Mexican clinic experience

When, after a radical mastectomy Tina Cooke decided to abandon orthodox cancer treatment and travel to Mexico to find an alternative, her doctors and husband were horrified. But this complementary care, which alms to boost the immune system, has given her body - and spirit - a new lease of life REPORT ADRIAANE PIELOU (The Mail on Sunday magazine 27 Sept 1998)

There is probably no more frightening thing that you can ever be told about yourself. "You have cancer," the doctor says, and with those three words everything changes. You have cancer, you have cancer, you have cancer. Now what should you do? 'When my doctor told me my tumour was malignant, I laughed,' says Tina Cooke. 'I was so shocked that I couldn't take it in. My first thought was, "I'm going to die." I walked out like a zombie, and it's daft but all I could think of was going to Harvey Nichols. I got there, bought a big diary and went up to the cafe and began to cry. I sat there for three hours with tears running down my face people looking at me and looking away, and just wrote and wrote, pages and pages about what l felt, the shock, my life."

Tina, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in January, sits on the sofa at her London house and shakes her head what the memory. She is 42, warm and gregarious, the mother of two teenage boys by her first marriage and a six-year-old girl and three-year-old boy by her second marriage.

"Then I went home and had to be Mummy, a bright and cheerful, while the children had their supper and bath. After I'd put them to bed, my husband came home and l told him, then I waited until he'd gone to sleep and just cried and cried, and filled another ten pages in the journal. I didn't function for a week.'

Her oncologist, or cancer specialist, was, as she asked him to be, completely frank. Her prognosis, he told her, was 'very poor’. Her biopsy indicated the cancer was "extremely aggressive" radical mastectomy -- removal of her entire breast - was required, followed by six months of chemotherapy, then radiation to kill any remaining cancerous cells. In his opinion, there was only a 30 per cent likelihood that she'd survive five years. Her mastectomy was carried out just 12 days after the original diagnosis. Because her prognosis was so poor, the doctors gave her her first session of chemotherapy the next day. The highly toxic chemicals used in chemotherapy, while being very efficient at killing off tumours, are equally efficient at killing healthy cells, induding the disease-fighting cells of the immune system. Most recipients know they can expect to feel ill afterwards. Tina, however, wasn't prepared for how truly appalling the side effects would make her feel.

'Terrible! After the second session, I thought, "How on earth am l going to get well if my treatment is destroying my immune system?" My hair was falling out, I had rashes all over my body, disgusting fungus growing on me, and I felt constantly nauseous. The medicine to combat the nausea gave me headaches, which meant I had to take more stuff to combat the headaches. And after the third session,' she laughs wryly, 'came the turning point.'

The next week she describes as 'seven days that changed my world'. On the Monday, an old friend from Los Angeles called out of the blue and told her about a Hollywood producer friend who three years before had amazed everyone by going to an alternative cancer-care clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, with two weeks to live - and returning with all signs of his cancer having disappeared. The friend would be in London in a few days and promised to bring all the details. On the Tuesday, Tina bumped into a school friend she hadn't seen for 20 years who knew all about the Mexican clinics. Tina had to meet her father, she said, Edward Goldsmith, editor of the London-based watchdog magazine The Ecologist, which that month had devoted its entire issue to cancer. She had a copy delivered that evening. 'Are the experts lying?' read the cover line.

The first feature Tina turned to talked about how, since the 1940s, mainstream cancer treatment in Britain and the USA has been hijacked by the big pharmaceutical companies that produce the hugely profitable chemicals the treatment relies on, and how this cancer establishment has routinely blocked the use or development of any kind of natural and thus unprofitable cancer treatment. Tina lay on the sofa and spent a day reading the magazine from cover to cover, feeling successively angry, despairing and resolute.

On the Friday, the friend from Los Angeles arrived, weighed down with an armful of books for Tina, including the two-and-half inch thick Alternative Medicine Definitive Guide to Cancer, compiled by two American doctors and author Burton Goldberg, that expanded on everything she'd been reading in The Ecologist. That Sunday, 19 April, Linda McCartney died, focusing every newspaper, every conversation, on cancer.

The following Monday, Tina called all her doctors -the oncologists, the surgeon, the hospital - to tell them she would not be returning. When she told her surgeon she was stopping the chemotherapy midway through the prescribed course, he shouted at her. Later, on the phone to the Tijuana clinic her Los Angeles friend had recommended, she was told she should come as soon as possible, preferably for at least two weeks. She should bring all her X rays and medical reports. That evening, when she told her husband her plans, he was as horrified as the surgeon. 'He was so upset. He said, 'You can't stop now. You'll die." And I said, "Listen one thing I feel sure is that I'll be dead if I continue with the chemotherapy."'

Eventually, they reached an agreement. They would both go to Tijuana, Tina would have one week's treatment, and then they would come home and decide whether she would continue with the chemotherapy. if the alternative treatment seemed to make a difference, she'd cancel the next session of chemo and return to Mexico( They went, and the week left Tina feeling and looking better than she had done in months. was daunting,' she says, 'not knowing what to expect. But it was so exciting, seeing other patients there and listening to their stories. Some of them had arrived in comas, and within weeks they were walking. Some recovered in two weeks. These weren't just more recovery stories, they were living people who I could talk to. And my consultation with the doctor gave such hope. He said they never gave a person statistics: 'You have three years to live" - that was not for one human being to tell another. But he and the other alternative doctors felt cancer could be controlled. Not cured, always, but controlled. He explained that everyone makes something like 10,000 cancer cells a day, but when a person's immunity beaks down, tumours can form. The tumours were symptomatic of the problem, which was deep rooted, possibly sometimes emotional. There were no promises, but he would help me build up my immune system by giving me various natural substances intravenously and change my diet drastically. I left his office thinking, "I will survive!"'

Which is how, early last month, I came to be with Tina in Tijuana for her second round of treatment. 'She looks so different this time. Not tired, not grey in the face. I'm happy to see this,' says the most glamorous 29-year-old woman dentist I have ever encountered, Dr Ada Garcia We're in Tijuana, at the dentist recommended by Dr Alvarez at the Stella Marts Clinic, where Tina has come for this second round of alternative treatment. As part of the detoxification process she started the first time she came to Tijuana, in June, she is gradually having her mercury fillings and root canal work removed, the old fillings replaced with ones that do not send a constant stream of toxicity into her system. As the mercury dentists remove from fillings is treated as toxic waste, she says, it makes good sense. In her handbag, where the average tourist to Mexico has a thriller, she has The Root Canal Cover-up by Dr George Meinig, founder of the Association of Root Canal Specialists in the US.

'And the treatment costs a lot less here than it does in London,' Tina adds cheerfully, handing over the notes. After she's hugged Dr Garcia goodbye, we call a taxi and in ten minutes we're at the Mexican border We show our passports, walk through the throng to the US side, then get another taxi for the 30 minute ride back to the hotel where we're staying in San Diego. The next morning, we do the trip in reverse to Tijuana, and by 9.30am Tina is back in the air-conditioned offices of Dr Gilberto Alvarez, ready for her dally treatment. On the menu today is a lymphatic massage, a coffee enema, a drip containing vitamin C, Laetrile, and DM50 or dimethylsulfoxide (an agent that helps these permeate cell walls) -and, in between, an organic vegetarian breakfast and lunch served with the supplements individually prescribed for each patient.

'Hello, dears,' calls out Mary-Ann Brondes, who is also staying at our hotel and who is already hooked up to her drip. A 65-year-old ex-nurse from Toledo, Ohio, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. In his 30s, her husband had had cancer of the thyroid successfully treated by doctor-turned-alternative~practitioner Dr Phillip Benzol, author of a best-selling book about Laetorile, Alive and Well. Mary-Ann had also been treated by Dr Benzol, but now that he had retired, she was coming to Dr Alvarez for her annual maintenance visits. 'I still have a tumour,' she says, 'and I monitor it, but it's nothing to panic about, and there has been no sign of metastasis. I never believed people who said cancer is the best thing that can happen to you but I do now, because it makes you value every minute of your life. I play golf, I'm active, and I wake up every day feeling immense gratitude.'

Tina and Mary-Ann turn their attention to a video one of Dr Alvarez's assistants has put on, Cancer Doesn't Scare Me Anymore, narrated by Dr Lorraine Day, a pathologist and former breast cancer patient who has since campaigned to have the alternative methods that stopped her cancer recognised by the medical establishment in the US. 'It's an uphill battle when you realise who funds our hospitals. Follow the money - it's the very pharmaceutical companies who make so much profit from the drugs that hospitals use to treat this evermore- prevalent disease. "Cancer Inc" don't want patients to stop using their drugs. Sick patients are good business. But are there alternatives? You bet!' declares Dr Day from the TV. Mary-Ann and Tina nod in silent agreement.

It's odd to contemplate them. Both women look so healthy, so cheerful. There is none of the tense fearfulness you associate with people undergoing cancer treatment. This is especially surprising, as Tina's tests seem to indicate the cancer has spread to other areas of her body - or metastasised. Since she had the two tumours (one malignant, one benign) removed in January, her doctor suspects the cancer has spread to her bones. If this is so, and it takes hold, her London doctor has warned that 30 per cent survival chance drops way lower.

"The cancer has spread? OK, I can deal with that now. I know I'm doing the right things to help my body deal with it, 'Tina says later.. 'One of the great things about coming to Mexico is that the tests they use to detect the progress of your cancer are more specific and sensitive than anything orthodox doctors use in Britain. Here, they use blood anaysis rather than X-rays to diagnose where the cancer is. The blood tests show much more, and you can chart your progress week by week by your blood counts. I'll get mine back tomorrow, but Dr Alvarez seems relaxed about it’.

After lunch, I get a chance to sit down with Dr Alvarez in his office.. He's 51, a kindly faced man with a quiet, low key way of speaking.. He tells me about his background: how he trained at medical school in Mexico City, then went to the United States to quality, planning to practise there. While in the US, he became interested in the results being gained through the use of Laetrile, and when his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he came home to Tijuana to be near him.. Apart from a time in Germany, where alternative health treatments have never gone out of fashion, he has worked in Tijuana ever since, treating mostly American patients.. The basic principle underlying his treatment is simple: cleansed and nourished, the body heals itself..

What causes cancer? That is a mystery,' says Dr Alvarez.. 'But what we do know, because it has been proven so many times, is that the body can restore itself to health.. We have an immune system. If we allow this to work as it was designed to work, healing takes place..' Healing as in complete cure? 'That I am reluctant to say. Yes, I have treated patients who have been in remission ten, 15 years later.. But cancer is unpredictable. I can say that usually we can control it so that patients can live normally. We have a boy with a brain tumour who came to me when he was four. He still has the tumour, which is in his brainstem and so inoperable, but he is functioning well. He is 20 now, and has a driving licence.'

The Stella Maris is only one of more than 20 clinics in Tijuana offering cancer care.. All emphasise treating the immune system, using detoxification, diet, and various additions such as hydrazine sulphate.. Probably the best known, though, is the Gerson Institute, which has been stopping cancer in its tracks for almost 60 years and is now run by Charlotte Gerson, daughter of the famous founder Dr Max Gerson, who escaped from Germany to the US before the war and who pioneered his diet~based treatment in the 30s, initially for skin tuberculosis, then for a whole range of degenerative diseases.. His 1958 book, A Cancer Therapy, details the cures of 50 patients, and is still in print.. The institute brochure -which lists a sample of cancer patients its method has helped, including ex-BBC journalist Beata Bishop, now a psychotherapist, who came here in 1931 - quotes a letter written by his most famous patient, Dr Albert Schweitzer, whom he treated for diabetes.. 'I see in Dr Gerson one of the most eminent geniuses in medical history,' wrote Dr Schweitzer in 1959, alter Dr Gerson's death.

At the institute for Charlotte Gerson's weekly Wednesday lecture, I listen while she talks about the development of cancer.. Around me are around 20 patients, all on a regime of freshly squeezed organically grown vegetabie juice on the hour every hour for 13 hours a day, along with daily detoxifying coffee enemas.. The vegetarian diet also initially cuts out dairy produce.. The water they drink is rigorously filtered, and nothing can be put on the skin -such as deodorants - 'that you wouldn't eat'.

'Let the body do its job,' says Charlotte Gerson when I talk to her afterwards. A strikingly energetic woman of 76, she has followed the diet all her life.. 'We do not claim to cure everyone, she says, 'but, as my father said, '"They say it is not possible to cure cancer.. I say it is possible, and I do it.." But the cures take longer nowadays.. Today, everyone has eaten so much pesticide-laden food their systems are markedly more toxic.. And that, my dear, is the sad reason why we are seeing so many young people getting cancer - people in their 40s, ever more children.. Older people who grew up in the 30s and 40s started out with a better diet, and that has stood them in good stead.. But children are in danger now.. Some of that baby food they're given - oh, what is done to them by the big food businesses makes me very sad..'

On the beach outside the hotel in San Diego, Tina runs her fingers through the sand and reviews her week in Tijuana I can see a difference in her in just the week: the mouth ulcer she arrived with has cleared up, her hair is looking less dull, and she is radiating energy She still has cancer, but the blood test that detects cancer cells shows a lower count than a month ago.. Her blood tests show traces of cancer in the bone, 'seedlings', but even in the week the number has receded.. Dr Alvarez has given her the name of a laboratory in London where she must continue to have monthly blood tests, the results of which she must mail to him.. If the level rises significantly, he will want her to return. She must continue with the strict regime he has set her on: eating a vegetarian diet of organic foods, exercising, taking necessary supplements, and maintaining a positive mental outlook..

In the meantime, in order to help other cancer sufferers understand that orthodox treatment is not the only option, Tina has set up the Cancer Alternative Information Bureau (CAIB) to provide information about alternative cancer treatments. The information pack she has put together lists the useful books and guides, together with details of how people can contact the many alternative clinics and talk to other cancer sufferers who have tried and tested the treatments. To have to hunt for the right doctor when you're coping with the stress of the news that you have cancer is grim,' she says. 'I go down on my knees in gratitude for having found the fantastic care I've had. What's right for me might not be right for someone else, but I've learnt that it's so important to find out what treatments exist, so that you can make up your own mind about what is best for you.' Annual subscipton to CAIB costs 10.95, which covers the info pack, forthcoming seminars, and quarterly newsletters.. Contact CAIB at PO Box285, 405 King's Road, London SW1O OBB, fax: Ol 71352 2833.

WHY GO TO MEXICO FOR CANCER TREATMENT?

Tijuana has become a centre for alternative cancer-care clinics because of its proximity to the USA, where doctors are licensed to treat cancer only with conventional surgery, chemo and radiation. Because of the rather dismal survival rates these have shown, there is growing grass-roots interest in the US in alternatives. However, doctors who do start using alternatives find themselves up against what has been called the 'cancer establishment." Many of the doctors who challenge this status quo end up hounded out of their practices, but with a band of patients keen to continue with or to try their treatment. By relocating just across the border in Mexico they can treat these patients without falling foul of the law. One such doctor was Dr Alvarez's mentor, Dr Harold Manner, chairman of the biology department at Loyola University in Chicago in the 70s, who moved to Tijuana and ran the Manner Clinic from 1982 until his death in 1992, and whose Laetrile-based protocol Dr Alvarez continues to practice. The Stella Maris and other clinics are listed in an international directory to alternative clinics, Third Opinion, by John Fink (15.25, available by mail order from the Nutri Centre, 0171-3232382).

WHAT IT COSTS

Tijuana's nearest airport is San Diego, California.. Tina Cooke shopped around for cheap flights and found a return for 500 through low~cost specialist Trailfinders (0171-937 5400).. Some of the clinics are residential and let a companion share your room free or at a minimal cost; you can check this with the clinic or via the Third Opinion guide (see page 31 for more details), which lists them all. Otherwise, many guests stay in San Diego, California, and cross the border each day to Tijuana (which can be risky at night). A short taxi ride from the border, Americana Inn in San Ysidro, California (tel: 001 619 428 5521), runs a daily minibus service to and from the clinics, has a restaurant geared to patients' needs and charges $42 per room per night The Stella Maris Clinic (tel: 0052 66 343444) charges up to $3,200 a week non residential, including all treatment and daily breakfast and lunch. Dr Alvarez prefers patients to stay for three weeks, but can condense treatment for those unable to afford that The Gerson Institute (tel: 001 619 585 7600) charges up to $4,900 a week, residential, all-inclusive, and also recommends a three-week stay..