Cancer Medicine Pseudoscience Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

Helen Lawson and black salve: Cutting, burning, and poisoning “naturally”

Cancer quacks frequently characterize conventional treatments for cancer as “cutting, poisoning, and burning.” Yet, in Australia a woman with ovarian cancer chose black salve, in essence, “cutting, poisoning, and burning” (but mostly burning and without the cutting) to treat her disease. She died a horrible death. How can black salve still be a thing.

Black salve? There was no way I was going to let this one pass.

If there is one thing about alternative medicine, it’s that no one is immune to its pseudoscientific call. No one. Education doesn’t necessarily inoculate one against it. Background doesn’t, either. The power of this sort of quackery comes through the power of story, the power of narrative. Perhaps the most powerful kind of story is the alternative cancer cure testimonial. It is, in essence, a resurrection story—or at least a salvation story. First, a person is, in essence, sentenced to death by being diagnosed with a cancer that is currently incurable. That person is lost and searching for a way to live. Eventually, the person finds an alternative medicine practitioner who says that he can help him. There is, of course, opposition. The person’s friends and family, alarmed at his choice, try to keep him from following what is in essence his new guru or prophet. Faith, however, abides, and the person is not swayed from the path of righteousness. As a result, he is healed and goes forth to preach the gospel to others.

Of course, regular readers of this blog know that the seeming “healing” in these narratives usually is not. The number of alternative medicine “testimonials” (and “testimonial” is the perfect word for them) that I’ve analyzed over the years have shown me that, when the ending of a testimonial is happy, one of two things are going on. The alternative medicine is not the cause of the good outcome, and the person giving the testimonial has misinterpreted cause and effect. This misattribution is particularly common among patients who have a tumor that can be surgically removed. The seem to forget that the surgery is what was curative and that the chemotherapy and/or radiation (which are almost always the modalities they reject in favor of quackery in these narratives) are really the “icing on the cake” in that they decrease the risk of recurrence but are not in and of themselves curative. They also don’t realize that many are “cured” with surgery alone. Indeed, this misattribution over breast cancer alternative “cures” was literally one of the first substantive posts I ever wrote for this blog, albeit in the first version of it. Another good example of this sort of story is Chris Wark, who had his colon cancer removed surgically but attributes his survival not to his surgery, but to the quackery he embraced instead of the recommended adjuvant chemotherapy.

The other explanation for these testimonials is a more tragic one. Specifically, the person giving the testimonial hasn’t died yet, but is going to. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve gone back to find out what happened to patients whose stories I investigated, only to find that they had either gotten worse or died during the time since I wrote about them.

Which brings me back to this tragic story of black salve in Australia:

Helen, 50, had shunned mainstream cancer treatment.

Her grieving family says the “bright and successful” woman had fallen under the influence of a self-described healer and hypnotherapist who told her not to undergo surgery.

Instead he allegedly prescribed an aggressive and painful treatment called black salve, which ate away at her flesh, leaving her swollen and in pain.

Dennis Wayne Jensen claimed he had cured his own brain tumour twice and had cured hundreds of others of cancer, Helen’s family says.

Her partner of 21 years, Belinda Davies, said she would drive Helen out to his North Warrandyte home on the bushy outskirts of Melbourne and watch in disbelief as he put his hands on her body, already “mutilated” from his treatment, and say he was driving out the illness.

“He put his hands on her stomach and would breathe out like he was trying to blow away the cancer, telling us that the cancer was gone, and there was only a tiny little bit still there,” Belinda said.

“And here she was so swollen and distended and just unbelievably ill.”

Helen Lawson was an emergency room nurse who developed ovarian cancer, which was diagnosed after she sought medical care after having noticed a mass in her pelvic region. Imaging studies showed a 17 cm ovarian mass thought to be almost certainly malignant, and she was scheduled for surgery. However, she canceled at the last minute after a visit to Jenson the day before she was due to go in for surgery. She came home and told her partner of her decision:

“She came home and said she wasn’t having a surgery now,” Belinda said.

“She said ‘Denn [Jensen] said the surgery is not going to work, and I’m just a number to them, and the black salve will draw out the cancer and the black salve will do what the surgeons can’t.

“I had a huge fight with her. I was just saying, ‘This is insane, give yourself a chance. For God’s sake, just give yourself a chance.’ ”

Belinda believes that Helen, an emergency department nurse at the Austin Hospital, received a recommendation for Jensen from a paramedic she worked alongside.

Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, she returned to her home with what looked like black tar all over her stomach, which eventually ate away at her flesh.

“It rots the skin away. It looks like third-degree burns,” Belinda said.

“It was just disgusting.”

That is, of course, exactly what black salve does. It burns. It’s caustic. That’s the intent. One variety of black salve is actually sold under the brand name Cansema, but black salves usually consist of primarily bloodroot extract, which isolates sanguinarine, a compound with a toxic polycyclic ammonium ion that kills cells and leaves a massive scab. Other ingredients can include zinc chloride and chapparral (creosote bush). Basically, it’s very nasty stuff, referred to as an escharotic because of how it destroys living tissue. I’ve written about black salve before, of course. It’s not for nothing that I referred to such salves as “cutting, poisoning, and burning naturally.”

Here’s the funny thing about black salve. It can, under some circumstances, actually cure smaller skin cancers. There’s nothing magical about its activity in such cases, though. It burns the skin cancer away. Basically, it’s a way of removing or destroying the cancer, but it accomplishes this in a manner that is far less elegant and precise and more disfiguring than surgery. That’s because, in addition to killing tumor cells, it kills the skin skin and tissue surrounding it as well. If you want to see the damage that black salve can do, Quackwatch has examples, and a Google Image Search for black salve

Obviously, for a cancer like Lawson’s, which was internal, black salve was not going to work. Yet, “healers” using black salve frequently claim that it can “draw out” the cancer. I suppose if that were true, then pouring acid or lye on the skin overlying a cancer could just as well “draw it out,” because that’s basically the same thing as pouring black salve on it. Tragically, and not the least bit surprisingly:

Helen was rushed to hospital on April 6 after collapsing at home, and died that night. Belinda sent Jensen a message saying that “we lost her, she was riddled with cancer”, but hasn’t spoken to him since.

There’s a blurred photo of what Lawson’s abdomen looked like after repeated treatments with black salve. Even through the blur, I could recognize the huge area of black eschar. I just don’t understand how anyone could subject herself to such disfigurement and burning, but Lawson did:

“You have never seen anything like what happened to Helen. It is so confronting,” she said.

“Literally above her pubic bone, all across her abdomen almost up to her rib cage, she was raw, mutilated bubbling flesh.”

Belinda said that within a few weeks of Helen applying the black salve the wound was so large that surgeons could not have operated even if they had wanted to.

After screaming matches in which Belinda begged Helen to go hospital, she said she gave in and focussed on trying to be there for her partner.

Here, you see the dilemma faced by all families of patients like Lawson who choose quackery instead of effective medicine to treat a life-threatening disease. What do they do? Their loved one has made a horrible choice. She’s deteriorating before their eyes, and nothing they say can change her mind.

Here’s another common trait of such stories:

As Helen became progressively sicker, Belinda said, Jensen continued to insist she had been cured.

“He promised her that she would get well and the cancer had died,” she said.

It was only in the final weeks of her life that Helen’s contact with him began to diminish, but only because Jensen was ignoring many of Helen’s increasingly desperate calls, Belinda said.

Quacks have the luxury of abandoning their patients when they aren’t doing well. Real doctors do not. It’s also very common to hear patients whose stories of quackery do come out and who don’t do well to relate stories of how their “healer” became increasingly hard to get a hold of as their condition deteriorated. Also, as the news story points out, Jensen still claims that his methods, which include not only black salve but “vitamin B-17” (a.k.a. Laetrile) as well, which is so 1970s as a cancer quackery.

Meanwhile, the Health Complaints Commissioner is investigating Jensen and has issued an interim order not to say he can cure cancer and not to provide any health service as the matter is investigated. If Jensen violates the order, he could face a large fine or up to two years in prison. He could also face a permanent ban. Of course, what I can’t figure out is how Jensen could get away with what he’s been doing for so long. Of course, I ask the same question about Stanislaw Burzynski, who’s been plying his quackery for forty years now.

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]

33 replies on “Helen Lawson and black salve: Cutting, burning, and poisoning “naturally””

“. . . but black salves usually consist of primarily bloodroot extract, which is called sanguinarine, which contains a toxic polycyclic ammonium ion that kills cells and leaves a massive scab.” That’s not correct. Blood root extract, an extract of the plant Sanguinaria canadensis, contains sanguinarine.

When I first read about this on SBM, I somehow missed that Ms Lawson had been an ER nurse. It is difficult for me to comprehend how someone with medical knowledge and training would fall for such an horrendous hoax and suffer so without seeking care. I’m gobsmacked.

I’ve pointed this out before, but I was frequently horrified by the lack of scientific understanding displayed by many of my fellow nurses and the lack of critical thinking, the lack of understanding of even basic statistics and what constitutes research and evidence, UK nursing training is very poor in these regards and I see little reason to believe that most other countries are any better.

What I don’t understand (well, there’s plenty not to understand here) is how it wouldn’t be obvious in this case that one of main claims about black salve is false – the one which says black salve destroys only cancer cells and leaves benign tissue untouched.

If the cancer is internal and healthy abdominal wall tissue is obviously being destroyed by salve application, that claim falls to pieces.

@Dangerous Bacon

I thought I read (probably here) that quacks claim that the damaged normal tissue is the cancer migrating out of the body. Though it’s difficult to see how a trained ER nurse could buy that nonsense.

@Ellie . Desperation can make even the most rational mind become erratic. At one point I was almost paralyzed from the waist down with pain (both nerve channels were pinched off at the L5/S1 level. I have spinal stenosis and I used to work in construction.) and I tried pretty much all the woo I could find (acupuncture, aromatherapy and chiro to name a few) while I was waiting for insurance to clear my surgery. In my case it was anything for some relief. I can’t even imagine where your mind goes about cancer.

I can understand desperation – lumbar stenosis here, which WILL be putting me in a wheelchair and causing incontinence because I’m very close to that now – kind of hoping lungs or kidneys kill me first.But a nurse rejecting a proving medical treatment in favor of a caustic salve, I will probably never understand. That doesn’t mean I’m unsympathetic, at all.

I know and love many nurses, all of whom are compassionate and good at their jobs, but it’s my observation that many are also surprisingly willing to accept quack nonsense. I’ve been recommended magnet therapy, drinking hydrogen peroxide, ear candling, reiki and crystal use. Perhaps the strong drive to help that makes people good nurses also makes them more susceptible/suggestible to anything that is said to help. Add to that the desperation on hearing a serious diagnosis, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that a nurse would accept this horrific treatment. The “healers” behind this are despicable.

Believe it or not, there is still an article available on Natural News ( 2013, Ethan Huff) extolling the virtues of black salve and a You Tube video ( 2011 Mike Adams) “The Greg Caton Story” : Adams supported him.

@ ChainRing:

I’ve wondered about that myself. What makes well educated professionals go woo?
Barrett at Quackwatch ventures that medical workers with less power/ decision making authority may be more susceptible.

I’ve observed anti-vax and alt med nurses on the ‘net: how do they differ from the average – who are probably repelled by woo?

Did they perhaps have a close family member who died following SBM treatment or observe many cases that failed despite great efforts by SBM? Are there personality factors that predominate beyond education and training? Is it a way to pull rank and style themselves as quasi-physicians as many woo-meisters who have even less medical credentials do?

A few years ago had a mom of a patient who told me she was a nurse and didn’t believe in germ theory. She didn’t vaccinate either. That was so bizarre. But she had done her “research” on the internet and knew the “truth”. There’s no arguing/persuading those ones, BTW.

Oh lordy. I would have been deeply tempted to tell that person to go back to wherever she got her degree and ask for her money back, because either they didn’t teach her anything or didn’t notice she hadn’t learned anything.

But now I’m terribly curious. Did she not believe that bacteria (and viruses) can cause disease, or did she believe that bacteria don’t exist?

Oh those are the fun ones. It’s like poking a bear with a sharp stick to go after them. Especially Tristan “Not a Prof” Wells.

A neurology nurse who’s an activist in a local “medical freedom”/antivax group that lobbies the legislature, claims she got onto the Perils of Vaccines after seeing a slew of patients who’d supposedly come down with Guillain-Barre syndrome after being vaccinated.

It wasn’t clear how she avoided seeing what should have been many more such cases when patients came down with infectious diseases like influenza, or with no obvious triggering mechanism.

Health professionals are not immune to confirmation bias, but I hear there’s a mandatory vaccine to prevent that in the pipeline. 🙂

“I know and love many nurses”

Lyrics from a song by Julio Iglesias?

@Christopher Hickie: I swear if I have to go into the hospital, I’m going to ask every nurse there, “How do you stand on Germ Theory.”

BTW, I wouldn’t eat food prepared by the patient’s Mom, because I wouldn’t be able to be sure she had washed her hands before handling the dinner.

Yah, I’ve had a nurse ask me if I wanted a flu shot, and when I said “not now” (I like to support the one independent pharmacist in the neighborhood), she nodded and said, “I don’t blame you,” in a fashion that suggested she thought the vaccine was Bad News.

Off point, but at first glance, I read “misattribution” as “masturbation”. In this context, I think it fits almost as well.

Wait, this guy said he cured his own brain tumor with black salve? How is that even supposed to work?

The other part of the dilemma for families is that walking away from someone in this condition because of that choice when it’s clear you can’t fight it is, well, also cruel. A really horrible dilemma. I feel for her partner.

He didn’t just cure his bran cancer, he cured it twice! Which one would have thought would raise suspicions about the effectiveness of the cure in most people’s minds.

“He didn’t just cure his bran cancer, he cured it twice! Which one would have thought would raise suspicions about the effectiveness of the cure in most people’s minds.”
Not to mention what organ he was supposed to be saving.

The local area health service I work in (in Australia) has instituted a policy that all clinical staff working in front line areas must either be vaccinated or accept redeployment to other areas that have less contact with the general population. We did have one nursing student who had refused to be vaccinated and the areas they worked in had to bend over backwards to keep them away from potentially infectious patients.

They should have just stood up straight and told them to go home and not bother coming back in.

Australia has an increasing number of laws to deal with charlatans like this. Unfortunately, they are not used nearly often enough. Firstly, there needs to be a complaint, and most patients of quack doctors do not complain, no matter how poor the “treatment” is. The practitioners have a strong tendency to blame the patient when the cure doesn’t work. The patient has not followed the regimen, didn’t believe strongly enough, doubted the cure, etc. The patients are often emotionally invested in the alternative treatment and/or the practitioner, so they believe this.

The interim order is to stop Jensen practicing on any more “patients” while the investigation proceeds. Going on his own comments and the description in the article, I think the investigation will go poorly for Jensen. It will be interesting to see what the outcome is.

Black salve for internal cancers, makes absolutely no sense at all, but many people continue to promote it. Even if they don’t sell it (wink, wink), because that would be illegal to sell it for therapeutic purposes. A petition to allow it to be used gathered nearly 17,000 signatures. Thankfully, that was ignored.

Sometimes, instead of the family trying to talk the sufferer out of quack “treatments”, it’s the family who talks the sufferer into taking quack “treatments”. My father’s best mate died of lung cancer and had no time for quackery, but he ended up forcing himself to endure severe dietary restrictions and to take multiple supplements during the last six months of his life just to applease his insistent family.

From a reader question published in an article by a “natural health advocate” who’s shown up on RI from time to time (to berate Orac & Co. for taking on ineffective and dangerous alt med remedies):

“I got a bad rash around the breast and my eyes, nose and mouth were leaking itchy stuff with the protocols and diluted black salve application. I was juicing, taking Iodine and Essiac tea and Amazon tonic III and vitamin C plus I had cut out animal products and processed foods. I take walks in the sunshine and fresh air.”

“At the time I thought it was the Iodine I had started taking or the oleandrin in the Amazon Tonic III, but now I’m guessing that because I did not do the coffee enemas with such a drastic change of diet and adding supplements my body was getting creative with ways to eliminate toxins.”

“I was getting frustrated and the lump was getting bigger so I used black salve directly applied but when I did it made a few small scabs (I wouldn’t call them eschars really) and now the lumpy area is red and raw with little craters.”

RI readers would probably advise this woman to stop harming herself with toxic “natural” remedies and get to a qualified M.D. immediately, but that’s just what the Allopathic Mafia wants.

Nice advice from the quack. “Go on on the way you have choosen and buy my products, thus making me richer. And if time passes, you will no longer be bothered with cancer, because you are in your grave.”
I really hate those people.

I wish I knew why some nurses fall into woo but over 30 years of odd colleagues and I still have no clue why. Energy healing, crazy supplements, dietary nonsense all pretty common, much more so than anti-vaccination sentiments in my limited experience.

At one nursing home I worked at several overweight nurses and nursing assistants went on some then current fad diet while drinking lots of a “dieter’s tea”. I looked at the ingredients, advised them not to use it and they all got rather ill after a week and finally stopped it.

The tea had at least one ingredient which would directly cause electrolyte problems and several which could cause diarrhea.


and several which could cause diarrhea

Somebody had to figure out how to monetize bulemia.

When my wife was struggling to breast feed, our midwife very firmly told us it was because we’d had fish and chips the night we got back from hospital. She said it was the vinegar.

With hindsight I can’t believe I actually listened to that nonsense (my PhD included a lot of geochemistry work). But, yeah, when you’re desperate and tired, you tend to believe anything when someone you perceive to be a voice of authority tells you something. I almost feel sick that I fell for that quackery.

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