IN her novel, The Spare Room, Helen Garner gives a fictionalised account of her friend Nicola’s struggle against terminal cancer and resulting vulnerability to those claiming to perform miracles.
Nicola travels from Sydney to stay with Helen and attend the Melbourne clinic of “Professor Theodore”, an establishment spruiking alternative cancer treatments, such as intravenous vitamin C infusions, ozone treatments, cupping and coffee enemas.
Although Garner has not confirmed it, readers, including former Victorian Health Services Commissioner Beth Wilson, have assumed the clinic in the novel is based on the Hope Clinic run by the notorious “Professor” Noel Campbell.
Campbell, a former dentist whose claim to be a professor apparently rests on an honorary title awarded by a Chinese university for his charity work, has taken a lower-key approach since an inquiry by the Health Services Commissioner found his clinic’s treatments were “either of no benefit or unproven in terms of efficacy” and that the “costs incurred by vulnerable cancer patients [were] of concern”.
“… treatments involving ‘bowel or vaginal insufflation’ and the use of enemas are seemingly ridiculous and particularly undignified for patients in a seriously ill condition,” the report said.
The Victorian Court of Appeal later found the clinic’s claims that its treatments were evidence-based and could “cure cancer, or reverse, stop or slow its progress” were deceptive and misleading.
Treatment programs could cost patients $3000 a week, court documents show.
The cost of such deceptions is not just financial.
The cruelty of unfounded promises is graphically exposed in Garner’s novel, when Nicola clings to her faith in Professor Theodore even as she reels under the impact of her advancing cancer and the appalling side effects of the clinic’s futile treatments.
It’s by no means a rare occurrence for one person’s desperate vulnerability to become another’s opportunity.
The US Food and Drug Administration(FDA) has in recent weeks taken action against 14 American companies for illegally selling more than 65 products that “fraudulently claim to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure cancer”.
The offending products include, among many others, ashwaganda, asparagus extract, burdock root, chelated boron, circulatory detox and support syrup, colostrum capsules, fermented yeast culture, Korean ginseng, kosher heart and memory formula, oliveleafqi [sic], premium flax, rerum blue, Siberian chaga mushroom extract, smokeless tobacco cancer treatment, soursop teabags, St John’s wort, whole apricot and world’s finest vitamin C powder.
Also making the list is the dangerously corrosive black salve, which I’ve written about before.
The delightfully named red clover blossoms are claimed by the retailer, the FDA says, to be “a very useful and wonderful alternative agent for counteracting scrofulous and skin disease, as an antidote to cancer, and as an efficient remedy in bronchitis and spasmodic affections”.
A cure for spasmodic affections would have to come in handy.
And then there’s Hawk Dok salve, which is apparently based on a Native American healing ointment for “comman [sic, perhaps they mean conman?] ailments such as tumours, moles, warts, skintags and other malignancies”. Happily, the salve can also remove genital warts and jock itch.
Native Americans are also said to have pioneered the use of inkberry, which has “achieved distinction in the battle to dissolves [sic] cancers and tumours”.
And then there’s lapacho (a tea made from the bark of a South American tree, apparently), which not only provides quick relief of cancer pain and “cure within 1 month in many cases”, but has been used by medical doctors to “solve” conditions including anaemia, leukaemia, lupus, inflammation of the reproductive organs, Parkinson’s disease, colitis, arteriosclerosis, gastric problems, cystitis, haemorrhages, polyps, psoriasis and eczema.
It’s disappointing to see the effects of a broken heart left off that list. The bark harvesters just aren’t trying hard enough.
When you’re dealing with quack remedies, it’s not all comedy.
The success of the shysters rests on a shaky edifice of human suffering, of financial and emotional exploitation, of false hope and, ultimately, despair.
And, while some operators do occasionally get knocked out of the game by regulators, they’re often quick to come back under a different guise and there are, in any case, always more to take their place.
Noel Campbell may have stopped making public claims about cancer cures, but he’s still using his professorial title on Twitter, where he delivers opinions on everything from Lyme’s disease, to the harmful effects of amalgam fillings, to the alleged link between vaccines and autism.
It’s hard to keep a good miracle worker down.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer.
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