Cancer. Politics, dogma... yet hope

1993 was not a good year.

In the midst of my international business career that involved extensive time away from our Singapore home and long days in remote parts of nearby Indonesia, I discovered a lump under my left arm whilst showering in my Jakarta hotel bathroom.

Three days later upon returning to Singapore where under surgery the lump was removed by Dr Richard Chew. who then broke the news:

“I am sorry to tell you that the lump is in fact a secondary tumor that has originated from a melanoma. We call it metastatic cancer meaning the cancer is malignant and it has already spread. Your prognosis is not good.”

Two weeks later we were packing our bags, selling our apartment and heading back to Perth – one of the ‘homes’ of skin cancer – where I would start cancer treatment and my wife Katherine would start to look for a new home, a new car and a new school for our two children, Brenden and Lisa.

These were dark and lonely days. I was referred to a leading Perth-based oncologist who told me I would need extensive treatment including in-patient chemotherapy over four months plus 25 regimes of radiotherapy. I was informed that ‘chemo’ would probably make me sick, affect my hair, taste, hearing and worst of all my immune system - the very thing I thought I needed to help me survive.

“The immune system is of no use anyway”, my oncologist explained, “as it has no effect combating the cancer, so what we need to do is try and kill the tumor.”

Following the treatment, I was informed that despite the treatment ‘going well’ my prognosis was still poor; maybe three years at best.

It was during 1994 I was to meet Dr Ian Gawler OAM, a qualified veterinarian, who had pioneered the Gawler Foundation in the Yarra Valley, Victoria. Dr Gawler’s work was based on his own experience and research and attracted many people affected by cancer who wanted to empower themselves by using complementary therapies and lifestyle choices to try and improve their general health, and possibly their prognosis.

Much of Dr Gawler’s work was based on the principle that it was possible to use therapies that would stimulate the body’s own immune system – that is tricked by cancer cells to turn itself off – and allow it to do what it was designed to do; to keep the person not only alive, but in good holistic health.

Over the years Dr Gawler has recorded many ‘remarkable stories’ of people who after following his model – that did not usually conflict with any medical treatments – recorded significant improvement in their health and cancer prognosis.

Fascinated by Dr Gawler’s work I visited Mexico where I met with the daughter of the renown Dr Max Gerson. The Gerson Institute was driven-out of the USA for what they called ‘quackery’ and ‘misleading’ claims about cancer treatments that included drinking up to 13 glasses per day of freshly prepared vegetable juice complemented with coffee enemas.

Once again, Gerson believed that through his program, the juices could activate and feed the body’s immune system allowing it to ‘attack’ the cancer cells. The results with his patients were impressive, and in particular for melanoma patients, that resulted in me deciding I would drink five–six glasses of self-made vegetable juice every day for the rest of my life.

Today, 26 years-on, I continue to drink my life-giving juice, along with meditation, exercise, a balanced diet and a renewed sense of spirituality, all designed to ensure my immune system could keep me in good general health, including relieving me of arthritis that had also impacted my life.

Not only have people such as Gawler and Gerson been ridiculed, the medical establishment maintained a strong position that the only way to fight cancer was to use drugs to ‘attack’ the tumors.

In his book, The breakthrough: Immunotherapy & the race to cure cancer, (2019), award-winning author Charles Graeber highlighted that as recently as 2011, ‘most oncologists and scientists dismissed cancer immunotherapy (stimulating the body’s own immune system) as a dead-end, peopled by quacks and true-believers who confused hope with good science.’

Yet some years earlier Dr James P. Allison Ph. D and his colleague Dr Tasuku Hojo Ph D., were questioning this broad mindset within the medical establishment that the immune system could not help destroy cancer cells, and asking could this mindset be wrong?

In October last year, both Dr Allison and Dr Hojo received the Nobel Peace Prize ‘for breakthrough discoveries in stimulating the human immune system.’

“By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy,” Nobel Assembly Secretary Thomas Perlmann noted in announcing the award to Dr Allison and Dr Honjo.
Whilst most Australians would not have noticed or been aware of this award, one group within our population did notice: Melanoma patients.

Within the past few years, the acceptance of immunotherapy and the introduction of specific drugs to help stimulate the body’s own immune system has turned the treatment of metastatic melanoma ‘on its head’.

Patients who were facing almost certain premature death, were starting to turn-up a support groups hosted by MelamomaWA and relating experiences of complete remission.

In my own case, the treatment that I suffered through in 1994 – using chemotherapy augmented by radiotherapy – has now been deemed as having very little efficacy in treating metastatic melanoma. This raises an interesting question: If my prognosis in 1993 was so poor, and my treatment (chemotherapy) was mostly ineffective, why am I, 26 years later, alive and living a vibrant and healthy life? I have never in all these years been asked for my opinion on this question; after-all I am just a patient and the doctors know best. On three occasions my pathology tests have been re-examined because doctors could not understand why I had not seen a recurrence of further primary and secondary cancers?

Only my dermatologist came close last year when he posed the thought that my family, including my now 94-year-old father, had a “high likelihood of being affected by melanoma, yet also appeared to have a high likelihood of not dying from from it.” Why? Our immune system perhaps?

I am sure that I still have melanoma cells in my body, but it appears that my immune system does an excellent job of keeping them benign and non-active, allowing me to ‘live’ with cancer rather than ‘suffer’ from cancer.

The work of Dr Allison and Dr Hojo is now being extended to consider if the same incredible results with melanoma can be achieved in the treatment of breast and prostate cancer. The possibilities, now that the medical establishment have opened their minds, are incredibly exciting and ground-breaking. Is cancer finally on the run? Perhaps.

Am I still alive today because of my medical treatment? Almost certainly not. Am I alive due to the complementary therapies that may have worked by stimulating my immune system back in 1995, two years after my diagnosis? I don’t know, but as a long-term cancer survivor what I do know is that the role of the body’s own immune system and its ability to do the job it was designed to do – to keep us well and alive - has been a critical factor.

As we celebrate these two remarkable scientists who challenged the thinking of their medical and scientific colleagues, I cannot help but reflect on the work of Dr Gawler and Dr Max Gerson, and I wonder if funding should also be directed to include research into patient-based immunotherapy rather than just drug induced immunotherapy; it is cheaper and maybe even more effective?

And perhaps we also need to remind ourselves that ‘keeping an open-mind’ on critical issues such as science and medicine should always be a mantra; not just a cliché.

May 2019.

Ross B. Taylor AM is the current patron & past president of the Cancer Wellness Centre in WA. He a former chairman of Breast Cancer Care WA, Cancer Support WA & author of ‘Living Simply with Cancer’. Ross is also the president of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute Inc.


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