Cancer Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

The story of the 17-year-old with melanoma being forced to undergo chemotherapy: Urban legend?

My recent update of my ongoing discussion of the Abraham Cherrix case reminded me that there’s a bit of alarming e-mail being sent out and forwarded far and wide. If you read it, at first glance, you will think it sounds utterly horrifying, the Abraham Cherrix and Katie Wernecke cases all rolled up into one and then placed on steroids to the point that even a maven of evidence-based medicine would have to take pause–if the story were true.

The source of the e-mail seems to be the Natural Solutions Foundation/Health Freedom USA, given all the “donate” buttons in the webpage to which I tracked this story down with a little bit of Googling, a site called Democracy in Action. Here’s how the story starts:

Dear Health Freedom Fighters:

There is a developing story from California that involves a mother with a 17 year old child who HAD melanoma. The mother, chose to go against her allopathic (conventional) doctor’s orders (to have surgery and chemotherapy) – and instead try advanced natural medicine first – since she understood that supporting the body’s ability to heal is more effective than destroying it as chemotherapy does.

Not surprisingly this approach worked! This young man is now CANCER FREE!! However, the allopathic doctor is insisting that the child must have chemotheray as well as surgery, which the mother refuses to have her child undergo. Interestingly, doctor, the allopathic doctor’s unnecessary treatments will be compensated by the insurer or state, while the holistic strategies that actually worked are not eligible for coverage.

The Department of Child Services was called and her son was taken away from her and put in foster care. The DCS claimed she failed to properly care for her child. Note here: the advanced methods which worked are being defined as “child abuse” while the doctor’s assault (which is what we call touching someone against their will) is supported by the power of the state. Is this Health Freedom?

Wow! It sounds horrific, doesn’t it? But it’s even worse than that, as the e-mail continues:

Next, the mother was put in jail for 5 days in maximum security and suffered injuries in the neck and arm from jailers. Her child is still in foster care, where he was forcibly vaccinated. Disgusted yet? It gets worse…

Yes, what could be worse than forcing an adolescent to undergo chemotherapy when he doesn’t want to? Forcibly vaccinating him, of course! In the minds of these idiotic “health freedom warriors,” there can be nothing worse than that! Obviously, I’m being sarcastic here, but, as you might imagine, this story set my skeptical antennae a-twitching for a number of reasons. Some of the reasons don’t require specific knowledge of cancer. The most obvious of these reasons is that the mother who was supposedly put in maximum security prison is not named, nor are there enough details given about the case to allow a reader to verify any of its details from a source other than a duplicate of this particular post. Other obvious red flags are the detail about the mother being placed, not just in prison, but in maximum security prison, the part about the forced vaccination, and the child being 17 years old.

No, what set my skeptical antennae into full twitch was the description of the alleged cancer patient as having melanoma. Certainly surgery is part of the treatment of melanoma. Indeed it’s the main part of the treatment of melanoma. Chemotherapy, on the other hand, is not used for melanoma very often. There’s a reason for that, and it’s because chemotherapy just isn’t all that effective against melanoma. Indeed, we sometimes say that melanoma tends to almost laugh at chemotherapy and radiation. Chemotherapy is only usually tried in cases of stage IV metastatic disease, where the standard regimens tend to have a response rate of less than 20%. As far as adjuvant therapy (therapy given after surgery to try to decrease recurrent rates), biologic therapy is the mainstay, usually in the form of high dose interferon-α or interleukin-2 (IL-2), these days almost always the former. Interferon does have significant toxicity, but it is not considered chemotherapy. It is biological therapy. Either way, whoever wrote this e-mail would have done well to do a little perusal of to find a more plausible tumor for such a “jackboot chemotherapy”-style “health freedom” scare story than melanoma.

Even though this story is totally implausible right from the get-go, let’s peruse a bit more of it, shall we? It’s very amusing as an example of an urban legend:

The case is pending in Dependency Court in Orange County where the Judge is soon to rule whether her son will be ordered to have surgery and chemotherapy.

This 17 year old near-adult does NOT want to undergo chemotherapy or surgery and was forcefully vaccinated while in state custody. We support this brave young man and his clear thinking mother in their struggle to preserve his freedom. In doing so, they are struggling to preserve ours.

We will be reporting on the result of a court decision as it unfolds, perhaps as early as later today. The mother will also be sharing her story in a follow-up email shortly. At this moment, she has been barred by the court from discussing her case publicly. Not only is her son’s Health Freedom under assault in this case, so is her Freedom of Speech.

Please forward this email widely. If a Civil Rights Attorney would be willing to advise in this matter, please reply via email.

First off, there does not appear to be any such thing as a “Dependency Court” in Orange County, California. There’s Family Court, but apparently no Dependency Court. A bunch of Googling on my part failed to find a case that is anything like this one anywhere, much less in Orange County, California. (If anyone out there lives in Southern California and knows of any story that can be independently corroborated that even remotely resembles this one, feel free to post it.)

Not surprisingly, the idiot wing of the blogosphere is credulously parroting this obviously highly dubious story, as can be seen here, here, and here (although this last one is refreshing in that a few commenters express skepticism about the story). Oh, well, no one ever accused bloggers of exercising much in the way of critical thinking, other than a small portion of it. Of course, that’s the reason that this e-mail finishes off with an appeal (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?):

The family is in desperate need of support and legal assistance. The Natural Solutions Foundation is taking this threat to our collective Health Freedom and our Freedom of Speech very seriously. The Foundation will continue to assist and are building a network of natural physicians, Constitutional lawyers and other experts to be ready to act as “amicus curiae” – Friends of the Court – in similar cases. If you can help us fund or staff our Health Freedom Posse, please reply via email. Remember that your donations key to these battles!

Of course! This e-mail is meant as a fundraiser. Never mind we still have no evidence that this story is anything more than a figment of someone’s imagination. It’s also not enough to ask for just money. This rant also has to have a political point as well:

We agree strongly with Dr. Ron Paul’s recent statement, “The government should never have the power to require immunizations or vaccinations.” If you haven’t done so, please sign the petition: Support Ron Paul’s Health Freedom Protection Act, H.R. 2117 and forward to all your family and friends to do the same!

Please do what you can to support the Natural Solution Foundation’s efforts by making a generous donation. Your generous support makes this and all of our other outreach efforts possible.

Ron Paul’s “Health Freedom Act”? Why am I not surprised? The Health Freedom Protection Act, HR 2117 loosens standards for what sorts of health claims can be made to sell supplements, and the Access to Medical Treatment Act, H.R. 746 would have the effect of legalizing a great deal of quackery under the cover of (what else?) “health freedom. Its thinly disguised real purpose is to prevent government interference with non-evidence-based medicine. Not surprisingly these bills are being supported by quacks and supporters of alternative medicine.

This “e-mail” is a beautiful example of what appears to be an urban legend. It has echos in the stories of Abraham Cherrix, Katie Wernecke, and a number of other cases in which the government tried to step in to save a child from being subjected to quackery by his or her parents. Whenever you see a story like this, particularly if no names or details are given that allow you to independently verify the story, be very skeptical. Indeed, even in cases where names are given, remember that even that is not a guarantee that the story is true. Indeed, even if a story like this is in an apparently reputable source, it is not ironclad evidence that it is not an urban legend, as I discovered to my embarrassment very early in the history of this blog.

Finally, if the story is being used to raise money or push a political agenda, that is perhaps the biggest red flag of all. Consider such stories false until proven true. That’s what I do these days, especially in the blogosphere, and I haven’t been burned nearly as badly in a very long time.


  1. The story of the 17-year-old with melanoma being forced to undergo chemotherapy: Urban legend?
  2. Thomas Cowles twisting in the wind defending the “cancer boy” urban legend
  3. An update on the youth who “cured himself” of melanoma, Chad Jessop
  4. One last update (for now) on the youth who “cured himself” of melanoma, Chad Jessop
  5. “I have seen the light! The Chad Jessop melanoma story happened. Really.”
  6. Lee Woodard on the Chad Jessop melanoma story: “Why would I promote a hoax?”


  1. Legendary Legend or Mysterious Mystery?


  1. Dear Health Freedom Fighters (September 12, 2007)
  2. The Gary Null Show 9/13/2007 (The relevant segment is at approximately the 11:45 minute mark.)
  3. Mother Jailed, Put On Trial for Curing Her Son of Melanoma (October 3, 2007)
  4. Mother Jailed, Put On Trial for Curing Her Son of Melanoma (published in the Los Angeles Free Press on 11/12/2007, PDF here)

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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