By Yeong Sek Yee & Khadijah Shaari
Conventional cancer treatments, especially the chemotherapeutic agents are toxic and can cause a great deal of collateral damage to the body besides the nausea, vomiting and hair loss that your doctor tells you about. Collateral damage is damage to things that are incidental to the intended target and this is best illustrated by Dr. David Levy, former president of the British Columbia Cancer Agency, Canada:
- “In fighting the war on cancer, there is, like in any war, unwanted collateral damage. There is no silver bullet, but in many ways, a refined shotgun, blasting the tumour while pellets hit other vital organs.
- · “The bone marrow, liver, and nervous system get their share of hits, but the heart and vascular system are certainly at risk depending on the weapon used, particularly because the vascular system and blood supply are intimately involved in any treatment delivery.
Dr Russell Blaylock, a neurosurgeon, described other more serious collateral damage such as depressed production of blood-forming cells, cardiac toxicity, pulmonary complications, gastrointestinal complications, liver injury, kidney and neurological complications in Chapter 3….Chemotherapy: Poisoning Cancer (and You) in the New York bestseller, NATURAL STRATEGIES FOR CANCER PATIENTS.
In 2012, Dr Margaret I. Cuomo, MD, a board- certified radiologist, published A WORLD WITHOUT CANCER. In Chapter 7, “Cancer’s Collateral Damage,” Dr Cuomo described the cancer journey of Toni, a 50 year old artist and her husband Doug, a golf professional and how the couple saw “the darkest side of our current cancer care paradigm” The couple endured Toni’s frequent hospitalizations, the debilitating side effects of one cancer drug after another, false hope, and a mounting pile of bills. Their ordeal ended with Toni’s death less than 4 years later after her diagnosis of lymphoma.
Below is Toni’s sad story as told by Dr Cuomo in her book:
In late November 2007, Toni, was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a common form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Scans revealed Toni had an especially aggressive cancer with tumors scattered across her abdominal area and elsewhere. Still, her oncologist spoke optimistically about the package of treatment options available, and she was co-operative and prepared for the fight.
After surgery to remove the tumors, Toni began a six-cycle regimen of chemotherapy, receiving an eight-hour infusion every few weeks. By the third round, she could barely move from her bed between infusions, but she persevered, and at the end of June 2008, Toni and her husband Doug, received good news. “We got it” her doctors proclaimed. Everyone believed the cancer was gone.
Toni was told she would have to return for scans every three months for the first year, and then less frequently. Doug remembers the doctor saying, “After five years, you won’t have to come back at all.”
Weakened by the chemotherapy, Toni spent much of the summer and fall regaining her strength. Life for the couple was good again. Until March 2009, that is, when a post-treatment scan showed that the cancer had recurred and had spread. Toni’s oncologist suggested that she would be a good candidate for a bone marrow transplant, which had to be done at a cancer center about 100 miles from their home.
After learning more about the rigorous and difficult procedure – including claims (by their oncologist) that it had a 95% success rate – Toni agreed to begin treatment.
Additional potent chemotherapy had to come first. This time, Toni was admitted to the local hospital, where she received chemotherapy around the clock for three days every three weeks. A post-chemo scan again showed no evidence of cancer, and the couple headed to the cancer center, ready for the bone marrow transplant. Their insurance company had already said yes to the US$400,000 treatment. It was July 2009.
The first step was to harvest Toni’s bone marrow stem cells, which took eight hours a day over five consecutive days. Another week of chemotherapy came next, and then the stem cells were infused back into her body during a four-hour procedure.
She remained hospitalized for the next three weeks, as the stem cells started to grow again. Once, her blood pressure plunged and her platelet levels dropped to dangerously low levels, bringing her perilously close to death.
Although she recovered, Toni’s health had been compromised, and remained so after her release from the hospital. Shortly afterward, her temperature spiked to 105 F, a fungal infection was found in her lungs, and she was readmitted for further treatment. The fungus might have been there for a long time, held in check until her immune system was weakened by chemotherapy and could no longer fight the latent infection. Her antifungal medicine cost US$5,600 a month.
Toni was finally able to return home in late October 2009, although the demands of continuing treatment and follow up meant the couple had to make weekly four-hour round-trip drives to the hospital.
In February 2010, Toni returned for a scan, expecting it to show that the bone marrow transplant had worked. The couple thought this would be their moment of triumph, a second chance for a longer life. Instead, they learned that Toni still had evidence of cancer. A year of suffering had been in vain.
Her doctors suggested another transplant. Nothing else will work, they said. Toni balked. “No,” she said. “You didn’t have to go through what I went through. You didn’t almost die. You’re not the ones who didn’t have any quality of life for almost a year.” Then, she added quietly, “I don’t know whether or not we can afford it”
The doctor’s response: “You don’t have to worry. Your insurance company paid for everything the first time. It will pay for everything again.”
That wasn’t quite true, of course. “Insurance didn’t pay for us to live away from home for eight months,” Doug recalls. “It didn’t pay for a lot of the drugs Toni needed, It didn’t pay for the fact that both of us were out of work for quite some time. The insurance company covers the medical cost, but it doesn’t cover the costs of the disease.”
Even so, they decided to try another transplant. Over the next few months, more health problems intervened. Toni’s spleen swelled to five times its normal size, her white blood cell count plunged and she developed pneumonia. Meanwhile, scans showed that her cancer kept surging.
Still, the doctors insisted she remained a candidate for the transplant. The procedure was scheduled, canceled, rescheduled, and canceled once more.
As many patients do when they have exhausted all other options, Toni entered a clinical trial, this one assessing a new combination drug treatment. Beginning in April 2011, the couple began making regular trips to the hospital for the protocol. With the tumors shrinking, the punishing treatment schedule seemed worth it. The second bone marrow transplant again seemed possible.
Then, new obstacles arose. When Toni complained of headaches, invasive tests revealed that lymphoma cells had invaded her cerebral spinal fluid. The cancer was in her brain.
Yet another drug treatment option was put on the table, but this time her oncologist was finally ready to advise against it. “You can do this if you want, but I don’t recommend it”, he said bluntly. “You will be in the hospital for six months. It’ll be hell, and then you will die.”
Toni’s fight was over. The doctor said that she would probably survive until Thanksgiving but doubted that she would make it to Christmas. On September 29, 2011, Toni’s courageous four-year battle came to an end. She was 54.
When illness first occurred, Toni and Doug had steady jobs, good insurance, and friends willing to help. The couple incurred US$50,000 in out-of-pocket medical costs and another US$150,000 in living expenses, including bills for hotels, food, and gas. After long periods without a regular income, the couple couldn’t meet their monthly obligations. Decades of careful savings vanished.
Doug wondered now if they were given false hope. “Had we known the full extent of what was ahead, I don’t think we would have gone through what we did,” he says. Was what we went through done to teach somebody else? Or was it done for the revenue?
It is hard for him not to feel cynical about the agenda of those in the cancer industry and the influence of money on decision making. “In my heart, I believe if we wanted to find a cure for cancer, we would have done so a long time ago,” Doug said. “I don’t believe the medical profession wants to find a cure. They would like to find effective treatments for cancer, but a cure? No. There would be too many people out of work.”
“I truly believe,” he adds, “that if our insurance hadn’t paid the doctors as well as it did, they wouldn’t have encouraged us to keep on with treatment.”
Dr Cuomo’s concluding remarks:
Understandably, Doug may be a bit harsh in his judgment of Toni’s physicians. Treating people with cancer is a delicate and tricky process, with oncologists trying to keep their patients alive by staying one step ahead of the disease. It is hard to know just how much extra gain can be achieved, at what price, and exactly when the struggle becomes futile. Right now, most therapy buys patients with advanced cancer only a little more time.
Another sad story is that of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who was diagnosed with NHL in Jan 1994. She received chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the prestigious New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Centre. The New York Times reported that she “initially responded to therapy, but it (the cancer) came back in her brain and spread through her body.”
For the unrelenting pain in her neck, Mrs. Onassis received more drugs. For the acute pneumonia she developed in her weakened state, she received more drugs. Steroids were part of the mixture in her chemotherapy, which caused a perforated ulcer in her stomach. In the middle of her ordeal, she had to be operated on to sew up the hole in her stomach.
She went from bad to worse, and as a final assault on her body, she was subjected to even more radiation and chemotherapy, only this time it was shot directly into her brain. The cancer spread to her spinal cord, her liver, and throughout the body. She became weak and disoriented, lost weight, developed shaking chills, her speech slowed, and she had difficulty walking.
Mrs. Onassis passed away in May 1994…..just 5 months after diagnosis.
Similarly, King Hussein of Jordan was diagnosed with NHL July 1998 and began 6 months of chemotherapy and 2 bone marrow transplants. King Hussein passed away in Feb 1999 at age 63……..just 8 months after diagnosis.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In the stories of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and King Hussein of Jordan, was it a case of excessive collateral damage or did the chemotherapy drugs spread the cancer? How come scientifically tested, evidence-based medicine could not save them then or was the lymphoma too aggressive?
We welcome your thoughts.