T I J U A N A, Mexico, Jan. 25, 2002 -- Ever hear of an "ozonator"? Or a "bio ray"? Or a "zapper"?
They are all devices marketed to desperate cancer patients as alternatives to mainstream treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.
Around one million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year, and studies suggest many of them try alternative therapies. In a 1998 study of 450 cancer patients in Texas, 69 percent reported using one or another form of alternative treatment.
The doctors and clinics who offer alternative therapies say they can offer hope to patients for whom traditional treatments have not worked. But critics say the alternative clinics — many of which are located in Mexico, out of U.S. jurisdiction — often exaggerate the efficacy of their unproven treatments, giving patients false hopes.
Last month, Primetime's Chris Wallace visited several alternative cancer clinics in Tijuana, Mexico with a breast cancer patient, using hidden cameras to record the doctors' claims. We then showed the tapes to Dr. Steven Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute and an expert on cutting-edge cancer treatments, to evaluate the claims.
He was appalled. "I am outraged when I see that these patients in desperate situations are being exploited," he said.
Coffee Enemas and Pressure Chambers
In Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, there are an estimated 50 clinics offering alternative cancer treatments. Catering mainly to Americans, they offer therapies ranging from electromagnetic therapy to coffee enemas and pressure chambers — for fees that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
At a clinic offering a three-week course in electromagnetic therapy for $15,000, a doctor named Jorge Cardenas explained to Primetime's patient that magnets can control cancer by changing the electric current in cell walls. Rosenberg said Cardenas's claim was "mumbo jumbo."
At another clinic, just south of Tijuana, staff showed the Primetime patient devices like a "bio ray" and an "ozonator" (the ozonator, they said, could be used either aurally or rectally), and recommended a seven-month program for $29,000.
The clinic is run by Kurt Donsbach, a chiropractor who has convictions in the United States for smuggling unapproved drugs and failing to pay income tax. Donsbach told the patient that he can cure rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis. When Primetime asked Donsbach to defend his claims in a sit-down interview, he refused.
Donsbach also told the patient something that caused Rosenberg particular concern. Referring to a treatment seen by the mainstream medical community as one of the most successful cancer treatments available, he said, "There has been no appreciable, demonstrable help from chemotherapy since its inception."
"When patients turn down treatments of known effectiveness to receive treatments that have very little chance of being of benefit, I see that as a major public heath problem," said Rosenberg.
Alternative cancer treatments are also available in the United States, and some have drawn the attention of federal regulators. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement with a Web site to stop touting its $70 product, the Zapper, as a cure for cancer and other diseases, saying there was no evidence it worked.
Treating Cancer by Inducing Comas
Another Tijuana clinic, BioPulse International, offers a $16,000, three-week course in which patients are repeatedly put into insulin-induced comas. Company president Loren Swenson told Primetime's patient that breast cancer "responds very well to this therapy." But top cancer experts say such comas do nothing to fight cancer and can actually be dangerous to patients.
Primetime contacted the families of 10 patients who had been treated at BioPulse. All of them said that the clinic's doctors gave the patients good news while they were there, suggesting that the treatment was succeeding in eradicating their cancer. However, when they came back home, nine of the 10 patients ultimately died from their cancer.
The 10th patient, a 75-year-old from San Jose, Calif., who had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, said BioPulse doctors told her their coma treatment had a 60 percent chance of helping her. After undergoing 25 comas over five weeks, she said, the doctors gave her the impression that the treatment had succeeded in eradicating her ovarian cancer. "They made it sound like the CAT scans were clear," the patient, Winifred Wiggin, told Primetime.
But when Wiggin got home her oncologist conducted new tests — and found that her cancer was still there. "My CAT scans were just where they were when I left," she said. "Nothing they had told me was the truth."
When Primetime took Wiggin down to Tijuana to confront Swenson, he said that no one at the clinic had been "out to hurt anybody" and that there were patients who had been helped by the coma therapy.
After hearing stories like Wiggin's, the Tijuana health department cracked down on the alternative cancer clinics, raiding 30 of them last year. The authorities shut down BioPulse's coma-therapy operation last February, but when Primetime visited in December, the clinic was accepting patients again.
"It's hard to believe that they could do this to so many people, and just crush their hopes," said Wiggin.