Chilling and Sad

Radley Balko, who I tend to agree with, has posted what he considers a chilling story. Here is the story in a nutshell, a young man, 16 years old, has Hodgkin’s disease and is undergoing a junk science treatment at a clinic in Mexico. The child welfare agency intervened and got a judge to force the kid to undergo chemotherapy (i.e. the non-quack therapy).

Of course, it is tragic when somebody wants to do something like take an herbal tonic, eat only organic food and no sugar thinking it will somehow cure the Hodgkin’s disease. The reality is that such a treatment will almost surely kill this kid. But, at the same time I think one should be allowed to make these decisions.

Where I do disagree with Balko is in this paragraph,

But this one seems pretty clear-cut. This kid, his parents, and several doctors think another round of chemo could well kill him. But because the state’s doctors think otherwise, they’ve made him a ward of the state. Really, really troubling.

What doctors? No doctor was mentioned in the story asserting that the kid could die of chemotherapy. Was it somebody at this quack clinic in Mexico? Probably. So far in all the news accounts on this I’ve read the clinic in Mexico is un-named, probably at the request of the clinic. This isn’t unsurprising as quacks who push these kinds of nonsense cures often locate in Mexico as a way of avoiding oversight by agencies like the FDA.

Orac reports on a similar case where a young girl with Hodgkin’s disease is going to undergo “vitamin C therapy”.

This news report indicates that Hodgkin’s disease is “very treatable”.

Hodgkin’s disease is considered very treatable through conventional means and has a five-year survival rate of at least 80 percent, according to the Lymphoma Information Network.

The treatment that Cherrix was undergoing is called the Hoxsey treatment and doesn’t appear to do much good.

In 1957, a committee of faculty members of the University of British Columbia conducted a review of the Hoxsey treatment and facilities (582). After visiting Hoxsey’s Dallas clinic, the committee described the overall treatment regimen, along with various other aspects of the treatment (the history of the treatment, Hoxsey’s claims for efficacy, and the history of Hoxsey’s litigation concerning the treatment). They were particularly interested in following up on patients from British Columbia who were treated at the clinic. The clinic gave the committee members records for 78 patients from their “active” files (unbeknownst to the clinic, however, some of these patients had died). The committee was able to follow up on 71 of these patients, using British Columbia’s cancer registry, death registry, and physician records. Their detailed findings were summarized as follows:

For over one-half of the [cancer] patients from British Columbia, the result [of treatment with the Hoxsey method] has been either death or progression of the disease. In nearly one-quarter there was no proof that the patient ever had cancer. Nearly one in ten of the patients had curative treatment before going to the Hoxsey Clinic. In only one case, an external cancer, was there any evidence at all that the Hoxsey treatment had an effect on the disease; in that case, better results could have been obtained by orthodox means (582).

The latter case to which they refer reportedly involved a woman with a “slow-growing cancer of the ear” who refused surgery and was treated with one of Hoxsey’s external treatments. The committee reported that the treatment “did, in fact, remove the cancerous growth, along with a good deal of normal tissue.” It did so “with needless pain and disfigurement,” given that it could have been treated with radiation or surgery, in the committee’s opinion (582). They also reported that of the 32 patients who died, “two-thirds were dead in less than six months, 90 per cent were dead within a year, and none survived two years” (582).–emphasis added

And here is the American Cancer Society’s page on the Hoxsey treatment. What is truly ironic is this part about complications of the Hoxsey treatement,

Some of the ingredients in the internal formula, such as buckthorn, can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anxiety, and trembling. Cascara can also cause diarrhea. Pokeweed is a poisonous plant that can also cause undesirable side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and heart block, and has caused deaths in children. Red clover may increase the risk of bleeding for people who take anticoagulants (blood thinners). It also has estrogen-like activity, which means it should be avoided by women with estrogen-positive breast tumors.

Cherrix does not want to undergo chemotherapy because it made him feel ill, so he’ll take an herbal tonic that will make him feel ill.

So this story is not only chilling it is also sad. The idea that the government can force treatments on people who do not want them (and do not have dangerous and communicable diseases) is disturbing. If the government can determine that something is good for an individual and compell that individual to engage in that activity even against their will, what is the point of having freedom? But if we let people have the freedom to make choices then some will undoubtedly be drawn into these snake-oil cures and end up dying.

Update: In comments Steve Plunk points out the age of the study quoted above about the Hoxsey treatment and notes that it is out of date, and hence something more recent could show the treatement is more efficacious. The only problem is that to the best of my knowledge there is nothing more recent and the most likely reason for this is that Hoxsey and his nurse/successor have not provided that data to make a more recent study possible. So while Plunk might be right, we’ll never know because either the kind of data necessary is not retained by the clinic or they are not making it available.

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Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. I’ve been commenting a bit on this elsewhere.

    What has been overlooked in most places is the idea that the child has been made a ward of the state, and the parents called negligent, because they allowed a SIXTEEN year old boy to choose his own treatment option.

    What magic will occur in the next two years that will suddenly render him capable of making this decision?

    If he had SHOT his parents because they refused to let him try his alternative treatment, wouldn’t we be likely to prosecute him as an adult?

    So why can’t we let him choose his treatment like an adult?

    I agree with your estimation: people should be able to make these decisions themselves. But on top of this, we need to stop punishing *parents* when their children make “bad” decisions.

  2. Steven Plunk says:

    I noticed the U of BC study was from 1957. I believe a great number of advances have been made in many areas of medicine since that time. I’m not vouching for this treatment just pointing out that when it suits the medical establishment they will use whatever they can to discredit alternate treatments, even if is a study almost fifty years old.

    The attack upon liberty in this case is simply appalling. I doubt it would have made it into the courts a generation ago but now we accept the nanny state and it’s great benevolence. One day it will be our liberty that is under threat from that benevolence.

  3. Steve Verdon says:


    There is nothing more recent because Hoxsey and his nurse successor have not made any data available for study. To study stuff like this many doctors would object since there is little to no medicinal value to the herbal components to the tonic. As for the external paste it has been shown to be painful and injurious compared to orthodox techniques.

    So don’t go blaming the “medical establishment” but instead the purveyors of this snake oil.

  4. Phil Smith says:

    In addition to the previous argument for allowing a 16 year old to make his own medical decisions, consider:

    The judge also found Starchild Abraham Cherrix’s parents were neglectful for allowing him to pursue alternative treatment of a sugar-free, organic diet and herbal supplements supervised by a clinic in Mexico, lawyer John Stepanovich said.

    Would you trust someone to make healthcare decisions for you when they had named you “Starchild”?

  5. Steve Verdon says:

    Well no…I’d probably be tried as an adult of killing my parents for saddling me with that name.[/black humor mode]

  6. Steven Plunk says:

    Steve V.,

    I am not blaming the medical establishment for anything but relying on outdated studies to justify their own positions. I am sure the alternative treatment is suspect but I would prefer my science to follow a certain scientific rigor that is lacking here. I just wanted to point out the weakness in the argument.

    Many if not most or all of these alternative treatments are used to separate the patient from his or her money. But many accepted treatments do the same thing while offering about the same amount of hope or real results. If you are dying of cancer and traditional medicine is not helping who are we to tell you what you can try elsewhere? Why should doctors subject to oversight by the AMA be allowed to lobby against alternative medicine? If we make that step should we also ban chiropractic medicine?

    The slippery slope is real and we should recognize the entrenched interests. That doesn’t mean we ignore doctors but we have to keep what they say in the context of the real world.

    For whatever reason this person decided it would be worthwhile to get this treatment and if gives hope to him and his family then their choice has some justification. If it is all quackery then let the facts convince others to stay away. Regardless, it is their choice not ours.

  7. vnjagvet says:

    In matters like this, I believe, the real question is not what decisions are made, but who has the power to make them.

    As an attorney who has practiced over 40 years, I respect our legal system for resolving most disputes. But so long as I am in possession of my mental faculties, I do not believe it should have the power to tell me what is the best medical care for me or anyone for whom I am responsible. That smacks of forced medical care which seems outside the proper realm of government.

    I believe that there are simply some decisions that are outside the government’s jurisdiction, and this is one of them.

  8. Steve Verdon says:


    They can only work with what the Hoxsey people send them, and what they’ve sent has been zero for a long time now. Your issue is with the Hoxsey people, not the medical establishment. I don’t know how else to put this…the lack of data is in no way the fault/problem of medical establishment.

    As for the choice, issue I agree that if a person wants to do something idiotic that will likely get them killed, so long as others are not put in danger, then let them. There is nothing in my post that supports you assertions to the contrary.

  9. Ruth says:

    What the critics of alternative medicine fail to understand is that our bodies are capable of fighting off most if not all diseases if given the proper support.

    I am facing a similar choice in treatment with a recent breast cancer diagnosis and I have reviewed the “standard” treatments available and the only one I will agree to is lumpectomy. I do NOT want toxic chemicals (the equivalent of napalm inside the body) or radiation (increased rate of new cancers AFTER treatment – no thanks). We are told by the medical professionals that radiation causes cancer , yet they turn around and try to sell us on radiation as a CURE for cancer.

    I’ve got news for everyone – the standard treatment of cancer is not a CURE any more than cutting off an arm is a cure for an infection in that arm. They just kill the cells that are misbehaving without really fixing the underlying condition that created the cancer.

    Alternative medicine and nutritional support treat the underlying cause of cancer. In advanced cases of cancer, I agree that sometimes drastic measures need to be taken to turn it around but anything that harms the immune system is NOT the right thing to do.

    Abraham Cherrix went with the standard treatments for one round already and it didn’t work. The lymphoma returned. Now he wants to try without killing his immune system and he has every right to do that. For doctors (and yes the doctors were the ones who REPORTED it to CPS) to *force* any particular kind of treatment on *anyone* is bordering on the kind of society I don’t want to live in.