Cancer Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Magical thinking versus lymphoma

I’ve written several times about two young victims of what is normally a highly treatable cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and how, with their parents’ support, they have jeopardized their lives by choosing alternative therapies. The first, Katie Wernecke, was initially taken from her family by the State of Texas, but her parents ultimately won a court battle and took her out of the state for altie treatment with vitamin C infusions. Presently, she is somewhere out of state receiving some unknown treatment that, according to her father, he cannot disclose or the doctors will no longer treat her. The second, Starchild Abraham Cherrix, refused treatment after his first round of chemotherapy and, when last I mentioned him, was planning to go to a clinic in Tijuana to put his life in the hands of quacks administering the Hoxsey treatment.

Sadly, it looks as though one of them is losing his battle, as his tumors continue to grow:

NORFOLK – The cancer has grown.

That’s the message a 16-year-old boy from the Eastern Shore received from court-ordered X-rays at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters on Friday to assess cancer he was diagnosed with last summer.

The news was not surprising, according to Abraham Cherrix, who said he would keep battling his Hodgkin’s disease with the help of an alternative medicine doctor in Tijuana, Mexico.

The Chincoteague boy and his parents have been fighting in court to continue the treatment despite a request from the Accomack County Department of Social Services that Abraham be forced to return to more conventional therapies.

Abraham went through one round of chemotherapy at CHKD last fall shortly after he was diagnosed with the lymphatic cancer. An oncologist there discovered the cancer was still active in February and recommended another round of chemo, plus radiation treatment.

Hodgkin’s disease, a lymphatic cancer, is highly treatable and has a five-year survival rate of 80 percent or better, depending on the stage the disease is in when detected.

However, Abraham, who lives with his parents and four siblings, did not want more treatment at the hospital. The first round had made him nauseated, feverish and tired. He thought the effects of another round of chemo, plus the health risks associated with radiation treatment, would be too great.

Of course the tumors grew! The Hoxsey treatment doesn’t work! He might as well just do nothing; he’d get the same result. Every month Abraham doesn’t get the treatment he needs makes it less likely that conventional medicine will any longer be able to help him.

But I don’t want to dwell on this depressing development. I”m actually more interested in focusing in on one aspect of this latest update, namely the magical thinking that leads to an amazing double standard among adherents when it comes to alternative medicine:

Abraham said he also was informed that the cancerous tumor, which is near his windpipe , had grown since February.

Abraham said he was not surprised. “I care about it, but I know it will get better,” he said after the test. “If I follow the diet I’m on and have faith, it will get better.”

The teen said he also had noticed that a different tumor, in his neck, had grown since the beginning of the year but that it stopped growing in May, which he attributes to his alternative treatment.

Notice that the Cherrixes quickly abandoned conventional therapy when one regimen of chemotherapy failed to completely eradicate his lymphoma, necessitating more chemotherapy and the addition of radiation. In contrast, in this case, not only did his tumors fail to shrink, but they continued to grow while he was on the Hoxsey treatment. So, when confronted with unequivocal evidence that the Hoxsey treatment is not eradicating his tumors and that they are continuing to grow, what does Abraham do? He makes excuses for the treatment’s utter failure thus far and sticks with it. Only magical thinking can explain this. Certainly no hard-headed rational evaluation of the facts could. And, indeed, his statement that if he follows the treatment and “has faith,” everything will turn out all right is surely as magical as anything I’ve yet heard. (Whatever happened to “God helps those who help themselves”?) Clearly, he gets it from his parents, as his father Jay Cherrix makes similar excuses:

Jay Cherrix said the doctors gave the family copies of the X-rays so they can take them to Abraham’s doctor in Tijuana. Jay Cherrix said that visit will include blood tests and an exam that should tell them more about the cancer.

He said he still believes in the route Abraham has chosen for himself.

“Cancer is a serious disease, and it takes time to rid yourself of it,” Jay Cherrix said. “It can go either way.”

What that it were so! Unfortunately, unless rationality overcomes this magical thinking, there is really only one way this can go.

I note that this article happens to be a couple of weeks old. Abraham was supposed to go to Tijuana in the middle of June, but I have not been able to find out what happened. However, he is supposed to be in court again on June 29; so I’ll keep an eye out for reports after that. Whatever hope there is, however, is rapidly fading, and, although I dread it, I expect to see Abraham’s obituary sometime in the next year or two.

In the meantime, Katie Wernecke’s parents are also demonstrating their own brand of magical thinking. On their family blog Pray for Katie, they describe Katie’s celebrating her 14th birthday:

On June 11th Katie celebrated her 14th birthday at home with family and friends. Katie is 2nd from right in the pool picture below. The picture on the left is Katie with her father. Katie is doing very well as you can see but she is not cancer free yet so there is still a battle to win. She is in better physical condition than ever. Contrary to reports we are not in hiding or getting some secret treatments. It is just unknown to the press.

First off, note how Katie’s father glosses over the fact that Katie’s cancer is still there, despite all the vitamin C treatments and despite all the other treatments that he’s said that he can’t reveal for fear of the doctors refusing further treatment. Although Katie doesn’t look bad in the pictures shown, she certainly doesn’t exactly look completely healthy, either, particularly in the first picture. Indeed, I seriously doubt that what I see now in those pictures represents Katie in “better physical condition than ever.” Second, Ed Wernecke forgets to mention why Katie’s treatment is “unknown to the press.” It’s because he won’t tell them and, presumably, he’s being secretive about where he’s taking her for “treatment,” making it more trouble than it’s worth to them to find out. After all, he himself has said that he can’t tell them for fear that the doctors will refuse to treat her anymore. It’s enough to break your heart to watch this story from the sidelines, utterly unable to reverse the harm such irrationality is causing to these two young cancer victims.

But his magical thinking goes even further than that:

Our government and medical establishment has lost the War on Cancer after billions were spent on research and squandered. You can’t cure something if you don’t even know the cause of it. All you can do is treat the symptoms. Chemotherapy and radiation are not solutions; although it seems to help a few in the short run, the use of these does nothing but cause cancer again. You have been lied to. The use of mamograms will cause more breast cancer, there are safer alternative detection methods such as thermography.

Shades of Kevin Trudeau!

First off, it’s utterly incorrect that the use of mammograms “cause more breast cancer.” The dosage used is very low, and the value of early detection far outweighs the infitessimally increased risk of cancer from yearly mammography. Heck, if he’s that worried about radiation exposure, I hope he doesn’t take cross-country flights at all or live near areas where environmental exposures are higher than in most areas, such as the northeast region of Washington State. Moreover, thermography is an unproven technology that, contrary to the claims of its backers, is not superior to mammography. It’s not even close. Second, while it’s true that second malignancies can be a problem in children treated for childhood cancers like Hodgkin’s disease, forty years ago Hodgkin’s disease was a virtual death sentence. Consequently, no one survived long enough to get the complication of second malignancies. In a calculating risk-benefit ratio, the relatively small risk of secondary malignancies is massively outweighed by the benefit of surviving a disease that otherwise would have killed you, and the vast majority of survivors of childhood cancer treatment or treatments for other malignancies do not get secondary malignancies related to their treatment. Mr. Wernecke seems to think that it’s possible to produce a treatment for cancer without risks. Maybe it is. Someday. But such a treatment does not yet exist.

It’s magical thinking again, the same magical thinking that led the Werneckes to abandon conventional medicine and put their daughter in the hands of doctors who, according to Katie’s own father, are likely to abandon their Hippocratic Oath if he reveals what treatment it is that Katie is getting. It’s the same sort of skewed thinking that Abraham demonstrated when he refused a CT scan because of fear of the radiation, when a cancer is ravaging his body and the tiny amount of radiation he would get from the scan would make no difference in that outcome. He is afraid of a very tiny risk (that of a secondary malignancy from the radiation from a CT) and oblivious to a very acute, life threatening risk (the risk of death from his essentially untreated lymphoma). The fact is, if he doesn’t get his cancer treated properly, he won’t live long enough to have that tiny chance of developing a malignancy from the amall amount of radiation from a single CT scan, but magical thinking won’t let him see that. The same magical thinking seems to spiral outward from such people, leading them to set up legal defense funds for Abraham or to compare conventional cancer treatment to “Geneva Convention-levels of torture” while setting up straw men and knocking them down as “arguments” against conventional medicine.

Sadly, the problem with magical thinking is that, no matter how strong it is for how long, reality is always stronger. I’m afraid that reality is finally rapidly catching up with both Abraham and Katie, and I’m finding it hard to bear to look anymore. Indeed, I may have to turn off my Google Alerts on these two; I’m not sure how I’ll react when the inevitable news of their deaths shows up in my in box.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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