Antivaccine nonsense Cancer Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Thomas Cowles twisting in the wind defending the “cancer boy” urban legend

I’m rather amused.

No, I’m very amused.

Yesterday, as you may recall, I discussed a seemingly alarming e-mail that’s going around about a 17-year-old boy with melanoma whom the State of California had allegedly removed from the custody of his mother because she and he had wanted to use “advanced natural medicine” to treat his melanoma, rather than surgery and chemotherapy. I pointed out a number of questionable elements in the story that made me very suspicious of its accuracy, not the least of which is the fact that the mainstay of melanoma treatment is surgery plus biological therapy, not chemotherapy. I also pointed out that the story was being used to raise money for an alleged “defense fund” by HealthFreedomUSA, as well as serving as a dramatic story used to push Ron Paul‘s Health Freedom Protection Act (a.k.a. Ron Paul’s bill to keep the government from interfering with the ability of quacks to practice their quackery).

I expected that my post might annoy certain people. I even allowed for the possibility that the Natural Solutions Foundation/HealthFreedomUSA might notice the traffic coming from this humble blog. Little did I know how rapidly this would happen. For, dear readers, a mere three hours after my little deconstruction of what is almost certainly an urban legend appeared, a commenter identifying himself as Thomas Cowles II, Media Director, Natural Solutions Foundation, appeared in the comments, and boy was he annoyed:

This story is not fake. If you are in contact with Abraham Cherrix, you would know that it is indeed a REAL situation. The mother AND son have been in contact with Abraham and his mother. There are now 4 attorneys on this case. I wrote this story and you really have no business “debunking” a story because of your “gut feelings”. This piece is shameful!


I love it when someone like Mr. Cowles calls something I wrote “shameful.” Of course, I based my assessment on far more than just my “gut feeling” and indeed actually enumerated the several reasons that I highly doubted the accuracy of this story in gory detail, in just the logorrheic manner that readers of this blog have come to expect. Moreover, I never claimed to have been in contact with Abraham Cherrix or his mother; so I have no idea where Mr. Cowles got that idea from. Finally, I also cannot help but note that in his first foray into my blog Mr. Cowles failed to produce even a single bit of corroborating evidence for this story. Not one. Given that I was very busy all day yesterday until late, I couldn’t show up myself to respond to Mr. Cowles, but fortunately, some of my readers did, pointing out that Mr. Cowles had not provided a shred of evidence for the story other than his statement that it is a “REAL” situation and asking for more evidence.

Undaunted, Mr. Cowles reappeared several hours later with this claim:

A press conference was held outside the courthouse on Sep 6th. The atty present was Christopher Taylor. An article appeared in 2 local newspapers prior to that date. I have not been able to find them online. Most networks were present at the press conference but the judge ordered a gag order, so they would no longer be able to run the story. The issue is the Freedom to choose. Most don’t realize that ALL chemo melonoma treatments are experimental and have a 94% failure rate. If it were you, would want the State to force you to have treatment under those odds?

A press conference? Outside “the” courthouse on September 6? An article in two local newspapers? Oddly enough, once again, Mr. Cowles seems completely unable to back up his story. But what about this lawyer named Christopher Taylor? I tried some Googling, but I could find no stories about a 17-year-old with melanoma with a lawyer named Christopher Taylor. I failed utterly. I freely admit that my failure to find the stories doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no such case (after all, it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that any news story about the case would fail to mention the name of the lawyer, particularly if that lawyer presumably held a press conference outside “the” courthouse on September 6), but if I can’t find it that way it does suggest that these two newspaper articles that Mr. Cowles cites do not exist. He could, of course, easily prove me wrong by either providing links, scanning the newspapers themselves, or providing a standard newspaper citation (newspaper title, article title, page numbers) that can be verified. He did keep the newspapers, didn’t he? If not, why not, given that he’s sent out a mass e-mail based on this story?

Mr. Cowles is also wrong about “all” chemotherapy melanoma treatments being experimental and having a 94% failure rate. I suppose it depends on what you mean by “failure” (given that chemotherapy virtually never cures metastatic melanoma, you could claim that its “failure” rate, if you’re using long term survival as your measure, is close to 100%, although it does better in terms of prolongation of survival), but there are regimens out there with response rates between 10-20% in the metastatic setting. True, that sucks, which is why we really, really need better treatments for metastatic melanoma, but it’s not a “94%” failure rate. It is also true that the NCI website states that all patients with metastatic melanoma should be considered for clinical trials, but that’s not the same thing as saying that all chemotherapy for melanoma is “experimental.” Indeed, some regimens that are acceptable include dacarbazine (DTIC) and the nitrosoureas, carmustine (BCNU) and lomustine.

However, the most hilarious response by Mr. Cowles is a truly mindnumbingly stupid example of utterly missing the point. I’ll explain. A reader named shiritai said:

Thomas, experimental treatments aren’t standard of care, so the state can’t force that on anyone. The facts given in the email don’t add up.

An excellent point. No matter how much you distrust the government, it’s hard to imagine it ever forcing an “experimental” treatment on anyone in these days of the Common Rule and IRBs. Besides, it’s not true that chemotherapy for melanoma must be experimental, although such a statement would be true if it were referring to adjuvant therapy after surgery rather than the sole therapy. Not unexpectedly, Mr. Cowles’ dubious letter didn’t specify which was the situation. In any case, in a truly fantastic example of completely missing the point, Mr. Cowles responded:

your correct. That facts don’t add up, which is why they are fighting to stop the treatment.

This was followed by a standard altie rant about the arrogance of doctors. Of course, the funny thing was that shirtai was pointing out that the elements that made up Mr. Cowle’s story of this 17-year-old as described in the e-mail were inconsistent; i.e., the “didn’t add up,” not that the story was a “fact” or that the “facts” didn’t add up. Truly, Mr. Cowles cranked up the Stupid-O-Meter to 11 before putting fingers to keyboard to respond to that.

Of course, there is one other big inconsistency that I had forgotten to mention about the story. The e-mail states that this 17-year-old was treated with “advanced natural medicine” and that it had eliminated the boy’s melanoma. Not a single shred of evidence is presented to support this claim. Indeed, this claim doesn’t even rise to the usually dubious level of an alternative medicine “testimonial,” because it’s not even a first hand story. Heck, it’s not even a second hand story, given that Cowles appears not to know the 17-year-old in question. Basically, it’s a third hand story with dubious claims.

Does all of this mean that Mr. Cowles is lying? No, not necessarily. In fact, he probably is not. He very likely truly believes that this dubiou story is true, much as many people who repeat urban legends truly believe that they are true. Mr. Cowles probably heard it somewhere and, because it confirmed his world view, particularly his distrust of “conventional” medicine, he immediately believed it and saw it as a convenient bit of propaganda for his “health freedom” crusade. Of course, when the story is challenged, as I challenged it, rather than rethinking whether he had been correct to believe the story so quickly and to look for corroborating evidence, Mr. Cowles instead becomes defensive and spouts increasingly idiotic-sounding defenses of the story. Of course, the difference between me and Mr. Cowles is that I will revise my skepticism about the story if he is able to provide me with some corroborating evidence that the story is true (particularly the melodramatic part about the mother being thrown into a “maximum security” prison). Show me verifiable evidence, and I will change my mind. Mr. Cowles, on the other hand, appears unable to do that.

As for how the story originated, it’s possible that it derived from a real story somewhere, but, through its retelling, gradually accumulated more and more–shall we say?–“dramatic” elements, most of which are inconsistent with reality. This is exactly how urban legends develop and propagate, and he who forgets that is the one who will be taken in by such stories. More importantly, before giving any money to Mr. Cowles or his organization in order to defend the mother and fight this young man’s alleged legal battle, ask for a lot more verification that this story is true and there actually is a legal battle being fought.


  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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