Tijuana’s Alternative Cancer Treatments: Warnings and Side Effects
February 2, 2017
This fall, mere days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I did something possibly inadvisable: I got on a bus and headed into Mexico. I was tempted to stop everyone I saw at the border and tell them that I didn’t vote for the guy who wants to build a wall between my country and theirs. But knowing that they were busy and probably not terribly interested in my political leanings, I kept my mouth shut and walked through the metal detectors. Everything turned out fine.
I was there to take a tour of alternative cancer treatments in Tijuana, as a guest of an American nonprofit called the Cancer Control Society. My boyfriend, Drew, had found a leaflet for the tour at a health food store and handed it to me: “This looks like a thing you’d do.”
He was right. A couple of months later, my podcast cohost, Ross, and I had paid $100 each and were on a bus headed to Tijuana to hear about the latest and greatest cancer treatments which the United States has either rejected or not yet approved.
Frank Cousineau, the tour leader and president of the Cancer Control Society, stood at the helm of the bus, reading from one of about three dozen brochures and printouts he had given each passenger. They ranged from ads for medical devices to tabloid news about new cancer findings. There were so many recurring buzz words, I felt as if we had been submerged in a new religion, with its unique insular language: Laetrile, Amygdalin, hyperthermia, Gerson Therapy, Hoxsey Therapy, Virotherapy, Rigvir. To be fair, suddenly landing in the middle of a medical school class would probably feel the same way, but this tour was supposed to be for ordinary people, not experts.
Cousineau said that his own mother had died of breast cancer, but that her treatments in Mexico had prolonged her life dramatically in a way that conventional medicine in the United States could not. He would take us to the clinic that had treated his mother, Oasis of Hope, along with three others. We wouldn’t be visiting some of the clinics that offered the therapies I was most familiar with: Hoxsey Treatment (in which a dangerous herbal salve burns the tissue off the skin), and Burzynski’s “antineoplaston” treatment (which has never been proven to work). Instead, we would be treated to some of the newer and more inventive procedures that dominate Mexico’s alternative medicine field today.
Most of the clinics see patients who have tried conventional treatments in the United States or elsewhere, and, feeling that they have been failed, come to Mexico for more “natural” treatments. For the most part, each center offers variations on the same therapies. A patient at any of these clinics would most likely endure several hyperthermia treatments, where the body is heated to as much as 113 degrees Fahrenheit, in an effort to simulate a fever. In the United States, hyperthermia is not widely available as a treatment because it is still being studied in clinical trials. Some offer specialized “vaccines” meant to attack the cancer with the patient’s own body chemistry. Patients will also receive organic, whole food diets that are thought to cleanse the system. Some of the clinics are extremely specific about this, making the diets almost entirely vegan, or putting them on diets which wildly swing from all-fruit to meat-based, “so that the cancer is always guessing,” and so on. And then there’s the apricot seeds.
Everywhere we went, they were talking about the apricot seeds. Apricots contain Amygdalin, which the National Cancer Institute calls “a chemical ingredient found in the pits of many fruits, raw nuts, and plants.” According to the Institute, when Amygdalin breaks down, it becomes Hydrogen cyanide (yes, the poison), which some people think curbs cancer growth. However, the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Health both conclude that there is no evidence that apricot seeds will help your cancer. In fact, if you take enough, it could send you to the hospital with liver toxicity. Yet, our tour guide continued to advise that we each take the kernels daily, and simply stop if we felt “too lightheaded.”
The biggest shock came at our final clinic of the day: the Hope4Cancer Institute. Dr. Antonio Jimenez (a.k.a. “Dr. Tony”) runs the place, and hosted our group for a lavish vegetarian feast and a PowerPoint presentation on his services. While one of the other doctors had stood out for advising caution against cocksure sales pitches for proprietary treatments, Jimenez served up exactly that. Among his patented treatments was one that stood at as particularly suspicious to me called Photo-Dynamic Therapy, which supposedly uses light and sound to “destroy [patient’s] cancer cells without causing side effects.” As Dr. Jimenez continued with his PowerPoint, he described why cancer is so powerful: it corrals other cells to join in its deadly attack, communicating its agenda with them.
“They talk to each other,” he said.
In anyone else’s mouth, I would suspect this metaphor to be just that—a metaphor, but I had begun to doubt that Dr. Tony had his wits about him. I wanted to ask him if he meant that cells literally communicate, with words. I passed a note to Ross.
“Do you think he means cells literally talk to each other?”
“I assume it’s symbolic, but who knows,” Ross wrote back.
“I think I’ve already pissed him off,” I replied. I had already asked him a few hard-hitting questions. “Would you ask?”
Ross raised his hand, asked a couple of questions of his own, and then bravely broached my question for me.
“You mentioned these cells talking to each other,” Ross laughed gamely, “Now, did you… you didn’t mean that literally did you?” he said, apologetically.
“Yes,” Dr. Jimenez replied stoically. “Literally.”
“Wait,” I called out. “Do you mean they have a brain?”
“Yes,” he said, then stopped, stared, and waited for a response that did not come.
The room fell silent. A few people looked at me and Ross in disgust.
“Okay,” said Dr. Jimenez, “moving on.”
He continued his slide show, which ended in a Bible verse about how God wants us all to be healed. We shuffled out the front door into the dark Tijuana night and boarded our bus back to the United States.
As we took the long ride home, I looked at Penny, a 31-year-old woman with stage four breast cancer in a pink flowered dress. She was desperate for anything that might save her life, and the unproven treatments of Tijuana offered her a hope she couldn’t find at home. But that hope was almost certainly a false one, and the treatments would cost her anywhere from $27,000 to $46,000, based on the doctors’ estimates.
The incoming President had already announced that, once in power, he would require two regulatory cuts for every new regulation (he followed through this Monday); and was considering a new FDA chief, Jim O’Neill, who would not require that drugs work in order to be sold in the United States (as of this writing, O’Neill is still in the running). It is not hard to imagine that the empty hope offered in Tijuana will creep over the border soon, and that without the regulatory assurance of a strong FDA, ordinary Americans will not be able to tell an effective treatment from an ineffective one. Who knows how many lives could be threatened by such a development.
When I came home, my boyfriend, who originally found the flier, greeted me.
“How was it?” he asked. Then he saw my face. “Was it sad?”