Deliberately spreading unreasonable expectations can kill

An Australian woman, the self-styled “Wellness Warrior” who campaigned against medical treatment for cancer, has died tragically from a particularly nasty form of cancer.

Jessica Ainscough was struck by a sarcoma which is particularly difficult to treat, attacking the soft tissues. Having undergone chemotherapy without success – the sarcoma returned – her only effective option available was amputation of the arm and continued chemotherapy.

She instead chose to abandon medicine, letting the cancer continue to spread through her body.

It’s not for me to say whether her choice to decline a drastic and debilitating treatment, in favour of letting the cancer continue to ravage her body, was right or wrong. That is for her to decide with those whom she was close with.

What can be criticised, though, is that after this decision, she actively and diligently spread harmful misinformation about medicine and cancer, to those most at risk.

In a magazine targeting young women, in 2012 she published an an article without reference to scientific fact, recommending an alternative to medicine instead. The treatment she opted for requires her to “detoxify”, consuming large quantities of fruit and frequent coffee enemas:

I began looking at the different ways I may have contributed to the manifestation of my disease and then stopped doing them. […]

This research led me to Gerson Therapy which ensures you have a perfectly balanced diet for optimum health, assisting your body to flush out nasties whilst feeding it with all the goodness it needs to flourish.

The therapy involves drinking 13 fresh organic veggie juices per day (yes that’s one an hour, every hour of my waking day), five coffee enemas per day and a basic organic whole food plant-based diet with additional supplements.

[…]
I am ecstatic to report that it has worked for me. I have had no cancer spread, no more lumps pop up (they were popping up rapidly before) and I can actually see some of my tumours coming out through my skin and disappearing.

This attitude, her vocal dismissal of science-based medicine and her active promotion of unscientific treatments for cancer, earned her the title “Wellness Warrior”.

At 30 years old, she has now sadly died of the same untreated cancer. Regardless how the treatment made her feel and how optimistic she was, it continued to spread unchecked without regard for her beliefs.


The cited treatment, Gerson Therapy, is dangerous anti-scientific quackery.

The Gerson Institute not only enlist sick people to spread their false promises, they also enlist well-meaning non-medical stooges to be their practicioners. One can gain qualification to practice the treatment on more people with serious chronic illness:

The purpose of our Gerson Practitioner Training program is to train qualified medical professionals in how to clinically guide and manage people who choose to use the Gerson Therapy, as developed by Dr. Max Gerson, to address chronic degenerative disease and cancer.

The Practitioner Training program consists of two modules. Both modules must be completed before a practitioner can use the Gerson name and become a certified Gerson practicioner.

The two modules are:

  1. Attend a course, costing US$3600 and lasting five (5) days, at a California resort.
  2. Treat a required minimum number of patients for the next couple of years, at your own cost and using your existing practice.

What an amazingly rapid route to certification! Only five days and you can start giving enemas and fruit smoothies to chronically ill cancer-ridden people on your own town, under the watchful eye of the Gerson Institute.

They won’t give it to just anyone, though — you have to already be a certain standard of practitioner:

Eligibility:

You must hold one of the following credentials:

– Medical Doctor (MD)
– Doctor of Osteopathy (DO)
– Naturopathic Doctor (*ND)
– Nurse Practitioner (*NP)
– Physician Assistant (PA)
– Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)
– Licensed Acupuncturist/ Oriental Medicine Doctor (*Li.Ac./OMD)
– Registered Nurse (*RN)
– Certified Clinical Nutritionist (*CCN)

This reminds me very much of “universities” where one can learn various dogmas unsupported by evidence, but only if one signs a formal “Statement of Faith” up front.

The Gerson Institute should crumple in shame.


I have argued in the past that people who are ill, even with diseases that are difficult to treat (even, sometimes, difficult to diagnose), are right to expect good access to properly-trained practicioners of science-based medicine.

But armed with nonsense from places like the Gerson Institute, patients are often spending their valuable face-time with doctors by arguing that science is wrong and demanding respect for unscientific treatments. Ranjana Srivastava recounts that conversations like this are all too common with her patients:

“Should I have my intravenous vitamins on the day of chemo or after it?”

I don’t have a chance to answer before she continues: “Can you move my chemo appointment to fit in a colon cleanse? They are really busy, you know. Booked out weeks in advance.”

It almost comes across as boasting and I feel mildly irritated.

“And my friend is having magnet therapy,” she continues. “She is nearly cured though the traditional doctors gave up on her.”

I have to interrupt her: “Can we discuss this another time? I am afraid there are many patients waiting.”

She is unfazed. “I need to feel heard, you know. I want to know about juicing therapy. It sounds so next generation.”

She makes the salient point that science-based medicine is regulated, and as a result is constrained to what is demonstrated to work. Practicioners of alternatives to medicine have no such constraint, and thereby are freed to spout unfounded nonsense that lets patients “feel heard”, even if it squanders their money, time, and life.

Health literacy moves at a very slow pace. The alternative health industry, worth many billions of dollars, marches briskly. It will always attract unguarded patients who will cling to the faintest promise of recovery without associated harm. Whenever money changes hands and the premise sounds too good to be true, the motto remains: Caveat Emptor.

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  • Lilgirlblue

    Sad and thought-provoking situation.

    The comments on the Guardian piece head into depressing territory quite fast, to the point of individuals personally attacking Dr. Srivastava for booting patients out of the consultation room as quickly as possible in order to make more cash. For some there is no apparent contradiction between accusing long-suffering general practitioners of somehow raking in money at the expense of patients, and the Gerson Institute charging thousands for instructions on the proper procedure for a coffee enema (!!??).