, perhaps.

Charlotte Gerson Straus is the youngest daughter of the late Dr. Max Gerson. A tall, blue-eyed Rhine maiden, she could well have played the part of the wealthy planter’s wife as she formally welcomed us into the clinic’s spacious dining room for a late lunch. In the cool, tasteful interior with its polished wood floors servants brought us soup, salad and a carrot-liver juice concoction, part of the clinic’s therapeutic diet. It sounds terrible, but it didn’t taste as bad as the Hoxsey tonic.

Dr. Max Gerson was a German Jewish physician who originally specialized in detoxifying dietary cures for tuberculosis. One of those he cured of TB was Albert Schweitzer’s wife. The saintly doctor became Gerson’s advocate ever after, calling him “one of the most eminent geniuses in the history of medicine.”

Gerson fled Europe in 1936 with his three daughters and soon after set up practice on Park Avenue in New York City and began applying his theories to a cure for cancer. In 1958 he published A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases and then made what turned out to be a fatal mistake. He accepted an invitation to discuss his therapy on The Long John Nebel Show, the pioneer midnight-to-dawn radio talk show that specialized in UFO contactees and bee venom arthritis cures, among other arcane phenomena. Immediately following that appearance, the AMA accused him of “advertising” and expelled him from its ranks. He died little more than a year later of chronic pneumonia.

What was Gerson’s cancer cure secret? In the chapter of his book entitled The “Secret” of My Treatment, he says, “Of course, there is none!” But, of course, there is. Not a secret physical formula or elixir but a secret metaphysic that fairly sings out the influence of German romanticism.

The opening chapters of his book are a hymn to “the harmony in the metabolism … which reflects the eternal mystery of life,” to “the Eternal Life” force, to “the concept of totality,” to “the whole in its infinitely fine order.” Cancer, he tells us, is not a disease of the particular organ or whatever part it first appears in, but of the whole individual; it merely shows up first as a localized tumor. Gerson believed, along with Einstein, that other romantic German Jewish scientist, in a “unified field theory”—his of health and disease. One can treat the tumor mass only by restoring the total metabolism, the wave of being that washes through the whole body.

But why coffee enemas? According to Gerson the caffeine absorbed by the hemorrhoidal vein travels directly to the liver, where, he said, it stimulates bile secretions to detoxify first the liver and then the rest of the body. The restored metabolism, boosted by massive infusions of raw vegetable and liver juices, then gets rid of the tumor without the aid of drugs.

It’s all there in Gerson’s book, but I was still a little shaken, as Charlotte Gerson led us on a tour of the clinic’s rooms to come face to face with an item of furniture she calls “the enema bench.”

Somehow the wooden severity of the enema bench reminded me of public stocks, the punitive confinement inflicted on those who fell from grace in early Puritan settlements. The secret of the continuing popularity of the Gerson therapy in the unorthodox world, despite competition from easy-to-take potions and pills, may be precisely due to the arduous, humiliating discipline it subjects the patients to—a testament to the ingrained assumption we inherited from Puritan forefathers and Jewish grandmothers that no redemption, whether from sin or sickness, can be achieved without suffering.

In Max Gerson’s case the healer, too, had to suffer for his cure. But his daughter Charlotte has made the redemption from that suffering, the vindication of her father’s visionary legacy, a lifetime crusade. In fact, the only time I heard Charlotte abandon her demeanor of icy certitude, the only time she seemed to show any emotional excitement, was when she was describing a moment of symbolic vindication.

It was a particularly significant moment because it had taken place on a radio talk show, a West Coast version of the show that had doomed her father to persecution and fatal suffering. On this show, though, Charlotte said the climate had changed and she was on the offensive. She took the opportunity of the air time to deliver devastating attacks on the orthodox establishment that had expelled her father. “I really let loose at them,” Charlotte said, a triumphantly Gersonian way of putting it.

Somewhat fearful of her severe Germanic demeanor and her icy blue eyes, I decided to test her goodwill by asking her about one old and one new controversy the Gerson method had aroused. First there was the Death Be Not Proud loss of John Gunther’s 16-year-old son after a seeming remission under Gerson’s care back in the forties. And then there were the news stories about deaths caused by coffee enema ODs just last year.

The John Gunther Jr. story is one she’s particularly passionate about because, she claimed, her father went to his grave wrongly blaming himself for the boy’s death. As you may have read in Gunther Sr.’s Death Be Not Proud, Gunther Jr. was brought to Dr. Gerson after he’d been given up for dead by orthodox doctors who had failed to stop the growth of a massive brain tumor. According to Gunther Sr., Gerson’s treatment stopped the tumor from growing and enabled the boy to get off his deathbed and go back to school. Everything was going well until, Gerson said in his book, he made one fatal mistake: Against his better judgment he allowed another doctor to treat young John with pituitary hormones for a case of eczema he’d developed. “Six weeks later the tumor regrew. [After he died] the disaster threw me into a deep depression,” Gerson wrote. “I almost lost the strength to continue this cancer work.”

Poor Papa. Only after Gerson’s death did the true story come out, daughter Charlotte claimed. “He took the blame—wrongly. The thing that had destroyed Johnny’s body was the experimental nitrogen-mustard chemotherapy” the conventional doctors had failed with before they gave him up to Gerson.

“Johnny was the first person my father had treated after chemotherapy, and he wasn’t aware that after chemotherapy the body is so destroyed it cannot heal. It took me more than 22 cases of healing after chemotherapy—with the same results—to find out that it’s too late then.”

And the two coffee enema deaths reported on television news?

“The news reports were very much distorted,” she declared. “It was the case of a lady who had had some chemotherapy. We didn’t want to accept her in the first place, but she begged us. The doctors had given up. She came to the clinic, and we put her on a very mild therapy so as not to reactivate the chemotherapy—we’d had bad experiences with that. She did fairly well and went home. About six weeks later she said she wasn’t doing well, her glands were growing again. We said that we would need to put her back on a very strict therapy for at least a few weeks if we could, without reactivating the chemotherapy. She thought she could do it at home, and just as we’ve discovered, the healing reactions after chemo can be very violent, very toxic. She went into a coma. Patients often get low in chlorides, their potassium and sodium levels are okay, but down in Mexico we give them an I.V. with potassium chloride to build the chlorides right up. At home there’s no doctor who knows to do this. Finally, she found a doctor, but she died in the waiting room.

“The health inspector went to her house and found she had been using coffee enemas and put that on her death certificate—‘Death by coffee enemas.’ The autopsy doctor indicated in his findings that she had widely disseminated cancer with liver metastasis, of which she died. Her husband wanted them to change the death certificate to ‘Cancer.’ But by the evening news it went out that not one patient but two or three had died of coffee enemas.

“Nothing but lies,” she said. “Half-truths and lies. Anybody is welcome to come to the clinic and see that we have a 24-hour professional staff of doctors who know how to react. They should come, talk to the doctors, talk to the patients. My father always said … ”

As we left La Gloria, neither the Captain nor any of the other cancer patient pilgrims looked excited about returning. They were respectful. Impressed. But none seemed eager to return for prolonged stretches on the enema bench.

A Tale of Two Families

We are in another part of Tijuana now, far from the jumble of streets, the tumbledown re-upholstery shops and the skeletal shells of the cars that are stripped and serviced there. We are close to the ocean, and across the broad plaza of Ernesto Contreras’s Centro Medico Del Mar we could see the sunset-singed whitecaps. Here, in what one pro-laetrile magazine calls “balmy playas del Tijuana,” we are also close to the most expensive residential district in Tijuana, immense, tastefully landscaped haciendas, the homes of many of the prosperous doctors on the Contreras clinic’s large professional staff.

The clinic is a multilevel, luxury, mall-like affair with a facade dominated by a huge tile mosaic of a heroic nude in mortal combat with a zodiaclike crab. It looks like a close contest.

Dr. Contreras has come a long way since the mid-sixties, when he moved into a small furnished apartment so he could turn his own home into a tiny hospital to treat cancer patients with laetrile. The early missionary struggles are far behind him now, but the size of an enterprise like this full-scale ultramodern hospital, clinic, pharmacy, motel complex by the sea entails other problems—problems of empire and succession, and among them, it seems, is another one of those perplexing father-son struggles that plague the prophets of cancer cures.

Jerry and Diane Green weren’t aware of any of this when they arrived in Tijuana with their leukemic child in January 1979. For the fugitive family who’d fled in disguise from court orders that their child be force-fed state-sanctioned medicine, for an earnest but innocent couple in their mid-twenties whose convictions had led them to risk their child’s future on an underground railroad ride into the unknown, the first sight of Contreras’s deluxe clinic complex, this Sloan-Kettering of the laetrile world, must have been reassuring.

And so, it seemed, was Dr. Contreras. He appeared to believe in all the holistic therapies they did, and he had the facilities to put them into practice. There were even soundproof, plush carpet, “white-noise” rooms where oceanic waves of hypnotically soothing static wash over the consciousness of tranced out cancer patients in visualization therapy as they imagine the white knights of their immune systems slaying cancer cell dragons in dream dramas.

Shelter at last from the storm, thought the Greens, a place for their child to heal. But there was something else available in this holistic heaven—the poison fruit that caused the postmortem trauma. Chemotherapy.

The basic situation was this: When three-year-old Chad arrived at Contreras’s clinic in January, his leukemia was in a state of remission. He had been taking both chemotherapy (a court-ordered treatment) and laetrile obtained from underground sources.

No one could say for sure which one had induced the blessed remission, but the Greens were eager to get Chad off chemotherapy: They saw it as only a source of suffering, not as a cure. According to them Contreras agreed to “taper off” the chemotherapy for a few months and, if Chad’s blood count and bone marrow levels remained stable, to cut it off altogether.

“He even encouraged us in our desire to take Chad off it,” Jerry Green told me when I finally reached him in his sad Nebraska exile. “He told us the story of a young girl, a similar case, he had treated eleven years ago who was still alive.”

And then, according to the Greens, there came a crucial consultation in July in which Contreras told them that their son was stable and agreed to cut off chemotherapy completely.

Then when Chad died in October, his parents, still stunned by the sudden death of their child, were further shocked to find that Contreras had held a postmortem press conference denouncing what he called their decision to cut off the chemotherapy.

In effect, Contreras was saying: Don’t blame laetrile, don’t blame me or my clinic, I warned those wayward parents against the choice they made. The resultant publicity did go beyond blaming laetrile—the Greens were singled out in their grief for going against the advice of their own doctor. One Boston newspaper referred to the parents as “this wicked couple.”

Jerry Green is still trying to figure out Contreras’s behavior. He hinted at “vested interests,” fear of the power of orthodox medical wrath, even certain “villainous influences” on Contreras, certain powers, behind the family throne the doctor couldn’t control.

As our contingent of pilgrims filed in and seated itself facing Contreras across his desk we were all struck not by the sad-eyed drooping figure who feebly gestured us welcome but rather by the dramatic life-size portrait of a young, stunningly beautiful Mexican girl arrayed in a vibrantly colored off-the-shoulder Second Empire gown.

“My wife,” Contreras said modestly, “when she was on the stage. As you can see,” he added proudly, “she has Napoleonic and Indian blood.”

Flanking this commanding vision were smaller snapshots of Contreras’s children, a daughter and two proud-looking sons. According to what I’ve been able to piece together it’s the two sons and their concern with the survival of the healing empire they stand to inherit that lie beneath Contreras’s contradictory behavior toward Chad’s family. The way I heard it Contreras sent his two sons off to the finest medical schools in Mexico City, hoping not only that they would return to stand by his side but that their obvious intelligence and sincerity would make them apostles of his cause even in the temples of the nonbelievers.

“Ernesto Jr. has been trained as an internal medical oncologist,” Contreras said proudly. “He went into the lion’s den and is winning over orthodoxy.” Others told me that the son went into the lion’s den and came out a lion, that he and the other son returned to Tijuana as converts to the temple of orthodoxy, that his allegiance was not to their father’s amygdalin therapy but to the chemotherapy and radiation the holistic movement dreaded.

What was a father to do? He’d built his empire on the faith of thousands fleeing orthodoxy in search of “a place where holistic therapy is a reality.” Yet the father’s empire is fragile if founded only on amygdalin, if subject to sudden shifts in official favor, if a case like Chad’s is allowed to “raise a stink.” What interest should the father have put first when the spotlight was focused on him by such a case—the legacy he would leave to his sons or the sensibility of Chad’s father?

Things seemed, well, melancholy in Contreras’s office late that afternoon. The doctor displayed a disarming eagerness to please, but his eyes were mournful and his drooping jowls seemed to register tremors of sadness as he spoke. I had the feeling that he was suffering from a sense that his time of glory had passed and that he envied the rise of ambitious rivals on the metabolic cancer cure scene. He spent considerable time sniping at their methods, disparaging their lack of orthodox credentials.

“They are not trained oncologists. One is an allergist. Cancer is cancer. It should be treated by people who know it, by an oncologist, like my son Ernesto who is trained in this, at a place where they know how to handle all eventualities, not at one of those little clinics.”

Contreras claimed that only at a comprehensive center like his could a patient get “the best of both worlds”—both chemotherapy and metabolic treatment, that they are not contradictory, that, in fact, he was getting exciting results combining laetrile with low-dose chemotherapy.

It was in the midst of Contreras’s unexpected hymn to low-dose chemotherapy that I decided to ask him the big question about the disputed consultation and the death of Chad. Without the slightest hesitation he repeated the account the Greens had called “bold-faced lies.” He insisted he had never agreed with their desire to stop Chad’s chemotherapy. “I told them, ‘Why don’t we keep him as it is?’ After all, there’s nothing that beats chemotherapy in childhood leukemias. Children, for some reason, tolerate it, and I won’t risk the life of a child to prove a point.”

That last little barb—the implication that the parents were out to “prove a point” about holistic therapy rather than to save their child’s life—is particularly galling to the Greens. They claimed Contreras stretched the bounds of accuracy in his autopsy of Chad to prove his own point. Contreras claimed his postmortem examination found Chad had died of “a massive involvement of leukemia.” But an autopsy by the parents’ American pathologist, Dr. Frank Raasch, found no conclusive signs the death had been caused by cancer, no conclusive cause of death at all.

The last destination would turn out to be, by far, the strangest and, for me, the most bewildering.

The Greens, with the backing of Frank Sullivan, the former chief psychologist on Contreras’s staff, claimed that Chad died because of the trauma of his state-enforced exile, that he longed so badly to return to his Massachusetts home that he just lost the will to live any longer in Tijuana, that the subtle sickness that killed him was homesickness. Sullivan even claimed that in the absence of other causes Chad’s must be called “a psychologic death.”

The Greens put it more simply. His father said, “Chad died of a broken heart.”

He and his wife are left to live with theirs. For parents in their position, fleeing orthodox medicine, faced with life or death choices for their son as soon as they cross the border, the unorthodox world, like the streets of Tijuana, offers few reliable signposts. Some are crooked, some lead to dead ends, only a few insiders know the intrigues behind the treatments, who to trust for what.

When at last we emerged into the sunset-lit plaza of the Contreras complex, gloom seemed to shadow the faces of the pilgrims in our caravan. Dr. Contreras graciously offered to show us the psychotherapy wing in the basement of the clinic—the one with the white-noise rooms. But we all declined, too depressed, too hungry. For the cancer patients it was not so much what Contreras had said in his office, it was the long walk to and from that office—the corridors lined with gleaming hospital machinery.

The Captain explained his feelings: “He seems like a fine fellow, this Contreras, but to me this was too much like a hospital. Nobody who’s been in a cancer ward likes going back, even for a visit. It was different at that woman Mildred’s establishment.” He was still clutching the brown-bagged bottle of Hoxsey tonic Mildred had slipped him two clinics ago. “She had a humanistic touch,” the Captain said.

Stone Dragons and Metabolic Technicians

We were late. It was past sunset and our last destination was a good 40 miles down the coast just north of Ensenada. That last destination would turn out to be, by far, the strangest and, for me, the most bewildering.

The new Ensenada road is an unlit, two-lane blacktop. Our caravan seemed to be the only travelers on the road after sunset. We could hear the ocean off to our right, but we couldn’t see it. In the darkness Marilyn unfolded the weird history of the place we were heading for.

She said the clinic there now—a luxurious, state-of-the-art establishment—is not the first to occupy Plaza Santa Maria, the breathtaking cliff overlooking the Pacific. Several strange and questionable health practitioners had come and gone before the present people took over.

In fact, said Marilyn, the legend goes that the site originally served as sacrificial killing grounds for the Aztecs. “Supposedly,” she said, “it’s meant to be a healing place so it can overcome the karma of its past.”

Unfortunately, this karmic realignment did not have an auspicious beginning. The first place built there was “a fabulous health resort,” Marilyn told me. But it failed. “Part of the legend,” said Marilyn, “is that the spirits that guard the place will make sure that anyone who tries to pull a shtick will fail.”

And, in fact, said Marilyn, Plaza Santa Maria has seen a succession of failed healers and clinic promoters who went a little weird. One disappeared completely. Then there was another one who arrived with a reputation for medical brilliance and took over the clinic for his version of cancer therapy.

“He’d dazzle you with this aura he had and brilliant medical talk, and then he’d whisper to some people he was a reincarnation of God or Christ and tell others that he was sent here from another galaxy.”

Marilyn thought there was merit to his therapy. “But I began hearing from people that he’d examine them and tell them that for, say, $7,000 he’d make them completely well; for $4,000 he’d get you better but not all the way, that sort of thing.”

“What happened to him?” I asked Marilyn.

“Well, he disappeared. I think he may be practicing in Ohio now.”

And the people there now?

“Kelley’s people are down there now,” Marilyn told me. Kelley’s people are the newest mass movement in the cancer cure world, perhaps the wave of the future. Kelley’s people claim they’ve treated no less than 15,000 people (although they say a fire in 1975 burned most of their records before that year).

Kelley’s system—with its ultrasonic spectograph blood analysis, its computerized diagnostic gimmicks, its metabolic subgroup typing—is the most sophisticated new synthesis of unorthodox techniques around. Some say Kelley lifted a lot from Gerson and others. But Kelley’s got his own “original shtick,” as Marilyn described it.

It’s a clever one. He believes all people can be classified as one of ten metabolic subtypes, which are sort of the astrological signs of personal biochemistry. Of course, you have to fill out Kelley’s 3,000-question questionnaire and submit it to him or one of his franchise operators to feed into his computers before you can know your sign. Along with your sign, Kelley’s computer analysis will tell you where you have undetected malignancies or are in a premalignant state and what vitamins and raw gland extracts a person of your sign need take to prevent or cure it.

“Halting malignant growth is relatively simple,” Kelley declares. All you have to do is take the approximately $400-a-month worth of supplements the Kelley computer prescribes for you—and which Kelley’s people will be happy to sell you.

Still, for all the coziness of this computer cancer cure-cum-vitamin franchise operation, Kelley’s people have had some trouble finding a safe haven for their central headquarters. Dr. Kelley started out as an orthodontist first in Fort Worth and then in Grapevine, Texas, with a theory he claims cured his own cancer and which he synthesized into “an ecological approach to the successful treatment of malignancy.” After he came up with his theory of metabolic subtypes and the computer capacity to market it, mounting controversy over his methods drove him to move his operation to Winthrop, Washington. He also tried to create a Nutritional Academy in Illinois (basically the Hamburger University for the counselor franchisees of the Kelley therapy) and still maintains an International Health Institute in Dallas.

But there were limits to what Kelley’s people could do in the United States. An invitation from the proprietor of the Plaza Santa Maria General Hospital to set up a treatment center offered Kelley’s people the chance to work with exotic substances, esoteric procedures not permitted above the border, gave them a chance to get out from behind the computer terminals and really get their hands on cancer patients. We were unaware at the time of our visit that Steve McQueen, on his own unorthodox pilgrimage, would become that very month one of those patients, that McQueen would become, for better or worse, once it became public, Kelley’s Chad.

By the time we pulled up to the high iron gates guarding the Plaza Santa Maria clinic it was nearly 10 p.m. and the sentry had to be stirred from a nap.

“Dr. Kelley here?” Marilyn called out.

“He leave today,” the sentry said.

“What about Dr. McKee,” Marilyn asked. “We called ahead; he’s expecting us.”

The sleepy sentry mumbled something that sounded like “2001.”

“Cottage 2001,” Marilyn said.

We started winding around a smooth graveled drive, and even in the darkness I could tell the place was huge. We passed what looked like a small stadium sunk in cliff rock and surmounted by some spooky stone statues. “That’s supposedly the site of the Aztec rituals,” Marilyn told me. Past their stony scrutiny we wound around through several beautifully landscaped and terraced levels of cottages. The lights were off inside them. From the sound of distant breakers below it seemed we passed near a cliff-side ocean overlook, then curved around and up to a cluster of cottages and parked by the only one with a light on inside.

We climbed out of the car, and I could make out the sound of voices and laughter inside. I could make out the number “2001” on the doorpost, and I could see shapes passing behind the curtains. A woman’s face parted the curtains, peered out and withdrew. Marilyn mounted the porch and rapped on the door.

From behind the window a man’s voice said, “We’re all off duty for the night.”

Marilyn was not one to be denied so easily.

“Is Dr. McKee in there? We spoke before. These people have come all the way from L.A.”

There was a long pause. Finally a sleepy-eyed, slightly built figure emerged.

“I’m Dr. McKee. Please lower your voices. The patients … they’re all asleep … it’s too late. We all have to be up early for rounds.”

“We came all the way,” Marilyn repeated. “These people have been looking forward to seeing the Plaza. They’ve been to all the other clinics.”

Dr. McKee—a licensed M.D. who would later be identified as the “metabolic technician” supervising Steve McQueen’s treatment and who is referred to by Kelley’s own people as “a genius” surpassing even the founder in his mastery of metabolic wizardry—gazed down at our motley crew with a certain amount of wariness. We’d clearly intruded on something. He was not pleased.

Marilyn started toward the door.

“Out there,” he hissed angrily. “We’ll do it out there. In the amphitheater. Wait outside.”

He disappeared. Several other figures appeared, stalked angrily out the door, stamped down the porch steps and into the night.

At last the good Dr. McKee emerged again and led us off on a trek to the stone amphitheater. There was a chill in the air, and not all of it was coming from the Pacific breezes.

We seated ourselves on the stone steps beneath the stars and the fierce stares of the stone statues. Dr. McKee rubbed his eyes and then—as if he’d switched on some Kelley program computer terminal that works in his sleep—he began to rattle off what kinds of things they do to patients. It was the most astonishing agglomeration of unorthodox cancer cure techniques I’d ever heard. This place was the Alice’s Restaurant of cancer clinics. You can get anything you want.

What a rap. McKee started off with some Kelley terminology about individuation of metabolic subtypes and temporal mandibular adjustments. Then he got down to the menu. In addition to the massive doses of raw gland supplements, “we’re still in the process of gathering our immunostimulants, but we can offer three different kinds of laetrile, using applied kinesiology to decide which is best for the individual patient. Then we have DMSO, GH3 from Rumania, superoxide dismutase. We have three different strengths of mistletoe extract, we’ve got the Muriana vaccine from Japan, which is a variation of BCG immunotherapy. Then, of course, we’ve got a full program of EDTA chelation, if vascular treatment is indicated. Let’s see, oh, yes, the oxidated catalysts of the Koch remedy. We have quite a bit of those.

“We also offer the virostats for viral-related diseases, lymphomas, some melanomas, also plasmaphoresis, electrophoresis. We use applied kinesiology to discover reactions, then back in the metabolic area we also have live cell therapy, which is guided by Dietmar Schildwaechter, who has experience applying live cell techniques to degenerative diseases and cancer as opposed to mere rejuvenation. We give all the cancer patients here an injection of live thymus cells and an injection of a mixture of reticuloendothelial cells. These are live fetal cells, deep-frozen and shipped under the same conditions as sperm for artificial insemination. The reticuloendothelial mixture has thymus, Kupffer cells from the liver, spleen, bone marrow, placenta and umbilical cord …. ”

Dr. McKee paused to yawn, rub his eyes and shake himself awake. “Then, of course, for crisis situations we have allopathic treatments together with supportive biological treatments. For instance, if I’m giving penicillin, I’m also giving propolis and extra thymus, extra vitamin C and replacing intestinal flora. After I finish, I give an appropriate dose of homeopathic penicillin to clear the disturbance …. We use castor oil packs to open up lymphatic drainage over, say, the axilla in breast cancer or over the liver. We have acquired a magnatherm unit, which is a radio frequency diathermy machine that functions as a form of localized hyperthermia, can heat tissue to a depth of four inches front and rear. Heating makes the tumor more sensitive to other modalities.”

Pause. Yawn.

“Pain is a situation I’m interested in dealing with more holistically down line”—Kelley people tend to use computer management jargon like “down line.” “I’d like Norm Shealy to come in and teach us all the ins and outs of his dolorology program. At present we’re using some acupuncture techniques, some neurotherapy techniques, which involve subjecting local anesthetics to dermal acupuncture, injecting procaine in trigger areas. We also have a full program of massage therapy, psychotherapeutic emotional release, and we do use surgery in some situations.”

“Is that all there is?” I was tempted to ask. Dr. McKee’s presentation is impressively slick and encyclopedic even in his sleep. And yet there was something slightly horrifying about that rapid-fire roll call of unorthodox remedies. Was there anything they wouldn’t try here?

I remember what one of the Life-Force leaders had said about “the cosmic kick” for cancer patients: “When you have cancer you can do anything.” Could it be that there’s an equivalent cosmic kick for the unorthodox doctors at a place like this—when a patient has cancer you can do anything to them. It’s a notion that might also explain some of the horrible and unsuccessful chemotherapy and radiation experiments orthodox oncologists are doing to patients north of the border.

I asked Dr. McKee how much the clinic charged. “Eight thousand dollars a month,” he said. “The live cell treatment is an optional extra—a full set of fresh live cells runs about $4,000 complete,” although you can apparently order certain organ cells a la carte.

Finally, someone asked Dr. McKee what the daily schedule for the cancer patient is at this clinic. I listened in disbelief: “They get up at seven in the morning for a coffee enema, followed by a rectal enzyme implant, followed by breakfast, followed by their intravenous. While they’re on I.V.s, I have group rounds with them, which are finished by eleven, when there’s a patient education class. “Then at one they have lunch. In the afternoon there’s chiropractic and splint-balancing classes, massage therapy, psychotherapy sessions, work with the metabolic technician on whatever’s going on. At four o’clock most of them take another coffee enema followed by another rectal enzyme implant, dinner at six, after which we have two of the metabolic technicians play music three nights a week, plus a video thing we’re developing. At 3:30 in the morning they get up and take another rectal enzyme implant, and they take oral enzymes at the same time.

“Then they’re up at seven for a coffee enema. Cancer patients stay on this schedule for an average of a month. Of course, we handle all the other degenerative diseases, arthritis, arteriosclerosis, multiple sclerosis …. ”

Midnight at the Border: Marilyn’s Dream

It was close to midnight when we left the stone dragons and the metabolic technicians in peace and started north for the border. I decided to leave it up to the Aztec gods to decide what the Kelley people were doing for the karma of the place, whether they were “pulling a shtick” as Marilyn had put it. My brain felt like it had had an enzyme implant from all the cancer cure theories it had been stuffed with in the past four days. There was one more clinic we’d been scheduled to see, a newly established rival laetrile/metabolic clinic in Tijuana. When we passed through the sleepy town at 1 a.m. the indefatigable Marilyn offered to get out and wake up everyone at that clinic and take us around, but we declined in favor of a fast border crossing.

It was a tense one, too. Not for me. I was at the wheel and merely sleepy. But for the two cancer patients in the backseat it was a matter of life and death. There had been another complicated seat switch in the caravan. Marilyn’s food chests had been transferred to her trunk for the ride back so the Captain and Renee could sit in the back. As we approached the customs booth they tried to stash their brown paper sacks containing the Hoxsey elixir bottles in some inconspicuous place amidst the empty fruit and sandwich bags.

Marilyn cautioned us that it would be a mistake to volunteer to the customs inspector that we’d been to the cancer clinics. Every time she’d done that they’d taken her out of her car, given her and the vehicle a long and thorough search.

This kind of harassment arouses Marilyn’s outrage—and her organizing instinct. She has an “I have a dream” vision of an all-out cancer patient revolt against the medical orthodoxy that drives them below the border in search of the hope it cannot offer. Marilyn thinks that cancer patients are restive, ready to coalesce into a civil rights—or terminal rights—movement, ripe for open revolt.

“My dream is,” she told me, “if each cancer patient in the world would go down to Mexico to get the medicine of his choice, then come to the border and hold up for them to see whatever it was he thought was curing him of his cancer, whether it was Hoxsey or laetrile or whatever. Held it up in full view of everyone and said, ‘You may shoot me if you like, but you’re not going to take this away from me.’ What does any one of them have to lose? If they’d only wake up to the knowledge that they are invulnerable.”

“Invulnerable?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said. “Of course. They have nothing to lose. They’ll come to the border and say, ‘If you want to take this medicine from me, you’re going to have to shoot me first. Your doctors say I’m going to die anyway, so go ahead and try to stop me.’ ”

Marilyn’s extraordinary vision reminded me of a conversation I had once with a radical lawyer who was close to the Weather Underground. He recalled that back in the days before they went under, one particularly fanatic Weatherperson was constantly urging his collective to start recruiting terminal cancer patients to the fight against the beast. “They’d make the perfect guerrilla warriors,” he’d argue. “They’ll do anything, take any risk; they have nothing to lose.”

“They’re waking up now,” Marilyn said. “Once they do, once they make that basic commitment to fight for their lives, once they realize that if they gave the disease to themselves they can take it away from themselves—it matters not what kind of therapy they try, they’ve got a chance to make it.”

Our border crossing turned out to be anticlimactic and uneventful. The customs man waved us through. However alien I felt by that time, we didn’t look like illegal aliens. The Captain and Renee sighed and reached down below their seats to reclaim the precious tonic bottles they’d stuffed down there. On the long drive back up to Laguna Hills, Marilyn fell asleep in the front seat, I struggled to stay awake behind the wheel, while in the back the Captain and Renee were pumped up by their successful Mexican mission. Clutching their tonics, they chattered away comparing notes on possible next moves.

I have set this particular down so fully, because I know not but it may be of moment to those who come after me, if they come to be brought to the same distress, and to the same manner of making their choice…


If, as Marilyn says, it’s the decision to fight one’s cancer, not the theory one fights it with, that is decisive, one still has to choose some theory; one can’t be what Marilyn calls a “shopper” forever. And so, after my marathon immersion in the cancer cure subculture, what’s this shopper’s favorite theory?

The theory that intrigues me most is less a cancer cure theory than a theory about the theories themselves, a megatheory about the phenomenon of unorthodox cancer cures. Something has to explain the anecdotal evidence, the dozens of people at the convention who told me face-to-face the stories of their cures—often by therapies with completely contradictory explanations of the disease. Something has to explain the stories told by the people on the Cancer Control Society’s White Sheet, a list of scores of people who had all different kinds of cancer and who claim to have been treated with all different kinds of unorthodox therapies. Get the White Sheet yourself and call these people up (they’ve given the CCS permission to publish their phone numbers and invite people to call). You figure it out.

The only way I can figure the phenomenon out, my megatheory, might be called the Modified False Hope Cure Theory. I picked it up from the American Cancer Society while reading their Unproven Methods of Cancer Management pamphlet. I couldn’t get over their outright concession that some quacks get “what seem to be good results.” Sure, the American Cancer Society goes on to say these good results “are often based entirely on the subjective response of the patient, which may result from the false hope instilled in him” by self-deluded cancer cure prophets.

Well, so what? Does it matter how you’re cured if you do get better? I’m willing to be gulled out of a malignancy by unorthodox healers if that’s what it takes to get rid of it when orthodox medicine gives up hope. Problem is, we run into a Catch-22 situation here. False hope cures only work if you believe they’re true cures. You can’t say to yourself, “I’m going to set out to fool myself into being cured.” You have to be fooled. But now that I know that, and now that I’ve told you, have I ruined it for us all? Can we ever again hope to be innocent beneficiaries of a false hope cure?

Fortunately, from the evidence of the cancer cure subculture, from the evidence of my journey into the Tijuana clinic scene, it seems clear that false hope springs eternal.

As long as orthodox medicine continues to fail with its fearsome and destructive therapies, there’s a role for the deluded dreamers, the biomystic visionaries, the masked microbe detectors, apricot pit alchemists, mind cure mesmerists—all who keep supplying us with theory after elaborate theory about the elusive malignant plague. Somehow the periodic transfusions of false hope the cancer cure cults supply us with serve a purpose. Some of us may need a Tijuana of the mind, a place we can retreat to, to smuggle back some illicit hope when our own world doesn’t offer much, a fertile poetics of faith and fraud to fool ourselves into fighting for our lives.

[Photo Credit: The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust c/o The Art Institute of Chicago]

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