Jan. 28, 2005. 01:00 AM
Bob Hunter spent $20,000 for alternative cancer treatment at a Mexican clinic whose owner has had run-ins with U.S. authorities over unapproved medicine.
Mixed reaction to Hunter's search for cure


The story I wrote last week about Bob Hunter, co-founder of Greenpeace, dealing with a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer, elicited a strong response from readers.

A lot of love was generated by those who admire Hunter's lifelong environmental activism. "May God bless you and your family," wrote one.

"It's good to hear you are feeling better," said another. "However, I hate to read (such) articles ... How many men do you think are wishing they could afford to pick up and go to Mexico for treatment?" That was a common reaction: anger that OHIP doesn't cover alternative treatments, frustration that the $20,000 Hunter spent for three and a half weeks at Hospital Santa Monica in Tijuana was not an affordable option for most.

"I found this story more than interesting," wrote a Toronto man whose prostate cancer was "discovered in the early stages and was identified as being confined to the prostate." But "differing medical interpretations of the biopsy" made his choices more difficult. "The decision-making process was perhaps the most difficult part of the entire experience ... The circumstances of each case are unique and the individual has to call the final shot and live with his decision." He chose surgery and, so far, he's doing well, two years later.

Some readers cited examples of family members recovering from cancer with alternative treatments, after conventional treatments failed; a few criticized Hunter's decision to go to Mexico. On this point, the central issue is Hunter's right to choose. After a five-year process of dealing with prostate cancer, he found himself at death's door, given a "death watch" verdict, as Hunter's wife Bobbi put it, by his Toronto doctors. All they could offer him was chemotherapy, which might keep him alive a few months longer.

When he left for Hospital Santa Monica before Christmas, he had no appetite and was in terrible pain — the prostate cancer having spread to his bones; morphine just made him feel sicker.

When he came home, he was pain-free and his appetite had returned. He felt good. He doesn't know how long it will last. Neither he, nor Kurt Donsbach, the chiropractor who founded the clinic, make any claims about "cure." As Hunter told me, "I'm not talking about being `saved.' We won't know until more time has gone by."

Some readers wanted to find out how to get to the Mexican clinic. Hence a cautionary note: the story was told from Hunter's point of view; it was not an investigative piece on the clinic itself. A variety of medical clinics have sprung up in Mexico, clustered around Tijuana, serving mostly American cancer patients who come to these places as a last resort. Not all of them are reputable, according to Donsbach, who scoffs at "coffee enemas" and similar treatments offered at certain clinics.

On the other hand, as Dr. Fred Hui says, "assuming we have a true, natural treatment, as long as it's not patentable it will never attract the financing from pharmaceutical companies to go through the necessary studies and clinical trials." (It was Hui, a Toronto doctor, who told Hunter about Hospital Santa Monica. Hui describes himself as an "open-minded physician.")

We've also learned that Donsbach has had his own battles with U.S. authorities, who he claims have harassed him for decades for doing nutritional counselling and selling vitamins, minerals and herbs to treat various ailments. He had to declare bankruptcy in 1987. And he acknowledges he pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy to smuggle "unapproved medicine", and agreed to "forfeit all money seized — $372,000." The sentence was three years probation.

So: buyer beware. Just as we've recently discovered that mainstream drugs can cause harm or even death — think hormone replacement therapy, Vioxx and Celebrex — we realize we live in a world of few clear-cut answers, especially when it comes to health.

In the last 40 years, despite billions of dollars spent on research and development — on chemotherapy, radiation and surgery — cancer cures are still limited, in terms of available data. (Of the many types of cancer, chemotherapy claims to cure only "about two-thirds of patients with Hodgkins disease; half with a type of lymphoma; most children with a type of leukemia; most young men with testicular cancer," according to Cancer Care Ontario.)

The truth is that no one has the answer to the big question: What causes cancer? We are all guinea pigs. People die on chemotherapy — indeed, chemotherapy can kill people.

Understand the limitations of medicine. Research your options. Try to deal with reputable people. Take responsibility for your health. Know that miracles are rare.

Additional articles by Judy Steed

› Get the NEW Sunday paper! Save 50% now!

Legal Notice: Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved. Distribution, transmission or republication of any material from www.thestar.com is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. For information please contact us using our webmaster form. www.thestar.com online since 1996.