Defiant and Exhausted, Teens Refuse Cancer Treatments

ByLAURA OWINGS, ABC News Medical Unit

July 24, 2006 — -- As he waited alone in the hospital for his chemotherapy treatment, 16-year-old Billy Best watched the other children with cancer.

He noticed how frail they looked and how much sicker they had become since they had first entered.

Then his attention turned to his nurse, who donned unusually thick rubber gloves. He asked her why she needed such intense protection.

He was shocked by her answer: The chemo he's about to receive could burn her skin, she told him.

It was then that Billy ran away from chemotherapy, once and for all.

"I felt like I was going to die," he said, adding that he had been hit by a truck before and that the chemotherapy "was a lot like that."

That was more than a decade ago. Since then, there have been other teens who have made similar decisions, such as the currently ongoing legal case of 16-year-old Starchild "Abraham" Cherrix, who is trying to refuse cancer treatments in Virginia. On Friday, A judge said Abraham must report to a hospital by Tuesday and accept treatment that doctors deem necessary, the family's attorney said to The Associated Press.

These teens' ordeals point to the complex controversy surrounding teen cancer treatment.

While traditional medicine says that chemotherapy, radiation, and stem cell transplants are the only options available to treat cancer, there are a number of alternative treatments that some say are successful, too.

Some of these methods include diet management, electrode therapy, herbal and plant extracts, supplements, and oxygen treatments.

If an adult were to choose one of these, a physician would acknowledge that decision and uphold it, even if it meant his or her patient could die.

When a teenager wants to do the same, it can quickly become a legal battle between the teen and his doctors.

Is that fair?

Billy Best was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 16. At the advice of his physicians, he began chemotherapy immediately. Throughout the experience, Billy says he was very sick and could barely move.

The experience left him feeling so bad that he felt he would rather run away than continue the treatments.

So he did.

A month later, Billy returned home with his parents' promise that he would not have to continue the chemo.

Instead, the family came together and chose to turn to alternative therapies. This family decision prompted Billy's physicians to report his parents as unfit to the authorities.

They felt he should rely on traditional medicine -- the only medicine that, in their eyes, could cure him.

Currently, another 16-year-old boy, Abraham Cherrix, is drawing public attention to this issue.

Like Billy, Abraham also has Hodgkin's lymphoma. He completed chemotherapy and went into remission.

Though, the cancer has returned, Abraham has made it clear he doesn't want to go that route again.

"The first round of chemo almost killed me in itself. There were some nights I didn't know if I would make it," Abraham said. To go through it again "would kill me, literally. No joke about it."

He and his family researched and discussed the other cancer treatment options available.

They have chosen the Hoxsey Method, an alternative therapy.

Unlike the Bests, who didn't have to go to court, the Cherrix family is facing a legal struggle for Abraham to have a say in his health care.

It is "my responsibility to take care of my body," he said.

As a minor, he lacks the legal authority to make such decisions. Whether that is fair or not depends on whom you ask.

"Teenagers don't really have the full capacity to understand the broader picture, " said Kara Kelly, a pediatric oncologist at Columbia University.

She worries that teens don't realize the consequences of their decision and if alternative therapy doesn't work, they could be putting their lives at risk.

A number of studies show "adolescents have some difficulty understanding the finality of death," said University of Florida professor of psychology Jay Reeve. This could, in turn, "impact the ability to make well-balanced life or death decisions."

Raymond De Vries, a member of the bioethics program at the University of Michigan, has a different view.

In his opinion, some young people do have the ability to make responsible decisions about their bodies.

What should be done in Abraham's situation, according to De Vries, is instead of only considering the boy's age, authorities should assess how well he understands his decision and whether he understands the consequences.

Cases like this sometimes boil down to power and authority, De Vries said.

It is a "challenge to [the doctor's] authority when you go away from their suggestion. Their immediate response is, 'No,'" De Vries said.

Kelly agrees.

"Some doctors alienate patients in their beliefs, say there is no data, no science and dismiss it [alternative medicine.]"

It is very important for doctors to acknowledge a patient's belief system, and she says, "see if some kind of compromise could be worked out so alternative beliefs can be supported."

In the end, many experts say, it isn't age or authority that matters, but the ability of doctors and patients to come together and battle cancer as a team.

According to Kelly, "there is nothing that has been proven more successful than chemotherapy," but alternative medicine can be used to support a patient.

She says, "If people believe it helps them, maybe it will help conventional therapies to work better."

Best is now 28 and cancer free. His family was lucky. The case against the Bests was dropped and Billy was allowed to follow his chosen alternative therapy. He has not experienced any return of cancer.

"What helped me was learning there are other therapies out there. I never knew there were other options, he said."

He also says the positive change in his mood helped him get better.

"I felt good about what I was doing, I was taking part in my own treatment."

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