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"Miraculous Recoveries"

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

If you hear that an "alternative" method has produced "miraculous" recoveries from cancer, you should be skeptical. There are at least five reasons why such a report may be erroneous:

Here are five examples of favorable reports that did not hold up when they were investigated.

During the 1980s, Anthony Sattilaro, M.D., wrote books and appeared on talk shows promoting macrobiotics as a cancer cure. In Recalled from Life (1982), he described how he had undergone conventional therapy for prostate cancer but credited macrobiotics for his improvement. In Living Well Naturally ( 1984), he said that his doctors had pronounced him in a state of permanent remission. However, he died of prostate cancer in 1989.

Lawrence Burton, Ph.D., who died in 1992, offered "immuno-augmentative therapy (IAT)" at his clinic in the Bahamas. Burton claimed that IAT would cure cancer patients by manipulating an immune defense system that he postulated. In 1979, CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" gave Burton a tremendous publicity boost when a prominent physician stated that one of his patients appeared to have recovered miraculously with Burton's treatment. Although the patient died twelve days after the program was shown, "60 Minutes" refused to inform viewers of this fact. In 1990, oncologist Wallace Sampson, M.D., analyzed a booklet of 35 case histories used to promote Burton's clinic. Sampson concluded that 30 had undergone standard or near-standard treatment and had a significant probability of living as long as was recorded in the booklet. The other vignettes lacked sufficient detail to make any judgment.

Stanislaw R. Burzynski, M.D., who operates a clinic in Houston, Texas, claims his "antineoplastons" can "normalize" cancer cells and have helped many people with cancer get well. In 1988, talk-show hostess Sally Jesse Raphael featured four "miracles" -- patients of Burzynski, who she said were cancer-free. All four stated stated that Burzynski had cured them when conventional methods had failed. Four years later "Inside Edition" investigated and reported that two of the four patients had died and a third was having a recurrence of her cancer. (The fourth patient had bladder cancer, which has a good prognosis.) The widow of one of Raphael's guests stated that her husband and five others from the same city had sought treatment after learning about Burzynski from a television broadcast-and that all had died of their disease.

Lucas Boeve, proprietor of a clinic in the Dominican Republic, claimed that ozone gas administered at his facility had cured cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, arthritis and many other diseases, and that he provided an ozone machine that had cured "Magic" Johnson of AIDS. In 1994, the staff of NBC's "Dateline" took a responsible look at Boeve's activities by investigating all the cancer and AIDS patients on a list of success stories provided by Boeve. Of thirteen cancer patients: two had died; three could not be found; two refused to be interviewed; three were alive but still had cancer; and three said they had been helped, but their doctors said they were probably cancer-free before ozone therapy. Of two AIDS patients, one said he felt well but still was HIV positive, and the other had not been retested for HIV. "In all," a commentator concluded, "not one documented cure on Boeve's own list." In addition, Johnson's representatives said that he had had nothing to do with Boeve (or ozone therapy) and was still infected with the virus.

Beginning in 1995, Kathy Keeton, wife of Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione, achieved widespread publicity with claims that hydrazine sulfate had cured her of stage IV metastatic cancer after doctors gave her only six weeks to live. However, she died of her disease in 1997. The five-year survival rate with stage IV breast cancer is 12-20%. A two-year survival is certainly not unusual.

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This article was revised on October 18, 2000.