Patients warned about quack cancer therapies as B.C. company investigated
VANCOUVER (CP) - Cancer patients should be wary of bogus "cures" touted on the Internet to protect themselves from suffering a serious dent in their bank accounts and endangering their lives, doctors warn.
The advice comes after American authorities launched a lawsuit last week against a British Columbia company's "sham therapy" that cost 850 people $15,000 US each and was promoted on its Internet site and through telemarketing.
The Canadian Competition Bureau is also investigating but no charges have been laid against Cell Specific Cancer Therapy Inc., which began treating patients at a Tijuana clinic five years ago with an electromagnetic device that supposedly kills cancer cells.
People often turn to unproven and ineffective therapies because they distrust the medical establishment or because conventional cancer treatment such as radiation, chemotherapy and surgery failed to cure their disease, says Dr. Terry Polevoy, a quack-cure watchdog.
Desperate people and their families seeking alternative therapies often turn to the Internet for a world of resources.
That's where charlatans looking to profit from such easy prey take advantage of those who are willing to try just about anything.
"Stay away from the Internet," Polevoy said. "It's dangerous."
The World Wide Web contains a seemingly endless array of unregulated claims from practitioners who offer bizarre regimes and devices. One from a Canadian manufacturer claims to "zap" a cancer patient's body with a low wave of electricity to rid it of cancer-causing parasites.
Other promoters of dubious treatments say their products shrink tumours, boost the immune system and increase energy. There are herbal teas and elixirs, and various compounds including laetrile, which is made of the pits of apricots and other fruit and also contains cyanide.
Even psychic surgery, traditionally performed by shamans in the Philippines but also available in North America by visiting Filipino practitioners, has been used to "cure" cancer and other diseases.
Psychic surgery involves the removal of supposed tumours from the body through a bloody but painless and invisible "incision" in the patient's stomach. Often, chicken parts and blood have been found hidden on the mystic healers who perform such procedures.
Independent companies and practitioners often offer glowing testimonials and the promise of a cure but usually deliver only heartache to ailing people.
In the end, patients are kept from timely and tested treatments that could have saved their lives, Polevoy says.
Most of the people who underwent treatment at the B.C.-based company's clinic in Mexico were American while about 10 per cent were Canadian, according to the Canadian Competition Bureau.
While several agencies deal with health fraud in the United States, that's not the case in Canada.
Emmanuel Chabot, a Health Canada spokesman, said consumers who have concerns about the efficacy of any treatment should call the department But he conceded there's no particular agency that deals specifically with fraudulent health claims.
However, Chabot said all medical devices sold in Canada must be approved by the federal government for safety and efficacy.
Chabot suggested people also contact the Competition Bureau, which deals with deceptive business practices in general, if they have complaints about bogus health products.
While con artists use the Internet to lure vulnerable people to spend thousands of dollars on questionable and potentially dangerous treatments, some in the medical community are determined to keep track of them.
Polevoy, a former pediatrician who now runs an acne clinic in Kitchener, Ont., crusades against such practices on his Web site (www.healthwatcher.net).
The site is similar to one operated by Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist in Allentown, Penn., who exposes medical quackery on www.quackwatch.com and is vice-president of the National Council Against Health Fraud in the United States.
People should be especially leery of businesses that offer treatments at clinics in foreign countries that can be havens for fraudulent practices, Barrett says.
"People should understand that if a method really worked it would be available close to home because there's enough interest that if somebody really comes up with something and collects the data there would be a rush to the door by the scientific community to study it," he says.
"You should maintain a high level of skepticism. And don't let desperation cloud your judgment."
Anne Leis, a health psychology professor at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine, says about nine per cent of cancer patients reject orthodox treatment.
"The big concern is that people would move away from standard treatments that have proven efficacy," she says. "And also the big concern is that they would turn to treatments that . . . could hurt them."
Leis is conducting a three-year study of alternative and complementary therapies involving over 2,000 cancer patients from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
She warns patients to avoid Internet sites of companies that promote their own treatments and stick instead to those associated with reputable organizations.
Dr. Barbara Whylie, spokeswoman for the Canadian Cancer Society, says the agency respects patients' rights to make their own decisions about alternative therapies. But they should become well informed about what's involved and discuss their choices with their physician.
"They should think carefully before abandoning conventional medicine because it is more predictable and we do know more about it," says Whylie.