Scared to death

Frightened because she thought she had breast cancer, a Charleroi woman treated herself with useless potions and therapies

Tuesday, December 07, 1999

By Ellen Mazo
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Erika Zelem was a smart woman. She had a master's degree in counseling and had a private practice working with bereaved, chronically ill, elderly and adolescent clients. She wasn't a stranger to inner suffering and stress.

  Erika Zelem believed a California company's promise that it could diagnose based on this Polaroid photograph of her.

But when she discovered a lump on her right breast in October 1990, she became terrified. She had lost her other breast to cancer 15 years earlier. She didn't want to go through the disfiguring surgery again.

So the Charleroi woman turned to mail-order practitioners who sold her thousands of dollars of products to rid her body of the poisons and the parasites they said were invading her system.

She swallowed parsley, carrot and celery juices. She rubbed her body with aloe vera creams. She bought one machine that zapped her with electrical currents. She spent $1,200 on another that produced water bubbles that were supposed to make her feel better.

Her sister, her mother and other relatives begged her to see a doctor. They made appointments. Zelem canceled them.

"I would watch my aunt swing a chain because a woman in California told her that its movement would tell her what herbs she should take," said her niece, Jennifer Stile. "It was like giving her a death sentence. She listened because she was desperate."

Zelem died on Sept. 9. She was 54.

Her family knew she was in intense pain, but didn't realize the extent of her overwhelming fear and despair until after her death, when they found her notebooks. Over the last year and a half of her life, Zelem had outlined the increasing pain that pierced her body, the treatments that she gave herself and her refusal to get medical help.

They also found thousands of dollars worth of canceled checks to people and companies across the country for mechanical devices, herbal combinations and purified waters.

"These people took advantage of someone who was scared," said Zelem's older sister, Alix Garlitz, who's also from Charleroi. "They played on her fears. At one point they had her putting cabbage and potatoes on her breast. They said that helped pull the poisons out of her body. One person told her that cancer was a symptom."

Garlitz, 57, said the family had accepted Zelem's death. "Then, when I saw what she had paid, and for what, I didn't know what to think," she said. "And when I read her diaries, I see how much pain she was in, for so long. My sister is in pain, and she's taking cleansing agents and zapping herself with electrical currents."

Local doctors who are becoming increasingly involved with alternative, or complementary medicine, are frustrated over the growing accessibility of unregulated products hawked by charlatans who promise impossible cures.

"The saddest thing in our society is knowing there are people out there taking advantage of others," said Dr. Paul Lebovitz, medical director of Allegheny General Hospital's Center for Digestive Health.

He partly blames traditional caregivers who dismiss anything other than Western medicine.

"I think this occurs because allopathic medicine has not yet met the needs of patients. It's easier to do alternative medicine than allopathic," Lebovitz said.

The December issue of the University of California, Berkeley's Wellness Letter addresses medical quackery, pegging its report to the huge amounts of medical advice being dispensed on the Internet.

The Federal Trade Commission has started a campaign called "Operation Cure All," to challenge the Web sites that promote phony cures.

"The agency can force the sites to stop making claims, but it cannot shut them down or prevent them from doing business," the Wellness Letter reports.

Zelem's experiences illustrate the still uneasy relationship between traditional and alternative medicine, doctors and other medical professionals say.

Her family acknowledges that Zelem's earlier mastectomy affected her more deeply than they realized.

Zelem, who was single, told a relative: "You never had disfiguring surgery. You don't understand."

The relative, a nurse practitioner who works in an oncologist's office, tried to explain that breast cancer treatment had advanced significantly since Zelem's first surgery, that she might have been a candidate for just having a lump removed.

Zelem would have none of that. To her, doctors could not offer the comfort of the herbalists and other practitioners who promised that their methods could cleanse her system.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates the distribution of drugs; herbs have not been classified as drugs. At the same time, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, is funding research of alternative medicine and therapies at more than a dozen research centers at U.S. universities.

But what about the snake-oil scams that seem to offer hope to sick, desperate people, like Zelem? Garlitz asked.

"Yes, she was an adult, an educated adult. But aren't these people taking advantage of someone who is in pain and afraid?"

Lebovitz speaks of both traditions with ease. He spent a month last year traveling to Europe and the Far East to look into alternative medical practices. Lebovitz returned with a new respect for some of the healing traditions of other countries that are looked upon with skepticism in the United States.

"We have evidence-based medicine," he said. "Most alternatives don't. But it's very important to know that patients are doing this already. Doctors have to be aware of that."

In the past year, Lebovitz has led the hospital's integrated medicine program, bringing in Dr. Arvind Kulkarni, a radiation oncologist with 30 years practice in both mainstream and alternative medicine in Bombay, India.

At Medical Wellness Associates in Jeannette, Dr. Martin Gallagher, a chiropractor who runs the alternative care practice, finds himself battling extremists who refuse to accept alternative therapies as a complement to traditional care.

One of his patients was Erika Zelem.

"That stuff happens out there," said Gallagher, who has medical doctors on his staff. "People disenchanted with the medical system go out there and do these other things. They need to enter our world."

Gallagher said he explained to Zelem that a 65-year-old patient with a hip problem likely would require a hip replacement. Vitamins alone would not repair the worn out joint. Chiropractic treatment alone would not ease the pain.

"But for a person going into surgery, we can assess their nutritional needs so they can remain healthy. Afterward, we can help with physical therapy," he said.

After he told Zelem that she needed to be treated by a medical doctor, she never returned.

By September 1998, Zelem felt even more desperate, her diaries indicate. Her mother, Petrine Zelem, now 91, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. While her mother had a mastectomy and was prescribed Tamoxifen, Erika Zelem continued her own treatment. A month later, she had a hair analysis that showed her body had too much aluminum, silver, mercury zinc and iodine.

She did not say how she dealt with that, but wrote on Oct. 21, "Everything hurts inside, especially left side."

Through April and May of this year, Zelem kept track of her pain, almost by the hour. Her handwriting became increasingly feeble. She prayed a lot. She downed a lot of herbal pills.

"That's why she couldn't eat," said Garlitz, who had moved Zelem to her home. "Her body was filled with pills."

Two months before she died, Zelem sent a Polaroid picture of herself to a California company that claimed it could analyze her ailments and prescribe treatment based on her appearance. Zelem, who at 5 feet, 2 inches, weighed about 110 pounds before her illness, was now a skeletal 75 pounds. She bought potions Garlitz found after her death, so many that dozens of bottles were in their boxes, still unopened.

Lebovitz and Gallagher believe that as the medical profession comes to accept alternative medicine more people will find that they don't have to turn to quackery for cures. Medical schools now are teaching students to talk with their patients about alternative medical treatments they may be using.

"No one has the answers," Gallagher said. "There is no one answer in traditional medicine or nontraditional medicine. It's integrative. By making more forms of natural medicine available to patients we may be able to help them from being lured into going to extremes. They are scared to death, literally. We have to help them overcome that fear."

©Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Cancer QuackeryWatch appeal

The Pittsburgh area is a hotbed for alt. medical wackos. Ellen Mazo wrote another article about Martin Gallagher, most of it was nothing more than a non-paid advertisement for his practice: Please write letters to the Post-Gazette commenting on cancer quackery articles?
Letters can be E-mailed to
You need to include a phone number where you can be reached for verification.

Other Pittsburgh Post-Gazette articles :

  • Cancer therapy pained her family...and didn't work It got to the point that family members couldn't even talk with Patti Davis about breast cancer, a disease that killed her last month at 39.

    It wasn't that they shied away from the tragedy of Davis having cancer at a young age. On the contrary, her brothers, her father and her mother - a breast cancer survivor for 22 years - had numerous conversations with Davis about how she should handle the disease. Again and again they told her that radiation, chemotherapy and the latest treatments available would help her improve her chances.

    Davis was a graduate of Fox Chapel Area High School, an all-American swimmer at the University of Pittsburgh and a broadcast journalist whose career took her to a job as TV news anchor at a station in Sacramento, Calif. When she was diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago, she opted for alternative medicine, and refused to undergo conventional therapy. Her care included week-long trips to a Mexican clinic that prescribed lifestyle changes ranging from exercise and positive thinking to grass juices and coffee enemas.

    Family members here in Pittsburgh believed she was killing herself.

    Eventually, they had to silence their views for fear they would lose Davis not just in death, but in life.

  • Some practices now incorporate traditional, alternative medicine - another Mazo infomercial for Gallagher " Charlotte Houser hadn't fallen off that ladder last year, she might never have sought alternative therapies to help handle her diabetes. The 69-year-old Latrobe woman sought out Dr. Martin Gallagher's Medical Wellness Associates in Jeannette to ease the back pain from the fall. A chiropractor who is chief of staff and a clinical nutritionist, Gallagher made sure Houser got more than manipulative, chiropractic treatments.
  • Welcome to Kansas: - Gallagher appears on Cornerstone's TeleVision stationIn 1997 the directors of WQED, Pittsburgh's award winning PBS station, approved a deal that would transfer the educational broadcasting license of channel 16 (WQEX) to Cornerstone TeleVision, the Greensburg-based broadcaster that currently airs its born-again Christian programming on channel 40 (WPCB). WQED asked the Federal Communications Commission to approve the license transfer, and the FCC hasn't yet decided.

    Cornerstone programs have asserted that homosexuality is a disease, denigrated non-Christian faiths, public schools and funding for AIDS awareness. On Earth Day two years ago, Cornerstone aired a documentary proclaiming that the environmental movement is an elitist conspiracy and global warming is a myth. Their regular show, called "Origins" is strictly pro-creation and anti-science.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette - Dead letters office

A collection of letters written by Patrick Curry - skeptic and health fraud guru


John Craig, Editor
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

To the Editor:

The article "Scared to Death" in the 12/7/99 Health Section dramatically
illustrates the tragedy of Erika Zelem, whose alternative medicine
treatments for her breast cancer led to her death.

However, the most amazing thing thing about this article is that the
reporter Ellen Mazo actually manages to "spin" this tragedy as an
argument IN FAVOR of integrating Complementary/Alternative Medicine
(CAM) into the medical system in order to protect(?) victims from
"snake-oil" salesman. In other words she wants to bring the quacks
directly into our local hospitals so that we don't have to turn to the
Internet!!! To whom does she turn for support for her point of view?
None other than Erika Zelem's own alt-med chiropractor, "Dr." Martin

Reporter Mazo's continuing blind support of CAM despite this awful
tragedy is further illustrated by her neglecting to interview any local
anti-alternative medicine, scientifically-oriented doctors for this
article. Surely Mazo could have found at least one doctor in Pittsburgh
strongly critical of Complementary/Alternative medicine.

The victim, Erika Zelem, had been a longtime patient of one of the worst
of the local alt-med chiropractic gurus, Dr. Martin Gallagher.
Gallagher has weekly radio and TV show that blast "allopathic" medicine
and promote a wide variety of herbal, dietary supplement, chelation and
chiropractic adjustment treatments for just about every ailment under
the sun.

When Zelem's cancer worsened, Gallagher, as a self-interested
precaution, finally advised that she go to a standard MD - which of
course she did not do. Gallagher, of course, does not fault himself for
undermining Zelem's confidence in standard medicine; instead he blames
skeptical MDs for creating distrust between alt-med patients and doctors
by not embracing CAM.

Clearly, the victim's beliefs stem in large part from the long-term
anti-medical "education" received from Gallagher, YET, the reporter
Ellen Mazo incredibly returns to Gallagher for a testimonial IN FAVOR of
CAM!!!! She even gives him the proverbial "last word" in this article.
This is despicable; absolutely incredible.

This is not the first time that reporter Mazo has done Gallagher a
favor. In a March 31, 1998 PG Your Health section article "Some
Practices Now Incorporate Alternative Medicine", she gave Gallagher an
infomercial for his practice. She even reports favorably that a Fred
Houser, suffering from prostrate cancer had disregarded his MD's advice
to have an operation in favor of a "vegetarian regimin, including apple
pectin and wheat grass juice". "I told my doctor," said Fred Houser, "He
wants me to have an operation. I don't. Not yet."

Reporter Mazo then included information on how to contact Gallagher's
Medical Wellness Associates in Jeanette and announced his TV program on
WPCB Channel 40 "Cornerstone Television." How many other medical
"seekers" like Erika Zelem may have been sent to Dr. Gallagher's
practice due to this particular favor by reporter Mazo?

Gallagher has been so irresponsible that in April of this year he ran an
advertisement in the Post-Gazette for a speech by the head of a Tijuana,
Mexico cancer clinics, the son of the perpetrator of the 1970s Laetrile
cancer cure hoax, Dr. Francisco Contreras. My angry letter concerning
this was published in the Your Health section. Was reporter Mazo totally
unaware of this?

[see below for my 4/9/99 letter to the PG concerning this. An
abreviated version of this letter was published in the Your Health

The continued defense of alternative medicine spewing from the pages of
the Your Health section even in the face of such a tragedy as that of
Erika Zelem's is most irresponsible. Due to reporter Mazo's blind
biases in favor of alternative medicine, the Post-Gazette lost a grand
opportunity to really educate people about the dangers of non-scientific
medicine. That compounds the tragedy.

E. Patrick Curry
Squirrel Hill


Here is a prior letter that I sent concerning Dr. Gallagher's support
for Tijuana cancer clinics. Was reporter Ellen Mazo totally unaware of
this material? Was Editor Linn? Do they care?

Subject: Letter to the Editor Re: Alt-Med Cancer Treatments
Date: Fri, 09 Apr 1999 12:08:28 -0700
To: Editor John G.Craig, Jr.
34 Blvd of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Editor Craig:

Thanks to the Post-Gazette for the front page story of Patti Davis's
terrible experience with alternative cancer therapy at a clinic in
Tijuana, Mexico (P-G 4/9/99). Given the popularity of such unproven
treatments, her tragic story is but one of hundreds of similar cases
going totally unreported in the nation's alt-med-entranced media.

It is ironic that just two weeks earlier the Post-Gazette Your Health
section ran an advertisement for a lecture by Dr. Francisco Contreras,
the Chief-of-Staff of a similar alternative medicine cancer clinic in
Tijuana. The clinic is cynically called "The Oasis of Hope Hospital".

As I explained in a prior letter to the Post-Gazette's Health Editor,
Francisco Contreras is the son of Dr. Ernesto Contreras, one of the
perpetrators of the Laetrile (apricot pit oil) cancer cure hoax of the
1960s and 1970s. As a result of meeting Dr. Contreras, other desperate
Pittsburghers no doubt have just this past week been enticed to pursue
"hope" in Tijuana.

Contreras was invited to Pittsburgh by Chiropractor Martin Gallagher to
speak March 27 at a seminar given by Three Rivers Health and Nutrition.
Gallagher, a constant presence on regional radio and TV, has, in my
opinion, built his career on undermining public confidence in mainstream
medicine. He even markets his own book on what he calls "21st Century"

The Federal Trade Commission has recently begun cracking down on false
and misleading health advertising. Perhaps it is time for the
Post-Gazette to begin monitoring its own advertising policies for the
sake of the public's health. The media should be doing its utmost to
expose dangerous quackery, instead of promoting it for a few extra
advertising dollars.

Thank You,

E. Patrick Curry

member National Council Against Health Fraud

Note: I have attached a section of the communication that I had
previously sent to Editor Linn. It contains references to WEB sites
which provide documentation as to Dr. Contreras and Laetrile.

Editor Linn:

3)Next to the St. John's Wort article is an advertisment by Three
River's Health and Nutrition "Dr." Gallagher's operation. Guess what,
his guest speaker, "Dr" Francisco Contreras, is the son of Dr. Ernesto
Contreras who started the famous Laetrile (apricot seed extract)
anti-cancer fraud a couple of decades ago. Surely his running the
"Oasis of Hope" Hospital in Tijuana, Mexico should have raised a few

For your edification, you should read the history of the laetrile fraud at


    Dr. Contreras latest book "Health in the 21st Century: Will Doctors
    Survive" is even advertised at

    It's sad, but Dr. Contrera's visit to Pittsburgh, sponsored by Gallagher,
    may result in several desperate Pittsburghers flying to Tijuana to
    undergo expensive, ineffective and/or dangerous treatments that are
    illegal in the United States. That, in fact, may be the actual
    consequence of that Page G-5 advertisement in this week's Your Health.

    As you know the Federal Trade Commission just cracked down on the
    fraudulent "Vitamin O" advertisements in mainstream publications. But,
    "Vitamine O" is just one of hundreds of fraudulent advertisements that
    are sweeping into the mainstream media. It is sad, so very sad.

    Editor Linn, I hope you take the information I pass on to you
    seriously. There are a lot of sharks out there in alternative
    medicine. The public has a difficult time discerning good from bad
    medicine. You have a heavy responsibility to provide thorough, accurate
    and responsible coverage.

    Thank You,

    Patrick Curry