COULD ESSIAC HALT CANCER?
by Sheila Snow Fraser and Carroll Allen
Homemaker's, June-July-August 1977.
In her youth, Rene Caisse, a nurse from Bracebridge, Ont., defied the medical establishment to treat cancer patients with Essiac, her secret remedy. Some of them are still alive today. Now she's tired and frustrated by the red tape that's kept Essiac unrecognized - but given the right circumstances, she says she'll reveal the formula.
This is the story of Rene Caisse, an 88-year-old nurse from Bracebridge, Ont., who has been convinced for 50 years that she has an herbal remedy that's effective against cancer. In the '20s and '30s she defied the medical establishment to treat hundreds of cancer patients (most of them terminal) with her secret remedy, and produced remarkable results. Some of her patients are sill alive today, and as certain as she is that they owe their lives to her secret formula. Essiac (Caisse spelled backwards).
At a time when cancer is responsible for one out of every six deaths in Canada, and will probably affect one out of every four people on this continent; when, despite millions of dollars poured annually into research for a cure, it remains a mystery killer, it is fitting to examine the history of Rene Caisse and Essiac.
Forty years ago, Rene Caisse and Essiac were the center of a medical and political debate that reached right to the floor of the Ontario Legislature, and made headlines all over the continent.
At that time, faced with her refusal to tell them what Essiac was, a frustrated and puzzled medical profession concluded that her patients either didn't really have cancer, or that their cures had been brought about by some previous treatment.
Give us the formula and we will test it, the Ontario Commission for the Investigation of Cancer Remedies offered.
Recognize that it has merit and guarantee that it will be used on cancer patients and I'll reveal it, Nurse Caisse countered.
This deadlock, between the scientific community which demands controlled testing before sanctioning any new treatment, and the country nurse who maintains should be proof enough, persists to this day.
According to Rene Caisse, the complex nature of its herbal ingredients makes Essiac as impossible to analyze now as it was then. If it is indeed a cure, remedy or palliative, its secret is still firmly locked in her mind, and is likely to die with her.
Since 1936, at least eight offers to help her achieve recognition and distribution for Essiac have been made. Some were from scientific groups, some from interested laymen. One of them, in 1937, offered her an outright gift of $200,000 cash, and an annual salary of $50,000 plus royalties. Two offers have been made within the last six months. She rejected them all.
(Homemaker's heard about Rene Caisse through Sheila Fraser, a resident of Muskoka who had been interviewing her over a two-and-a-half year period, gathering material for a book she is writing about Rene and Essiac. The article she brought to Homemaker's had all the elements of a Perry Mason mystery. Had there been a cabal against her by the medical profession, as Rene claimed? Was Essiac as effective a treatment as her files and records indicated, or indeed her patients claimed? If the facts in Fraser's story of Rene Caisse stood up, she was obviously on to something that should be brought to the attention of the rest of the world. Carroll Allen , an experienced investigative reporter, was brought in to work with Fraser in checking and assembling the hundreds of facts and details connected with the story. Initially, skepticism was our operative word - if the treatment hadn't really been valuable, it would be irresponsible to revive an old controversy and raise the hopes of millions of people.)
We learned that Essiac was not dead and buried. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York had been testing it on mice from the summer of 1974 until the fall of 1976, when Rene withdrew her material form them because, according to her, they were not testing the formula according to her directions. And a doctor in Cambridge, Mass., Dr. Charles Brusch, who had worked with Rene in 1959, had only recently requested a supply of Essiac herbs to treat a patient with cancer of the esophagus, and Rene had supplied them. This patient, Patrick McGrail, was in the last stages of cancer, and unable to eat or sleep. Brusch didn't really expect to cure McGrail, but after the patient had taken nine doses of the herbal brew, his appetite improved, his pain lessened, and he was able to sleep in some comfort.
At press time (May 2, 1977), some 14 weeks since start of treatment, McGrail had gained 11 pounds, and was "feeling a heck of a lot better."
Asked for his opinion on the effectiveness of Essiac, Dr. Brusch replied: "Essiac has tremendous merit to supplement any therapy a cancer patient may be using. I can't call it a cure, but it definitely had and still has important merit. I regard it as essential to back up any other therapy."
Dr. Brusch is a doctor of high reputation (a citation from the city of Cambridge, an award from the Governor's Council of Massachusetts for 30 years of unexcelled medical care, a life membership in the Dante Algihieri Society for philanthropic work), so his observations and endorsement of Essiac carry great weight.
Little by little, our skepticism gave way to a mounting enthusiasm. Though Rene was wary, extremely sensitive to doubt, and frightened that an any moment "they" (the arm of the medical profession that she felt had squelched her in the past) would stifle or subvert us, she had a brilliantly sharp mind and almost total recall of names, events and personalities.
Each time we visited her over the nest few months, she would be sitting in her favorite easy chair, resplendent in a vivid flowered dress, the winter sun glinting off masses of costume jewelry, her hair hidden under a jaunty sable wig. She was always ready to produce more documents, newspaper clippings, letters from supportive doctors, and case histories as well as before-and-after photographs of cancer patients plucked from drawers or cardboard boxes stashed under her bed. and when we allayed her suspicions by setting up her own tape recorder as backup, she talked into our recorder about her experiences. She had lived many years with the possibility of fines and arrest hanging over her, and trust did not come easily.
She resented our insistence on the need to verify every fact. Insomniac, discouraged and impatient, she often expressed the fear that she would not live to see Essiac recognized. In modest circumstances, she seemed genuinely disinterested in reaping any financial rewards, and was determined that Essiac should never fall into hands that would exploit it for unseemly profit.
She was angry when we visited Dr. Brusch in Cambridge (though we had warned her in advance it would have to be done). She was furious when we went to New York to see Dr. Cheater Stock, vice president and associate director for administrative and academic affairs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She didn't want us "bothering" old patients - though they didn't regard it as an intrusion, and were eager to support her. Virtually all the doctors who had sent her patients in the early days were dead. However, some of them had written down their thoughts about Essiac, and this and other evidence was to be found in the provincial archives.
Essentially, Rene's story was true. She had been getting remarkable results against many kinds of cancer with Essiac, and she had been prevented from carrying on treatment unless she revealed the formula. Whether it would have been swept under the rug by a jealous medical hierarchy, as she feared, or hailed by a grateful profession that heaped honors at her door, is a question no one can answer, since Essiac never stood the test controlled clinical studies. But what actually happened was this:
The story of Essiac began in 1922, Nurse Rene Caisse, one of 11 children of a Roman Catholic family, was working in a hospital in Haileybury, Ont., when she noticed a patient with a gnarled and scarred breast. What happened? she wanted to know.
The patient told her a growth had appeared on her breast while she and her prospector husband were camping in a northern mining community. An Indian friend offered to heal it. Both conventional and skeptical, the couple journeyed to Toronto instead, and there, doctors confirmed the diagnosis: cancer. The breast would have to be surgically removed.
Because a friend had recently died after a mastectomy, and they had no money for hospitals in those pre-medicare days, they returned to camp, where the woman drank the Indian's brew. Her breast began to improve, and the Indian showed her how to gather herbs, make a tea, and treat herself. When Rene Caisse encountered her over 20 years, later, the breast was scarred, but not cancerous. The nurse asked for the herbal recipe.
It wasn't until 1924, when a favorite aunt, Mireza Potvin, was pronounced in the terminal stages of cancer, that Rene gave serious thought to the Indian herbal treatment. Her experience as a surgical nurse had, too frequently, been disheartening; patients were opened up on the operating table, a hopelessly inoperable malignancy discovered, the patient closed up again - and the end of the story would be sometimes an agonizingly slow, sometimes a mercifully swift, journey to death.
She asked her aunt's doctor, Dr. R.O. Fisher, for permission to try the Indian's brew. Because he didn't have anything better to offer, he gave his blessing, and Rene gathered the herbs (native Ontario plants profuse enough to treat all the world's cancer victims, she says), and brewed a tea for her aunt. After two months of drinking the brew daily, the aunt rallied, strengthened, and lived another 20 years.
Encouraged by her aunt's recovery, Rene, who was then living with her mother in Toronto, teamed with Dr. Fisher and began treating patients who had been diagnosed by their doctors as terminal. When they were given the simple, herbal brew, these patients, too, showed definite improvement, and word of this new treatment began to spread. Rene and Dr. Fisher reasoned that they might get even better results if the substance were injected hypodermically. The first patient to take the injection was a man from Lyons, New York, with cancer of the throat and tongue. With Dr. Fisher and his assistant standing by, Rene injected the liquid directly into the man's tongue. He began to shake, and his tongue swelled so badly that it had to be pressed down with a spatula to allow him to breathe. After about 20 minutes, the swelling went down and the shaking subsided. Although this patient never received another injection, the cancer stopped growing, and he was able to live comfortable for some time.
But clearly the brew needed some modification if it was to be hypodermically injected, so Rene converted her mother's basement on Parkside Drive in Toronto into a laboratory, where she and Dr. Fisher began experiments on mice inoculated with human cancer, gradually eliminating and modifying the combination of herbs until they concluded that one herb injected reduced tumors but didn't improve the state of general health. Three others, administered orally after the injection.
It seemed to result in the overall improvement they'd seen in patients. It was at this stage that the name Essiac was chosen for the treatment.
An 80-year-old man, J. Smith, came to Rene with a hideous, hemorrhaging malignant growth on his face. Within 24 hours, the bleeding had stopped. After several treatments the growth began to reduce in size, and the large holes in his chin began to heal. Photographs (which we have seen) were taken of this man before and after treatment, and because it was such a visible growth and the results were so dramatic, other doctors began sending Rene their hopeless cases. In 1925, while Rene was nursing in Timmins, Dr. J.A. McInnis persuaded her to treat a woman who had cancer of the bowel which was further complicated by a diabetic condition. The patient agreed to cease taking insulin in order to avoid any kind of complication. The cancerous tumor first became larger and harder until it almost obstructed the bowel. Strangely enough, the diabetes disappeared completely as injections were continued. The tumor eventually softened and reduced in size until it was all gone. Essiac was discontinued after six months of weekly injections, yet the patient remained in good health. In 1926, this case was brought to the attention of Dr. Frederick Banting, discoverer of insulin, who examined the records and x-ray pictures taken during the course of the treatments. He concluded. Rene stated, that the remedy must have activated the pancreatic gland into normal functioning, causing the diabetic condition to clear up.
In 1926, eight doctors sent a petition to the Department of National Health and Welfare in Ottawa, requesting that Rene be given an opportunity to test her remedy on a large scale.
"We believe the treatment by Rene Caisse can do no harm, and that it relieves pain, will reduce enlargement and prolong life in hopeless cases. To the best of our knowledge, she has not been given a case to treat until everything else has been tried without effect, and even then she was able to show remarkably beneficial results." Signed: RCA. Blye, J.A. McInnis, E.T. Hoidge, Chas. H. Hair, G. Moore, J. William, J. Robert.
Ottawa's response was to send two investigating doctors armed with official papers to arrest or restrain her. When they learned she was treating only terminal cases under the supervision of doctors, they withdrew, and one of them, Dr. W.C. Arnold, persuaded her to undertake experiments on mice at the Christie St. Hospital in Toronto. In this lab, Rene observed that mice implanted with human carcinoma responded to nine Essiac injections by living longer, and that their tumors regressed.
When her mother moved back to Bracebridge, Rene took an apartment on Sherbourne St. in Toronto, gave up her nursing job, and began treating an average of 30 patients a day who lined up at her door. Soon neighbors complained about the congestion of cars and people, and because she had no regular income (she made no charge for her treatments, accepting whatever patients gave voluntarily), she decided to move to Petersborough, Ont., where rent would be cheaper.
"I had just nicely settled (in Petersborough) when a rap came at the door about 8 o'clock one morning," Rene recalls. "There was a man who said he was there to issue a warrant for my arrest for malpractice. I had some letters from the Minister of Health and the College of Physicians and Surgeons saying they would not interfere with me as long as I didn't make a charge, so I wasn't expecting anything like this.
"However, I excused myself to go upstairs and get dressed, and in the meantime the man sat down to read the letters and papers, and when I came down he said he was not going to arrest me but was going back to talk to his boss, Dr. R.T. Noble, the registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
"I was frantic. I thought this would probably happen again, so I called up and made an appointment with the Minister of Health, Dr. J.M. Robb. Some of the patients and doctors I'd worked with came with me, and Dr. Robb told me I wouldn't be interfered with again as long as I didn't make a charge for my treatments, and had a written diagnosis of cancer from a doctor for each patient."
The first major newspaper story, headed "Bracebridge Girl Makes Notable Discovery Against Cancer," written by Roy Greenaway of the Toronto Star, appeared in 1932, and public interest in her work gathered momentum.
Dr. A. F. Bastedo of Bracebridge, who had been impressed by the recovery of a patient with cancer of the bowel whom he had referred to Rene, persuaded the Town Council of Bracebridge to make the British Lion Hotel, repossessed for back taxes, available for a cancer clinic in 1935.
"The council and mayor and a lot of people around Bracebridge helped me furnish the clinic," Rene remembers. "They were just wonderful - but as my aunt said, I was always just one jump ahead of a policeman. We were right across from the town jail, and the keeper used to joke that he was saving a cell for me."
By the end of the summer the building boasted an office, dispensary, reception room, and five treatment rooms, all nicely furnished by the town's citizens. A sister and two nieces Rene' s looked after it. Dominion Street took on an atmosphere reminiscent of the famous Shrine of Lourdes, as hopeful pilgrims sought a new lease on life. Cars were parked solidly along it shoulders. People from all walks of life waited patiently to enter the red brick building. Some were carried. Others were pushed gently up the steps, while the rest managed on their own. Occasionally, an ambulance would shriek its arrival as it double-parked. Rene would be seen coming quickly down to it to treat a stretcher case. Always with a doctor standing by, she injected scores of patients every day.
Shortly after the clinic opened, cancer struck to the core of Rene's personal life. Her mother was diagnosed, at the age of 72, as having cancer of the liver, inoperable because of her weak heart. Mrs. Caisse was not told she had cancer, so while Rene gave her daily injections of Essiac for months, she pretended she was administering a tonic prescribed by the doctor. Mrs. Caisse recovered and lived another 18 years before succumbing to heart disease. Rene says she never did tell her mother she had cancer.
Petitions with thousands of signatures demanding that the department of Health support Rene's work were presented to Dr. J.A. Faulkner, provincial Minister of Health. Another, signed by nine doctors - Wm. H. Oaks, Rosseau; M.S. Wittick, Burks Falls; W. Dillane, Powassan; E.J. Ellis, Bracebridge; F. Shannon, Churchill; B.L. Guyatt, Toronto; R.O. Fisher, Toronto; J.M. Greig, Bracebridge; J.A. McInnis, Timmins - was also submitted, and conveyed the sentiments of these doctors, who recognized the importance of Essiac. They strongly urged that immediate action be taken to make this treatment available for cancer sufferers, and that it be kept a Canadian discovery. Dr. Faulkner conferred with Dr. Frederick Banting, of insulin fame, with the result that Dr. Banting asked Rene to work with him in his laboratory on animal tests.
"You will not be asked to divulge any secret concerning your treatment," Dr. Banting wrote on July 23, 1936 "All experimental results must be submitted to me for my approval before being announced to anyone, including the newspapers, or published in medical journals."
Five doctors went with Rene to talk to Dr. Banting.
"He was very kind," she recalls, "but he made it clear I'd have to give up my clinic if I went to work with him. I felt it was inhuman for them to ask me to give up treating patients while I showed them whether it would work on mice. I'd already done work on mice.
"There was a big uproar about it because the patients were terrified I would leave them, but many doctors said I should jump at the chance to work with Dr. Banting. I said I'd be willing to, but I'm not going to let people die while I do it. It was an agonizing decision, but I refused his offer."
It was her first refusal, but it was not to be her last.
Dr. Banting wrote on Aug. 11: "I think you will regret that you have not availed yourself of the offer made by this laboratory. However - if at some future time you again decide to have the treatment investigated, I am sure that Doctor Faulkner and myself would reconsider the matter."
"In a way I have been sorry that I had to refuse it, but I would still do the same thing again," Rene says.
Among the patients Rene stayed in Bracebridge to treat was Tony Baziuk, a CNR engine watchman who developed lip cancer and was given radium treatment by Dr. McNeill in London, Ontario. His lip became so swollen after this that he could see it over the end of his nose, and he was in such pain he had to leave his job. His fellow railroaders collected some money and paid his way to Bracebridge form his home in Capreol. He presented Rene with a written diagnosis from Dr. McNeill, stating that he had cancer of the lip. Rene noted: "His face was so disfigured, it was unbearable to look at." Tony felt immediate relief after the first Essiac injection. Six months later he was back at his work and could: "Eat for one man, work for three, and sleep like a little baby." Today, at the age of 79, Tony is still grateful to Rene, and is willing to help her in any way he can.
Nellie McVittie is still alive to tell her story today. Wasted to a mere 86 pounds, she was carried, hemorrhaging, into the clinic one day in 1935. Her doctor in Sudbury, Dr. Dale, believed that she had cancer of the uterus and neck of the womb. The neck of the womb had been cauterized, then subjected to radium treatments (before she received Essiac). Later, at the Cancer Commission hearing in 1939, Mrs. McVittie was able to appear in person and tell her story. "Miss Caisse's treatments certainly put me on my feet. I could barely get around at all when I went to her. I weigh about 107 pounds now," she said, in part of her testimony.
May Henderson is now 81, and lives in Toronto. She remembers journeying to Bracebridge every Sunday in 1937 with two other patients who drove her in their car.
"We liked to get an early start," Mrs. Henderson told us, "because the clinic was always filled. We tried to get our treatment before lunch, have a bite to eat in Bracebridge, and then drive back. It only took a minute to get the injection and drink the tea, and the patients used to exchange progress reports while we waited."
Over the years, May Henderson has written many letters and visited many public officials on behalf of Essiac.
When she went to Rene, she had tumors in both breasts, and had been advised to have a double mastectomy. Then she was stunned to learn at one of her visits to a doctor that she also had a large tumor in the uterus. She was very weak and had been unable to work for some time - but she had a horror of surgery, and refused it.
"My color was a muddy yellow, my hair thin and lifeless and my eyes, ordinarily blue, were gray and stony. I hemorrhaged so badly I thought I would die, and couldn't stand up for any length of time," Mrs. Henderson recalls.
Dr. J.A. McInnis, one of Rene's supporters, concluded that she was hopeless, and that it would be futile to treat her. Nevertheless, Rene began injections, and after a few months Mrs. Henderson was back at work.
"At first," she says, "the lumps seemed to grow harder, but then the turning point came and I discharged great masses of fleshy material." Still healthy in 1977, she has never had a recurrence.
As she observed the symptoms and reactions of patients, Rene formed a theory of how, if not why, Essiac worked. Often patients would report an enlarging and hardening of the tumor after a few treatments; then the tumor would begin to soften, and if it was located in any body system with a route to the exterior, the patient would report discharging large amounts of pus and fleshy material. After this, the tumor would be gone. Rene reasoned that Essiac somehow caused all the cancerous cells to retreat to the site of the original tumor, then to shrink and discharge - often to vanish altogether.
In some cases, she believes, if the tumor doesn't disappear, it could be surgically removed after Essiac with less risk of metastases resulting in new outbreaks.
With so many seriously ill patients gathered together, it was almost inevitable that a death should occur at the clinic. In 1938, a Mrs. Gilrouth dropped dead minutes after getting an injection. Although the two sons who accompanied her stated that she had fainted earlier in the morning, and that her doctors had warned the family she might die of an embolism at any moment, the clinic and Rene came immediately under fire. Two pathologists appeared to do an autopsy, and an inquest was called.
For several days Rene was unable to find the diagnosis Mrs. Gilrouth had placed on tile before beginning treatment. At the last moment, the diagnosis was found. The pathology report showed that Mrs. Gilrouth had indeed died of an embolism in the pulmonary artery.
The publicity surrounding this inquest brought even more patients to the clinic.
The files of the Ontario Provincial Archives chronicle a steady battle over these years to have Essiac officially sanctioned. Rene wrote to the Prince of Wales, and his secretary forwarded her request for recognition to the British Cancer Campaign, which promptly asked for details about her treatment . Her answer, if there was one, is not on file.
There were letters to King George VI, and a veritable blizzard to the office of Premier Mitchell Hepburn and the Department of Health. A Mrs. Lehman wrote a letter to the Bracebridge Gazette in 1936:
A TRIBUTE TO MISS CAISSE
"I wonder if you people know what a wonderful thing life is - or do you, in your everyday hurry, forget? I had been given three months to live before I came to Miss Caisse. The time is past, and I have received wonderful results. I feel I must do my utmost to bring knowledge to other sufferers of this dread disease, and Miss Caisse has proof she can show (with pictures) of what she has done for me, and is doing. Now, people of Bracebridge, give your fellow townswoman your wholehearted support. Help her in every way necessary, and put Bracebridge on the map as the place with the most wonderful cancer clinic."
In 1937, a new petition was circulated, and attracted 17,000 signatures. Word of her treatment spread to the United States.
A leading diagnostician in Chicago, Dr. Clifford Barbourka, introduced her to Dr. John Wolfer, head of the medical division of Northwestern University. In 1937, Dr. Wolfer arranged for Rene to treat 30 volunteer patients in various stages of terminal cancer, under the direction of five doctors.
For a year and a half she commuted across the border to Chicago, armed with an explanatory letter from Dr. Wolfer to get her materials through customs. She always prepared her own ampoules, boiling and steeping the herbs at night, straining and bottling them sometimes in the small hours of the morning. She would treat her patients in Bracebridge on the weekends, travel to the King Edward Hotel in Toronto on Wednesday and treat a few patients there, and then go on to Chicago.
The Chicago doctors concluded that Essiac prolonged life, broke down modular masses to a more normal tissue, and relieved pain. Dr. Barbourka offered her offices in the Passavant Hospital in Chicago if she would move there, Rene told us.
"I wanted my work recognized in Canada," she says in explanation of her refusal, and I didn't want to abandon my Bracebridge patients." She was becoming practiced in the art of refusal.
In 1937, a group of U.S. businessmen negotiated through attorney Ralph Saft to make Rene a proposal. Mr. Saft outlined their proposition in a letter to Charles McGaughey, Rene's lawyer whom she had married that same year.
"It is proposed to organize a Foundation (headed by Miss Caisse) which will bear the name of Essiac or Miss Caisse; to make $1 million available for buildings and equipment; to pay her $50,000 a year in addition to royalties from the commercialization of Essiac; to make her a gift of $200,000."
Rene suspected this group would unduly exploit Essiac for profit, and she refused their offer, the right offer would dome one day.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of visiting doctors from the U.S. and Canada appeared in Bracebridge, observed, talked to patients, examined case books, and sometimes left testimonials.
Dr. Emma Carson came from California in 1937, and later wrote a five-page report, just before she herself died of a heart attack.
"I firmly resolved that my investigation be based on unprejudiced judgment," Dr. Carson wrote.
"The vast majority of Miss Caisse's patients were brought to her after surgery, radium, x-rays, emplastrums, etc. had failed to be helpful and the patients were pronounced incurable or hopeless cases. The progress obtainable and the actual results from Essiac treatments, and the rapidity of repair were absolutely marvelous, and must be seen to be believed.
"My skepticism," she went on, "neither yielded nor became subdued by the hopes and faith so definitely expressed by the patients and their friends.
"As I reviewed, compared and summarized my data, records, case histories, etc., I realized that skepticism had deserted me. When I arrived I contemplated remaining 12 hours - I remained 24 days. I examined results obtained on 400 patients." Her conclusion: Rene Caisse's remedy for cancer was, beyond any question, effective.
Dr. Benjamin Leslie Guyatt, curator of the University of Toronto anatomy department and a frequent Bracebridge visitor, wrote:
"In most cases, distorted countenances became normal, and pain reduced as treatment proceeded. The relief from pain is a notable feature, as a pain in these cases is very difficult to control. On checking authentic cancer cases, it was found that hemorrhage was rapidly brought under control in many difficult cases; open lesions of lip and breast responded to treatment; cancers of the cervix, rectum and bladder have been caused to disappear, and patients with cancer of the stomach diagnosed by reputable physicians and surgeons have returned to normal activity.
"I do know that I have witnessed in this clinic a treatment which brings about restoration through destroying the tumor tissues and supplying that something which improves the mental outlook on life and facilitates re-establishment of physiological function."
Dr. Richard Leonardo, coroner of Rochester, New York, was a cancer specialist who had written several books on the subject, and frequently traveled to Europe to study advanced surgical procedures. His visit to the clinic was reported in the Muskoka newspapers.
"He was a big, bluff fellow," Rene recalls, "and he was very skeptical and plain-spoken. He said he didn't believe I had any remedy, but after he talked to the patients he said:
"You're doing them good, but it's your personality and the hope you offer them!"
"He took his time talking to patients and other doctors. Then, just before he left, he sat down on my couch and hammered on the side of it and said: "Well, by God you've got it! But the medical profession isn't going to let you do this to me. I spent seven years in medical school, and I've written books."
"He told me that if my treatment of a simple hypodermic injection was accepted, he'd have to go home and tear his books and discard his surgical instruments. I was pleased that he was impressed, because when he came he was so skeptical."
Facing a fall election and another avalanche of letters from Rene and her patients, Premier Mitchell Hepburn met with Rene at Queen's Park in July 1937, and later told the press: "I am in sympathy with Miss Caisse's work, and will do all in my power to help her."
If necessary, he promised to pass a bill in the legislature to license her work. "The onus is now on the medical profession," he was reported in the newspapers as saying, "They must now either prove or disprove Miss Caisse's claims, and I do not believe they can disprove them."
Frank Kelly, the local Muskoka member of the legislature, had election handbills printed that displayed Rene's picture and quoted her as saying she had Premier Hepburn's positive assurance that legislation to permit the clinic to operate legally would be passed at the next session.
The Liberals won the election, and in March 1938, a private bill to authorize Rene Caisse to practice medicine in Ontario in the treatment of cancer was introduced to the legislature under the sponsorship of Frank Kelly. The rules of the House were suspended to allow this private bill to be presented without customary notice, and the debate before the Private Bills Committee was fierce. A petition signed by 55,000 citizens (many of whom were doctors) accompanied the bill.
Harold J. Kirby, who had replaced Dr. Faulkner as minister of health, announced his intention to introduce legislation creating a Commission for the Investigation of Cancer Remedies, and argued that only such a commission should pass judgment on Essiac. In the meantime, Rene was advised to carry on as before.
Her lawyer, Don Carsick, protested that "patients and their relatives are reporting that doctors are refusing to give her diagnoses of cancer, and that a cabal has been organized by the medical profession against her."
This charge was met wit cries of "Untrue," and "Shame," by the members of the legislature. But one patient stood to charge: "My mother was a cancer patient, yet three doctors refused to give her a written diagnosis for Miss Caisse, though they gave it to my mother verbally."
Fifty patients present in the gallery applauded this statement so loudly that Speaker David Croll threatened to clear them from the House.
Dr. M.T. Armstrong, the Liberal member from Parry Sound, rose to back Frank Kelly in support of the bill. "I don't know whether it's a cure or not, but I certainly have seen people who have been helped by her. I've talked to practically every medical doctor in the legislature, and there isn't one who's against her."
On March 24, 1938, the Private Bills Committee rejected the bill to allow Rene to practice, on the grounds that to allow it would be tantamount to endorsing her treatment as a cure or effective remedy. The act introduced by the Minister of Health to set up a Commission for the Investigation of Remedies for Cancer, was passed in April, and was to become law on June 1. It stated that anyone treating cancer would be required to submit samples of material, together with the written formula and any information pertaining to the method of treatment.
It provided for fines of up to $2,500 and jail sentences up to six months for those who refused to comply.
One clause in this bill was particularly offensive, in Rene's view. It stated that although members of the commission and their employees would promise not to divulge formulas, there would be no penalty attached, no libel or slander actions allowed, if someone did reveal a secret formula.
Rene notified her patients that she was closing the clinic at the end of May, and would reopen only at the request of the Premier.
Letters deluged the offices of the Premier and Minister of Health. "Please, please do what you can to get the Caisse clinic reopened - it means my life," a typical letter from a patient pleaded.
The woman who made this plea had inoperable cancer of the stomach, and wrote that she had been taking Essiac for two months, was feeling better, and was able to retain food. Now, she found the clinic crowded with people whom Rene was afraid to treat.
Under this public pressure, Premier Hepburn and Health Minister Kirby asked Rene to reopen the clinic, and promised she would not be charged under the Kirby law.
By the end of 1938, the Cancer Commission of six doctors had been appointed, and under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice J. G. Gillanders, their investigations got underway early in 1939. (The appointees were R.C. Wallace, M.A. D.Sc., Ph.D., LL.D., F.G.S., F.R.S.C., Kingston; R.E. Valin, M.D., D.Sc., C.M., F.R.C.S., Ottawa; F.A. Collins, B.Sc., Copper Cliff; W.J. Deadman, B.A., M.B., Hamilton; T.H. Callahan, M.B., Toronto; George S. Young, M.B., F.R.C.P., Toronto.)
A small subcommittee was sent to Bracebridge to interview patients and examine records. Dr. B.L. Guyatt, who had consistently been impressed with Rene's treatment, accompanied them.
Early in March 1939, public hearings opened at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. Rene rented a ballroom to seat 387 patients who appeared to support her. Of those, only 49 were selected by the Commission to be heard.
The original transcript of the hearing is missing from the provincial archives, but Rene had saved her Photostatted copy covering pages 1243-1410, where Essiac was discussed. (A total of 18 experimental remedies were brought before the Commission.) The transcript reads like courtroom drama.
One by one, Rene's patients were questioned.
"If it hadn't been for Essiac and Nurse Caisse, I'd have been buried long ago," was a frequent statement.
"My doctor had given me up," many assured the Commission.
John Thornbury testified that his wife, Clara, had been diagnosed by x-ray two years before as having probable cancer of the stomach, and had been so weak, at 72 pounds, that he'd had to carry her into the Bracebridge clinic. Mrs. Thornbury was present to testify that she now weighed 107 pounds, and could do all her own work. (This woman lived to be 91, and died in 1975.)
Annie Bonar, with cancer of the uterus and bowel diagnosed by biopsy at St. Michael's hospital by Dr. E.R. Shannon, testified that her cancer had spread after radium treatments until her arm had swelled to double its size, and turned black. Down from 150 pounds to 90 pounds, she entered St. Michael's to have her arm amputated, but changed her mind on the eve of the operation and went to Bracebridge instead. After four months of Essiac treatment, her arm had returned to normal, and she had gained 60 pounds.
John Tynon testified he had cancer of the bowel and rectum diagnosed by Dr. J. McDonald of Huntsville, Dr. Peter McGibbon and Dr. Frazer Greig, of Bracebridge, and Dr. A. Ardagh, of Orillia. The growth had broken through the bladder wall, and he had broken through the bladder wall, and he had gained 39 pounds, and was in good health.
Again and again, the commissioners questioned the accuracy of the diagnoses the patients offered. Some doctors denied their own diagnoses in letter to Dr. R.T. Noble, registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Implying that there had been pressure on doctors to renounce their earlier findings, Rene's lawyer, Edward Murphy, said: "If this matter (of diagnosing) is done so sloppily, there should probably be a commission to investigate that." Patients who are told they have cancer must assume that they do, Mr. Murphy contended.
During the hearing, many patients spoke of the torture of radium burns and surgery. Almost all testified that their doctors had told them they had only a short time to live. Many went to Rene only after suffering a recurrence following radium or surgery.
Some doctor's reports were read into the evidence. For example: "There is a distinct mass just below the pit of the stomach; x-ray examination shows extensive growth - too extensive for removal. (This patient) will probably require an operation, making a second opening between stomach and bowels to prolong life."
This statement by Dr. G.O. Dowsley was later confirmed in a letter to the patient's son. The patient refused surgery, and took Essiac. A later examination yielded the following statement from Dr. Dowsley: "On comparison, x-ray plates taken recently show very marked improvement on those taken some months ago."
Dr. Guyatt testified that "I am satisfied that the patients I saw at Bracebridge were definitely receiving benefit." Stating that he had considerable clinical experience, he felt the diagnosed cases of cancer were bona fide.
"I would not say (it was) a cure, because a cure of cancer means 25 years."
Towards the close of the hearing, the chairman remarked: "What she (Nurse Caisse) is asking us to do is to pass on the case histories she has given us, without the Board having any knowledge of what the substance contains, or the theory of its operation or administration."
Murphy (Rene's lawyer): "Exactly." Commissioner Valin: "If she has a cure, why would she deprive the whole population of that cure? Murphy: "They will treat guinea pigs and mice with it for awhile, as they have in the past, and then they may say it's no good. And then there you are, at the end of the road, when apparently a great number of people are satisfied with the results they have obtained." Commissioner Valin: "If she has a cure, why would she deprive the whole population of that cure?" Murphy: "Yes she has." Chairman: "If I made a favorable comment and put my signature to it, and it was found to be pure water and the effects were purely mental, I would look pretty silly, would I not? On the other hand, if it contained something harmful I would still feel pretty silly." Commissioner Valin: "The treatment of cancer is the practice of medicine. She really is privileged. I do not think there is anywhere else in any other province in this country where she would be allowed to have a clinic and treat patients... "We want to continue this investigation with some control in the future of cases which she will treat - that they would be seen by some member or representative of the .Commission, and a complete diagnosis and examination done, and then follow the cases and after a certain time make a report. We feel we should like to pursue our observations further, and that is the reason why we want the formula."
In December 1939, the Cancer Commission issued its interim report: Its summary stated that in cases where diagnosis had been by biopsy, there was one recovery with Essiac, and two cases of improvement; in cases diagnosed by x-ray, one recovery was attributable to Essiac, and two improvements. In clinically diagnosed cases, two recoveries were attributable to Essiac, and four improvements were noted. The Commission believed there were three wrong diagnoses, 10 questionable ones, and four that were not positive. Eleven were accepted.
Some five cures were attributed to previous radium treatments. Mrs. Annie Bonar, who had been faced with amputation of her arm after a year of radium and x-ray treatments, was livid that her cure was laid at radium's door.
"It is the opinion that the evidence adduced does not justify any favorable conclusion as to the merit of Essiac as a remedy for cancer," was the Commission's verdict.
"If, however, Miss Caisse is desirous of having her treatment further investigated, and wishes to submit further evidence and is prepared to furnish the formula of Essiac, together with samples thereof, the Commission would be glad to make an investigation in such manner as is deemed desirable and warranted."
Rene was quoted in the newspaper as saying, on hearing the results: "The Commission would not consider any recovery due to Essiac unless there had been no other treatment previously taken. I have been obliged to treat so many cases sent to me by doctors after everything in medical science had been used ineffectively. I have not been allowed to take a cancer case without a doctor's diagnosis, and in the majority of cases, a doctor will not give me a diagnosis unless he considers the patient beyond the help of medical science had been used ineffectively. I have not been allowed to take a cancer case without a doctor's diagnosis, and in the majority of cases, a doctor will not give me a diagnosis unless he considers the patient beyond the help of medical science."
All in all, she felt she had done well in the face of these stringent conditions. Hers was the only one of 18 remedies investigated to be credited with any cures at all.
"Until the medical profession will admit from the cases I have treated that my treatment has merit, I will not give up the formula. When they do that, I will be willing to give my treatment to the world," she said.
After the Cancer Commission report, patients found it difficult and often impossible to provide Rene with written diagnoses. Although she was never charged under the Kirby Bill, she feared imprisonment, and closed the clinic in 1942. She went "in a state bordering on nervous collapse" to live with her husband in North Bay, until he died in 1948, when she returned to live again in Bracebridge.
In 1952 she received several urgent letters from Godfrey A.P.V. Winter Baumgarten, posted in Rome, requesting that she treat Eva Peron, wife of the Argentinean dictator. Madame Peron was evidently sent to live under an alias, Evelyn Paro, in Duluth, Michigan, and Rene was advised about how to contact her there. Rene says she never went.
Letters from the provincial health department file indicate that she was treating some patients in her home during the '50s, and was being watched by the Health Department.
On May 29, 1958, C.J. Telfer, secretary of the Commission for the Investigation of Cancer Remedies wrote to Dr. Mackinnon Phillips, Minister of Health:"At a meeting of the Commission, a letter was read from Miss Caisse, the nurse form Bracebridge who refused many years ago to divulge the formula which she was then and apparently is still using in the treatment of cancer. The Commission feel no action should be taken by them, but directed the matter be brought to your attention in case you might wish to refer this one also to the College" [of Physicians and Surgeons].
Letters to Premier Leslie Frost from patients and supporters brought this response from Frost to Rene, in September 1958: "- it would speed matters up greatly if you would get in touch with Dr. W. G. Brown, Deputy Minister of Health, and arrange through him to give the Cancer Remedies Investigation Commission the details of your methods, so the Commission could give them a thorough analysis."
In October 1958, Rene wrote a lengthy letter to Dr. Brown, which is quoted here in part: "I have a letter from the Hon. Leslie Frost asking that I contact you about my Essiac treatment for cancer. Dr. Phedran of the College of Physicians and Surgeons has ordered me to stop treating. He is under the misapprehension that I am practicing medicine. I am treating in order to convince the medical world of the benefits that can be derived by cancer patients with the Essiac treatment.
"I told Dr. Banting, Dr. Noble and Dr. B.T. McGhie 20 years ago, that when the medical world would give me some assurance that this treatment would be used by them in the treatment would be used by them in the treatment of cancer (clinically), I would be willing to give my formula. They would not give me this assurance, so I decided that if they did not know what I was using, they could not be in a position to condemn it. I have therefore kept my own counsel."
The letter goes on: "I had a man, Mr. Schwartz, from Oshawa, call on me last Sunday. He said that since I treated him eight years ago for cancer of the spine, he has been, and is now, in perfect health.
"I have a case now, a woman from North Bay with cancer of the breast, with secondaries under the arm. She was losing the use of her arm. Now it is localized in the breast, and she can use her arm quite freely, and has no pain. The primary is beginning to reduce. She is frantic because I have been ordered to stop treating.
"I am glad that when Dr. McPhedran sent his policeman here to arrest me, that I had not too many patients to turn away. I closed my clinic years ago, but patients came begging for treatment at my home, and I could not turn them away. Do not feel sorry for me, Dr. Brown; feel sorry for the many who cannot have the benefit of this Essiac treatment for cancer."
In January 1959, Dr. M.B. Dymond, Minister of Health, assured R.J. Boyer, MPP for the Bracebridge area: "Dr. McPhedran assures me that the College will not prosecute without first getting in touch with my deputy minister, or with me. I gathered, however, that it is their hope that Miss Caisse's activities might be controlled by means of surveillance, and that no prosecution would ever be necessary."
In 1959, Ralph Daigh, vice president and editorial director of Fawcett Publications in New York, introduced Rene to doctors at the Brusch Medical Center in Cambridge, Mass. There, under the supervision of 18 doctors, she began a series of treatments on terminal cancer patients and laboratory mice.
Lena Burcell, a patient of Dr. Charles Brusch, who had breast cancer with involvement of the lung and pleural effusion, showed remarkable improvement. Her ability to breathe improved markedly, and no more pleural effusion developed - significant, because it had been consistent previous to Essiac treatments. John Cronin had inoperable carcinoma of the right lung, with diagnosis proved by biopsy. "By July 28, 1959, after seven weekly treatments, pains in the chest had disappeared, as had his shortness of breath. He could now climb several flights of stairs without obvious effort, and had again taken up his hobby of swimming." Russell McCassey was suffering from basal cell carcinoma of the right cheek, proved by biopsy. After four Essiac treatments the lesion changed color, from red to pale pink, and markedly reduced in size. The central ulcer crater was observed to be disappearing. By the end of September (he had begun taking Essiac in August), the lesion was completely healed, and only a small scar remained where the biopsy incision was made.
Dr. Charles McClure, supervisor of research, and Dr. Charles Brusch concluded after three months: "On mice it [Essiac] has been shown to cause a decided recession of the mass, and a definite change in cell formation.
Clinically, on patients suffering from pathologically proven cancer, it reduces pain and causes a recession in the growth; patients have gained weight and shown an improvement in their general health.
"This, after only three months' tests and the proof Miss Caisse has to show of the many patients she has benefited in the past 25 years, has convinced the doctors at the Brusch Medical Center that Essiac has merit in the treatment of cancer. The doctors do not say that Essiac is a cure, but they do say it is of benefit. It is non-toxic, and is administered both orally and by intramuscular injection."
While Rene was a the Brusch Medical Centre in 1959, Dr. McClure sent out questionnaires to some of her former patients. A surprising number of testimonials came back, all duly witnessed: Norman Thompson - treated 22 years previously. No recurrence. Alive and well in 1959.
Clara Thornbury - treated 22 years previously. Alive and well at 75 (this patient died in 1975, at age 91). D.H. Laundry - treated 11 years previously. Age 78 in 1959. Nellie McVittie - treated 23 years previously. (Age 65 in 1959; still alive and corresponding with Rene). Wilson Hammell - treated 30 years previously. Still living in 1976. John McNee - treated 30 years previously. Age 91 in 1959 Jack Finley - treated 20 years previously. Age 60 in 1959. Lizzie Ward - treated 14 years previously. Age 43 in 1959. Mrs. J.H. Stewart - treated 16 years previously. Age 76 in 1959. Eliza Veitch - treated 18 years previously. Age 76 in 1959. Fred Walker - treated 20 years previously. Age 72 in 1976.
A few of the early patients still correspond with Rene.
Dr. Philip Merker of Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center (one of the most prestigious research institutes in the world) had done the autopsy surveys on mice. He observed definite and pronounced changes in the animals which had not been found in the controls. Both Dr. Merker and the National Cancer Institute were interested in testing Essiac, but they insisted Rene reveal the formula. Her refusal was almost a foregone conclusion.
The work at the Brusch Centre ground to a halt when laboratories supplying mice impregnated with human cancer and doing the autopsy work wrote: "We cannot send you a report along the outline requested, for obvious reasons. We also regret to inform you that because of technical difficulties, we will be unable to process similar material in the future."
Rene felt certain pressure had been exerted on these labs to cease cooperating with her.
Since the American Medical Association had forbidden its members to refer patients to unknown remedies, the number of available patients dropped dramatically, and Rene returned to Bracebridge, her secret intact but her work a t a standstill once again.
She moved to a smaller house in Bracebridge. "I had given up hope of ever having my work recognized, and when I moved I threw 27,000 ampoules of Essiac in the garbage," she told us. The thought of 27,000 vials of possibly healing medicine going to the dump made us sick at heart. Was it possible that keeping her secret had replaced "helping suffering humanity" as her primary motivation?
In 1973 she decided to make one more try. She wrote to Sloan-Kettering and reminded them of Dr. Merker's earlier interest. Dr. Chester Stock, vice president and associate director for administrative and academic affairs, agreed to initiate some testing on mice if Rene would send him the material.
Over the next three years, Rene sent material to be injected into mice implanted with animal carcinoma. She was under the impression that human carcinoma would be used, and began suspecting Sloan-Kettering's test methods and lab reports. She became convinced that the serum was not being prepared according to her directions, and that the disappointing lab reports sent to her were not really from Sloan-Kettering labs at all. In 1976 she refused to send any more material, and terminated her agreement with Dr. Stock.
When we visited him, Dr. Stock explained that for mice to be implanted with human cancer, they must be so irradiated beforehand that results are inconclusive. Over the years, Sloan-Kettering has tested 30,000 compounds and 75-100,000 natural substances. The tests with Essiac were not encouraging, but Dr. Stock believes there are definite species differences, and doesn't rule out the possibility that Essiac could be effective against human cancer.
The material Rene sent him was 25 years old, and only one herb - the injectable one -- was used on the mice. Rene never did send him either the complete formula or all the materials.
In February of this year, Dr. Stock told Homemaker's he would be willing to do further testing if Rene would send the complete formula with its ingredients, so he could follow the injection with the oral brew. Her refusal was instantaneous, and failed to yield over the next weeks in spite of our urging. She felt it was futile to go on testing on animal cancer; she wanted Essiac used on patients, or at the very least on human cancer in animals. Furthermore, she did not believe that Sloan-Kettering would prepare the material properly: "Last time, they froze it," she claimed. "They might as well have been injecting distilled water."
As for sending the written formula, she said that was utterly out of the question.
By March of this year, we were convinced Essiac should somehow be given a chance to succeed or fail conclusively. Rene was eager to patent Essiac ( as she had some pills she'd used for years to treat prostate trouble). Because of her ill health, it was not possible for her to institute patent proceedings or make her way through the labyrinth of red tape necessary to get a new drug permit from the health protection branch of the Department of Health - a process that normally takes about five years and entails extensive toxicological and animal testing. The National Cancer Institute, however, is empowered to establish carefully supervised clinical tests on patients once non-toxicity of a substance is assured. In the hope that we might speed Essiac on its way through he bureaucratic maze with no more loss of time, we offered to set up a trust to represent her in any dealings she might have with the government, Cancer Institute or any interested pharmaceutical companies. She seemed delighted at the idea, and offered suggestions.
Together we drew up a rough outline, presented it to Rene, penciled in her suggestions, and took it to a firm of lawyers to be properly drawn. Translated from lawyerese, it stated that Rene would make Essiac available under the following conditions: that Essiac remain under her control and supervision during her lifetime, and thereafter under control of the trust; that the trust do all in its power to get a patent; that written and complete disclosure of Essiac be put in a safety deposit box, to be opened only in the presence of Rene of her nominee, and a director of the trust, that the trust use its best efforts to gain testing and recognition for Essiac under Rene's supervision, and to negotiate contracts for the benefit of Rene Caisse.
With high hopes, we drove to Bracebridge, accompanied by a lawyer, one wintry day in March. Rene, as flamboyant as ever, greeted us affably but soon began expressing grave misgivings about the trust board. Since no one in her family was in a position to do so, it was suggested that Dr. Charles Brusch or his son, (who teaches at the Harvard University Medical School) might agree to be her advocate. She knew, she said, that she would have to reveal the formula before it could be patented, but still she hedged.
She suggested everyone have a drink, and asked us to get them. Rummaging in the kitchen cupboard and the refrigerator in search of the daiquiri mix, we discovered a small, empty brown bottle with the word Essiac scrawled on its adhesive-tape label. In the refrigerator, a jar of what looked like cold tea but was labeled "herbs" sat cheek to jowl with the daiquiri mix.
Conversation over drinks was stilted, uneasy. It was as if we had all found ourselves reluctantly attending the same funeral. One by one we told Rene what we passionately believed; that she had missed many opportunities in the past because of her intransigent suspicion. Sooner or later, we pointed out, she would have to trust someone, or Essiac would be lost to the "suffering humanity" she insisted she was eager to help.
But we had a premonition that our cause, and Essiac's, was lost. Rene promised to think it over, and we left. Within a couple of days she telephoned to say she would not agree to the trust agreement. A few days later, she called to report that although Dr. Brusch had told her his son would be glad to sit on the trust as her adviser, she still would not sign or turn her formula over to the lawyer so he could start working on a patent.
But what, we asked as tactfully as possible, will become of Essiac when you die?
"I've left it to certain people in my will," she said, adding that these people had power and influence. "They'll be able to get something done."
Are these unspecified people aware of their "inheritance," we wanted to know, and are they aware of the responsibility that goes with knowledge of the Essiac formula? "They don't know anything," she replied.
We suggested that she notify them at once so they could start the bureaucratic wheel rolling. If Essiac really can help cancer patients, there has already been a deplorable waste of time. She said she would think it over.
There's a tragic and shameful irony in the Essiac tale. In the beginning, a simple herbal recipe was freely shared by an Indian who understood that the blessings of the Creator belong to all.
In the hands of more sophisticated (and allegedly more "civilized") healers, it was made the focus of an ugly struggle for ownership and power.
Perhaps our cure for cancer lies back in the past, with our discarded humility and innocence. Perhaps the Indians will some day revive an old man's wisdom, and share it once again. Perhaps this story will be the catalyst; if so, our efforts will not have been in vain.