Sometimes supplements don't heal

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Desperately seeking a cure

MADISON, Wis. — As a criminal defense lawyer, Meg Gaines valued evidence. But as a 38-year-old mom with ovarian cancer that had spread to her liver, evidence took a back seat to emotion as she desperately sought a cure.

With a cancer that grim and two young children to raise, "you'll try anything," she explained.

Gaines started out as a victim of traditional care. A surgeon removing an ovarian cyst accidentally burst the cyst, spilling its contents into her abdomen. A biopsy revealed it was cancerous.

Months later, tests showed 12 spots on her liver — too many to make surgery feasible. She searched the nation for someone willing to operate and tried anything else she could find.

"I grew these giant mushrooms and made tea from them," Gaines said. "I soaked my feet in this solution that turned them purple," for which her sister and a friend paid $2,500. "They got it from a guy named Ralph in Cheyenne, Wyoming."

Her acupuncturist tried a therapy.

"She would just hit on a gong, basically, and I would lie there and just absorb the vibrations. The idea was that that functions on your immune system," Gaines said. "What I liked about it was being able to picture something that might be helping on a level that wasn't chemical."

She drew the line when, as she lay in the hospital, bald from chemotherapy and shaking from low blood-cell counts, "my friend came in and said I've got to swim with dolphins. I almost smacked her across the room."

Finally, she found a Texas doctor testing cryosurgery — freezing small tumors. It turned out that only one of her 12 liver spots was cancer; the rest were tissue aberrations. He treated her and she had follow-up chemotherapy and other care.

Afterward, thinking about the things she had tried, "I felt a combination of silly and resentful and guilty," Gaines said. Cancer puts you "in a very dark place," she said. "You are a desperate person and you can't turn away from anything."

The experience led her to change careers. Fifteen years after finishing treatment, she now runs a patient advocacy and information service at the law school of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Herbal supplements can harm instead of heal

BRADENTON, Fla. — Vince Palella's brother got him started on supplements.

"His wife is a health-food nut," said Palella, a 76-year-old retired contractor who wanted to atone for years of smoking and lunches that were "more drinking than lunch."

He subscribed to a chiropractor's newsletter. Each issue focused on a topic, such as osteoporosis, and Palella wrote to the chiropractor about his back problems.

"He even wrote back to me and recommended what products I should use and how much of them," Palella said. "I just kept reading his newsletters and he'd recommend certain supplements to take for this problem and certain supplements to take for that problem."

When Palella learned he had cancer, he added the chiropractor's "prostate cancer protocol" to the other combos he was taking. They had names ending in "plex," and he had no idea what they contained. He swallowed more than three dozen pills each day, and he was thrilled to learn that his ex-wife, also a chiropractor, could get them for half price instead of the $700 they would have cost him.

"I said, 'Boy, I can take more of this now. I can afford more of the good stuff.'"

And so it went until a dietitian at Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center asked if he were taking any supplements. He had always said 'no' when doctors asked about medication use.

"I didn't think they were medications. They're not prescription, they're not drugs. This is all natural substances, made from natural products," he explained.

But he told the dietitian the truth. She was alarmed, and at his next visit, "She had a file ready for me," Palella said. She said that some of his herbal pills could interfere with hormone treatments for his cancer, and showed him a recent medical study raising concern about that.

"It scared the hell out of me. I thought, 'I'm not helping things here,'" Palella said.

He cleaned out his medicine cabinet.

"I thought I was really doing a great thing and strengthening my immune system," he said. "I feel so stupid."

Refusing surgery

TAMPA, Fla. — Leslee Flasch worked in a hospice. She had seen cancer treatments fail. Now doctors said she needed her colon removed to treat her rectal cancer. Barely 50 years old, she would have to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.

She tried some chemotherapy and radiation, but the radical surgery was something she could not face. She turned instead to prayer, a special diet and supplements she researched on the Internet — paw paw, mushroom extracts, pills with names such as "cell regulator" and "immune stimulator." Rows of bottles lined her medicine chest. She grew worse, but still she refused surgery.

"The whole family wanted Leslee to go seek medical treatment," said a sister, Donna Flasch. "I'm a believer" in herbs, she said, but "you don't let something like that grow. You don't ignore it and think it will go away."

Another sister, Sharon Flaschwho is a nurse tried to convince Leslee Flasch that conventional treatments had helped many people.

"She didn't see what I do — I see the successes," Sharon Flasch said. "I wouldn't have played with cancer. Even if I tried the herb thing, I would have had regular checkups" to watch for signs of spread, she said.

By the time Leslee Flaschwent to Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, shortly before she died in 2007, she was in severe pain and no longer able to have the surgery she had rejected earlier.

"A lot of it was fear of the unknown, fear of what she thought was going to be horrible. But she ended up having one of the most miserable ends of life that we see," said surgeon Sophie Dessureault.

"It was a sad case because I see a lot of patients with this diagnosis, where patients get treated and go on and have a regular, normal life" after a colostomy, she said. "It's the job of the physician to explain not just 'this is what you need' but 'this will happen if you do it, and this will happen if you don't.'"


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