7, 2006, Volume 13 Nr. 51, Issue 219
Ah, the seduction of that meme:
are enchanted by a notion of the natural world that reads like
a personals ad: "loves long moonlit walks on the
as one should be realistic about Mr. Box # 4723, so should one
examine assumptions about nature.
Parasites and polio, tsunamis and tsetse flies,
volcanoes and vipers are all natural.
When we get that wistful idea of Nature, we are
thinking of nature tamed, nature nice, nature, nature under
human control. A definition of "natural" could be
inclusive of everything, but seems, in practice, usually
reserved for plants, birds and mammals and some few fishes and
rocks. That is the friendly, polished parkland of nature that
exists in the imaginings of folks who are, lucky us, mostly
isolated most of the time from the nastier realities of
Here is a fable, but based on
an actual case, to help frame my argument that
"natural" is a meme having little to do with, well,
Nature, but much to do with modern culture in the
industrialized "West" which, itself, is a
designation based not on natural geography as much as
economic and cultural distinctions.
Starchild and the Quacks, or Dying a Natural Death.
A tall, handsome young man is
dancing with Nature. It
is a masquerade, and she is flirting, cajoling, flattering the
young man in the guise of his parents, the media, countless
cyber-friends and ex-pat Americans in Tijuana (1).
They tell the prince that he is brave and noble and
holy. She dances
in his arms, her hand resting on his neck.
She holds her hand there to control his head, lest he
turn from her mesmerizing gaze and look at those he has struck
off his dance card: the
scientists, the medicine people.
When the prince gives his
speeches, he is calm and strong saying, "I used to dance
with the scientists, but it didn't work.
They almost killed me.
Now I will only dance with Nature.
I will fly in machines to the land of the sun, I will
use machines to tell the world.
And I will get better because I dance only with Nature,
and because I believe and pray and drink the essences of
plants. And if I
die, I will die healthy!"
And the people cheer for the
brave prince. And
Nature, in her beautiful mask, keeps her hand on his neck.
She does not remove her hand and, nearly unseen, her
fingers embed themselves in his flesh.
The longer the prince stays
with her, under her spell, the smaller the chance that he
could leave her and dance with another.
The medicine people still hold out bouquets of purple
periwinkle flowers (2) and beg the prince to dance, crying:
"We know the flowers are
poison. We hope
to poison Nature's hand in your throat so she lets you go. We
know this will poison you as well, but you'll probably live.
Maybe you will have scars, a limp, an injury left over
after the flowers and the lights.
We will be careful, but we won't lie.
It is a battle worthy of a man, a king, and you may
still die young. But
if you dance only with her, with Nature, you will surely die.
Her hand in your throat will grow until she is choking
you, and her deadly fingers will migrate until she has hands
all over you. And
a young man should be able to feel loving hands all over his
body, but this will be no marriage bed, no lovers'
entanglement, only the natural course of her dance. We have
seen it before, many times. You have been sheltered, dear
prince, but we have seen it, and we dread it."
The young man, proud and
determined, leans into her embrace, and Nature is what she is,
awesome and amoral.
treatment mostly sucks, sometimes cures
The prince is based on
Starchild Abraham Cherrix, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's
Lymphoma. One of
the great successes of cancer medicine is that Hodgkin's
lymphoma is no longer a killer of nearly every young person
who gets it. Today,
with relatively early diagnosis, such as it seems Cherrix had,
treatment results in a very high ten-year survival.
Cure. Yes, cure.
There are several aspects to
the story prompting various discussions of ethics and age of
consent, and, for the record, I do not think the state should
intervene to enforce medical treatment in this case but an
important angle is generally downplayed or ignored by much
media coverage and by more of the blogging.
This is the false equivalence, the fallacy about
"balanced" journalism that taints nearly every story
with culturally explosive implications: gay rights, global
heating, stem cell science, evolution.
Ignorance on the web is
pervasive, and so buckets of righteous blather is pasted onto
every discussion I have visited so far about Cherrix.
A few posters would, it is clear, have been happier if
Abraham had never used any medical treatment, but he did.
It made him sick, and it did not completely eliminate
the cancer, but it did get rid of most of it.
This situation is usually painted as "the chemo
failed", which is inaccurate.
In any case, it is likely that Abraham has a more
aggressive tumor and his chance of beating the cancer went
down to 35-70% with further medical treatment.
That all sucks. That
he got lymphoma in the first place sucks.
But pretending won't make it
better. And faith
won't make it go away. Yet
the media, for the most part, present this as a case of a kid
trying a legitimate medical alternative in his Tijuana
pilgrimage for Hoxsey juice.
The framing of Cherrix as a heroic underdog, and of the
medical doctors as villainous agents of the an evil state, is
not journalism, it is melodrama.
Self-conscious reporters practice their soulful gaze in
the mirror, pat themselves on the back and dream of Pulitzers,
satisfied that they covered all the bases:
Be sure to say Hoxsey
is "experimental", "unconventional" or
even just "alternative", and maybe let one talking
head scientist have a few seconds, edited so he sounds like a
cranky individual with his personal opinion, rather than a
voice of reason with consensus of evidence as authority.
Look concerned, furrow your brow, nod your head, don't ask
questions that may offend the boy's faith-based notions.
Be sure to say the prince is brave to fight for his rights and
so bright to have "researched" alternatives.
Indicate that smart consumers are using the internet to
find information to empower themselves in their medical care,
and hold Abraham up as a "health freedom" hero.
The journalist may consider
another aspect, such as Accurate
Information about the subject at hand, but
information is not as important as "balance",
empathy and inspiration.
If a child said he was going to
tie red ribbons around his dog and swim in pudding to cure his
lymphoma, would the media treat him this way?
If he said he researched the Hoxsey therapy by reading
rooster entrails, would the media act like he was pursuing an
informed choice? For all the deference reporters are giving
Abraham, you wouldn't know that Hoxsey has exactly the same
chance of curing him as the dog ribbons and pudding swims. And
the "research" to prove Hoxsey's efficacy is no more
useful than trying to read bird guts.
The most frequent claim in the articles and blogs I
have seen is "80% cured" Numbers are impressive
looking, but this number is meaningless (3).
Worse than meaningless.
Since "Right to Die"
was last year's hot topic on the patient pathos beat, folks
may mix it up with the Cherrix case.
But Abraham is not asking for a right to refuse all
treatment, to be allowed to die.
He believes Hoxsey will cure him.
In fact, he believes that his belief itself is part of
the cure, that if he loses faith, if he doubts or questions
the path he has chosen, that he will compromise his cure. He
echoes countless hopeful pilgrims who visit faith healers and
shrines: if I do not get better, it will be because I lost
faith, did not do the rituals properly.
Evidence of Abraham's magical
thinking, evidence against claims that he is making an
informed decision, come from his own mouth:
said he also was informed that the cancerous tumor, which is
near his windpipe, had grown since February.
said he was not surprised, "I care about it, but I
know it will get batter," he said after the test.
"If I follow the diet I'm on and have faith, it will get
teen said he also had noticed that a different tumor, in his
neck, had grown since the beginning of the year but that it
stopped growing in May, which he attributes to his alternative
treatment. (Virginian-Pilot June
10, 2006 )
And in his recent appearance on
Sean Hannity's show:
Abraham, let me ask you a very tough question. I've come to be
very impressed with you and your knowledge of your disease,
your knowledge of your situation, your seeking alternative
remedies, I think it's really admirable.
But at the end of the day if you make a wrong decision it
could result in your life.
Do you think about that?
Well, I really can't think about that, you know?
But don't you have to?
Well, there's always that possibility and, yes, you can look
at it. But if I'm going to get better I have to maintain a
No, I agree with that.
the strangest, saddest nonsense Abraham Cherrix said has been
quoted elsewhere, mostly by those who support him as a hero of
the "health freedom" movement. In late July, he said
to the Associated Press:
there's that possibility that somewhere along this line we
made a wrong decision. But you know what? If I die, I'll die
happy, and I will die healthy, and I will die in my home with
my family, not in a hospital bed, bedridden and sick."
one dies healthy from cancer.
The prevalence, even
predominance, of misinformation on cancer and cancer treatment
is appalling. Just
two very common examples:
Katie Wernecke's dad has a blog
(Katie Wernecke is another teen with Hodgkin's who is not
using medicine. Her case may be even more tragic, since she is
younger and did not have any chemo until long after diagnosis.
She was using IV Vitamin C and perhaps other things.
Then the state intervened and Katie had some
chemotherapy, but by then her cancer had progressed so much
that her chances of surviving it had dropped from 85% to 25%.
Edward Wernecke, two months ago, said his daughter's
treatment has to be kept secret now:
a condition of receiving treatments there can be no publicity
at all. That is why there has been no communication on this
website for months. We cannot tell you what we are doing or
where we are at simply because the doctors and hospital would
refuse to continue treatments. Katie's tumor grew in March but
now is receding with the new treatments. Katie is doing very
well and has 2 inch long curly hair now. (Tuesday,
May 9, 2006 at http://prayforkatie.blogspot.com)
Katie's birthday, June 11, he posted this:
government and medical establishment has lost the War on
Cancer after billions were spent on research and squandered.
You can't cure something if you don't even know the cause of
it. All you can do is treat the symptoms. Chemotherapy and
radiation are not solutions; although it seems to help a few
in the short run, the use of these does nothing but cause
cancer again. You have been lied to. The use of mammograms
will cause more breast cancer, there are safer alternative
detection methods such as thermography.
Here is a link where, within a
post about magical thinking evident in both these cases,
cancer surgeon and researcher "Orac" points out
the fallacies in Wernecke's words: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2006/06/magical_thinking_versus_
For extensive discussion of
these two cases, see Orac's Respectful Insolence at Science
young victims of alternative medicine
on Abraham Cherrix
"defense" of Abraham Cherrix and his parents?
thinking versus lymphoma
quackery over evidence-based medicine: When is a patient old
decision is in: Starchild Abraham Cherrix must have
questions for those who decry the decision in the Abraham
person expresses a common, unfounded notion:
the court's decision on Abraham Cherrix, conventional medicine
has once against proven itself to be grounded in tyranny. That
oncologists must use intimidation and the threat of arrest to
scare patients away from safer, natural treatments is a
powerful indicator of the sad state of desperation to which
the cancer industry has sunk in order to acquire paying
Tim" from the blogosphere.
If you want to find him, you are on your own; I am not
linking to folks who are earnestly, passionately wrong).
Agent Tim actually met any oncologists?
Have the people who rubbish them so really found them
to be the greedy, uncaring monsters or robotic idiots that is
too commonly thought? When
I ask for examples and evidence, nearly all I ever hear is
vague, third-hand, without actual facts or even names to back
up the attitude. I
think this vast evil cancer industry, which hides evidence of
safe and painless cures, has no more reality than the widely
believed monsters of the late 1980's and early 1990's, the
Satanic panic tales that were born of false memories elicited
by "unconventional" therapists.
Because no matter how many testimonials I hear, no one
ever shows me any of the mountains of evidence that supposedly
The Biomedical Centre is where Hoxsey's old quackery is
administered, along with some other snake oils like chelation
and laetrile. It didn't save Hoxsey.
Vincristine and Vinblastine are potent chemotherapy
drugs, derived from vinca, also called periwinkle, a common
Mildred Nelson, Hoxsey's nurse, ran the clinic in
Mexico until her death in 1999 (Harry Hoxsey died of
- betcha can't guess - cancer), and she claimed great
results, though she did not provide evidence, and her method
of prognosis was magical:
Nelson claims that about 80 percent of the cancer patients
who take her herbal treatment are cured. She believes that a
"bad attitude" is usually responsible for her
"20 percent failure rate", and that she can tell who
is going to get well and who is not from their attitude when
they first arrive at the clinic; a patient's strong belief
that the treatment is going to lead to recovery is the best
predictor of success, she says.
Quackwatch report on Unconventional Herbal Cancer Treatments)