After suffering from cancer, journalist Sarah Macdonald travels to Mexico to see if the
promises of miracle cures there are true.
The relationship between doctor and patient is meant to be based on honesty and mutual trust, especially when patients are at their most vulnerable, battling cancer and desperate for a cure. But that relationship can be perverted by doctors abusing the system and trying to make a quick buck. We're about to see what happens when a cancer survivor goes undercover to take on shonky clinics peddling a cure for the deadly disease. Here's Sarah Macdonald.
REPORTER: Sarah Macdonald
Tijuana, Mexico - a mecca for cheap prescription drugs, plastic surgery and alternative cancer therapy clinics, offering everything from hyperthermia, sono-photo-dynamic therapy and insulin potentiation - all with the promise of salvation.
London, England - home to some of the world's leading cancer research institutions and hospitals. One of which I'm returning to today to see my oncologist. Last year I discovered I had breast cancer.
PROFESSOR IAN SMITH, BREAST CANCER UNIT, ROYAL MARSDEN HOSPITAL: Sarah, you had a lump in the breast, which you found yourself and was totally suspicious.
It turned out I had a 13.5cm tumour in my breast. I immediately started chemotherapy, then had a mastectomy, followed by months of radio therapy. It was pure, living hell.
PROFESSOR IAN SMITH: The problem with chemotherapy, it's very unpleasant. For some patients, it can improve the survival chances by 50% or more, so it's worthwhile. Sadly, for a lot of patients we don't have a cure and it comes back. Now, there comes a time when we don't have anything else to offer.
And with that death sentence, a cancer patient will begin trawling the internet, desperate to find some way to stay alive. Very quickly, you will come across alternative cancer therapy sites. As you go through, you'll come across, like this, Oasis of Hope Hospital in Tijuana.
WOMAN, TESTIMONIAL: We came down and I was cured. I thank God every day. And don't ever give up hope.
After testimonials come the conspiracy theories.
DR. KURT DONSBACH: Watch out. Big Brother is trying to take over. It is not unlike Hitler.
This is Kurt Donsbach. He says he has three doctorates in alternative therapies.
He implies the authorities are preventing alternative clinics from offering life-saving treatments.
DR. KURT DONSBACH: If I want to rub cow shit on my head to cure cancer, I should have that right.
Dr Kurt Donsbach runs a Tijuana cancer clinic, promising high survival rights. It attracted the wife of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Junior battling cancer.. Coretta Scott King died there.
I don't have a medical background, I have not a clue if what is on offer is offering real or a false hope. So I'm on the road to Britain's Exeter University, where Professor Edzard Ernst has spent the last 18 years conducting clinical trials in the efficacy of alternative therapies.
PROFESSOR EDZARD ERNST, EXETER UNIVERSITY: One can say there is no alternative cancer cure. Full stop. And there will never be one. Because, if today we find that something might work, then it will become mainstream oncology.
I brought a list of alternative cancer therapies on offer at clinics in Tijuana, Mexico. Ozonated - Hyperthermia - what is that?
PROFESSOR EDZARD ERNST: It's a complicated word for 'bullshit'. They are irresponsible. They are also criminal, because the claims are not supported by evidence and are therefore illegal but cannot be prosecuted because the internet is more of less uncontrollable.
I decide to phone a number of the Tijuana clinics, including Hope for Cancer,to see if they will let us in to film. None would, but I'm going anyway. There's one way to make my story seem more plausible.
The crew has gone ahead with the Cancer Control Society. It's running a bus tour to the Tijuana clinics. But I'm following separately to begin my own undercover investigation. The society's president is hosting today's tour around five clinics. Some of its guests are seeking education, some salvation.
JOHN IOZZA: This is my father, who died a month ago. I'm kind of broken because I feel that he could have been helped. Had they had this kind of treatment right here in Tijuana, as the doctors, with their knowledge, he would have probably been able to have been saved.
From clinical rejection and a journey into the unknown, the travellers are soon greeted with messages of faith and hope.
MAN 2: My sister had a 4-stage metastatic breast cancer. How effective is Biocare and Dr Rodriguez, when it comes to a situation that's pretty dire?
DR RODRIGO RODRIGUEZ,INTERNATIONAL BIO CARE HOSPITAL: OK, that's going to be difficult. Why am I doing this? Because I love to see people suffering? No. Because I like to see people succeeding. That's why I'm doing this. And I have seen cases where I have been short of signing the death certificate, that walk out of the hospital. And I see them in conventions or meetings and things like that.
FREIDA GORELICK: My sister-in-law is fighting for her life right now and she's in a critical stage with her cancer. We're fighting for her right now and hopefully we can still try. We're not giving up on her.
PAM: In the conventional medicine, you know, they don't offer you anything but a few statistics. Well, here... The statistics that we offer aren't that great as far as what I am writing. But I can tell you what I have seen.
I have come to Hope 4 Cancer, as I am led to the Clinical Director's room I wonder what survival statistics he'll promise me. Part of the sell is to make sure it's better than what my doctors in London can offer. I tell Dr Tony my breast cancer tumour has returned. He begins with a complex, pseudo-scientific lecture.
DR TONY JIMENEZ, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, HOPE4CANCER: And Chemo affects these and radiation therapy affects those but they do not do anything for cancer stem cells. On the contrary, they make these more resistant. In conventional medicine, our problem is we're trying to get rid of the tumour...
REPORTER: The chemo, do you think it kills people? There's a lot of wonderful testimonies and things it's more about where the figures are coming from. Because you know what it's like, when people can make them up?
He fobs me off on his lack of evidence and sends me on a tour of the treatments.
WOMAN: This room right here, we're gearing up to have... They lower your blood sugar so that your cells will open up wide, because your cancer cells are hungry. They do a dose of Poly MVA and then your cancer cells will eat on that Poly MVA. And Poly MVA is anti-cancer. It's a supplement...
REPORTER: What is Poly MVA?
WOMAN: I don't know really know how to explain it to you.
Poly MVA has not been tested on humans in peer review trials, only on gerbils. Still, it's $34,000 cash up front. The clinics here are doing a massive hard sell. There are Japanese, Australians, Asians, Europeans, all coming into these clinics in search of hope and salvation. Meanwhile, Frieda and Don continue their journey through the clinics in search of something that may save his dying sister.
JOHN: All of the clinics that we've seen so far offer her some hope, because there's no hope in the United States, because of the limitations with their therapies over there.
Next on my target list is Kurt Donsbach's old clinic, Hospital Santa Monica, where Coretta Scott King died. It's been renamed Alpha Medical Clinic and moved to new premises. Dr Humberto Barboza used to work very closely with Donsbach.
DR HUMBERTO BARBOZA, DIRECTOR ALPHA MEDICAL CLINIC: We also do the photos on the dynamic therapy. You have to be very careful with these things here.
DR HUMBERTO BARBOZA: Because, you know, Mexican law is not too tight like in the US - Right. Or England - Right. If you want to cut your life, you do therapy and radiation.
REPORTER: You think I would die earlier from doing that?
DR HUMBERTO BARBOZA: Yes.
So I'll die if I go back to London and conventional medicine, but I'll live if I come here. This time it's $21,000, in cash.
DR HUMBERTO BARBOZA: It's your life. If you saw my website, it says, "How much would you pay for your life?" It's very simple.
Here's the border between Tijuana and the US. Over there, it's illegal to promote a cancer cure without evidence. It's illegal to tell someone you can give them a statistical chance of survival unless you have the evidence. It's fraud. So, Dr Tony and Dr Barboza could be jailed for what they have just offered me, and that's the reason they are here and not over there.
DR. KURT DONSBACH: There are a lot of things that will cure cancer. I have talked to you about hyperthermia...
In 2011, Kurt Donsbach was charged in a San Diego court with pretending to be a doctor, spiking his internet supplements with banned and dangerous pharmaceuticals and promising an undercover FBI agent a cancer survival rate without any evidence to back it up.
RAMONA, IN COURT: He also told them he has a 60% success rate treating terminal cancer patients.
LAWYER: What did he have to back it up?
JUDGE: Mr Donsbach, to the charges allege
DR. KURT DONSBACH: Guilty.
San Diego prosecutors could not have charged Donsbach if he had remained in Tijuana, but he stepped across the border.
GINA DARVAS, SAN DIEGO DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: He had a weekly radio show that he broadcast out of his offices. And during that radio show, he would take call-in questions from people all over the country, who would ask for his opinion or advice on certain medical conditions.
On that same radio show, Donsbach promised Ramona's father he could 98% cure his terminal prostate cancer if he came to his hospital and, of course, pay $23,000 cash up front. But her scepticism angered Donsbach.
RAMONA, GIVING EVIDENCE: He stamped his fist down on the table. He said, "You're out of here!" He said, "I'm sorry..." My father stood up like a child, sobbing. His head was down. He couldn't even look at us. And he said to me, "Little baby, you know, please let me stay. I have money. I have money. Please let me stay!"
GINA DARVAS: Donsbach is a con man. They were netting $250,000 American a month.
In an 18-month period, Donsbach turned over $32.5 million.
GINA DARVAS: Dr Barboza was paid $1.199 million.
Kurt Donsbach was jailed for 365 days and placed on 10 years' probation, that prevents him selling his supplements or allowing third parties to sell them on his behalf. But a quick look on the internet reveals Donsbach's name is still very much in business.
GINA DARVAS: I was unaware of this.
REPORTER: And who's she's?
GINA DARVAS: Um, she was his videoographer. And is marketing his supplements, which I believe is a violation of his probation.
The FBI discovered that one of Don Don's natural therapies, Quercetin, was spiked with pharmaceutical synthetic oestrogen. Taking it could lead to blood clots to the brain or heart.
REPORTER: Yeah, I'm looking at your website. Yeah. About Quercetin Plus. Do you think that these will actually help to cure the cancer?
REPORTER: You also say that if we have questions to Dr Donsbach, that you'll be able to put them to him?
WOMAN: Well, right now, I don't know if you know, he's in jail. They gave him six months in jail because, you know, he's too successful! He was trying to - they are always trying to kill the messengers, you know, when somebody's trying to do something alternative to what the establishment wants to do. He supposedly can't answer questions anymore, but I can get answers, because I have a personal relationship with him. I don't answer things in print, because I can get in trouble for that too.
San Diego prosecutors have requested a copy of this conversation. Donsbach could serve longer in jail. But still those in search of salvation keep coming.
JOHN: The ones who come to Tijuana, Mexico, don't come for statistics, they don't come seeking peer view studies, they come for hope. Hope has been destroyed in the conventional oncology community. Too many of these oncologists with a very just almost cold-hearted demeanour, tell a patient there is nothing that can be done for you.
FRIEDA: I watched my father die of cancer and my cancer-in-law's battling it. But -- and my sister-in-law's battling it. But I think the thing to do is to try to get her down here. I can't make that decision for her. It has to come from her. But my husband and I are probably the number one advocates to keep the fight. I mean, I have to believe that when you're still walking, you still have hope. And you're talking, you just don't give up on people and put them out to pasture.
I have just emerged successfully out the other side of treatment for breast cancer. But I understand the fear and terror that someone must feel when told they have a terminal illness. Human instinct means they will seek survival, they will search out for hope. And it is that that these clinics offer - hope. False hope. They prey on the most vulnerable and for one reason only - money.
RAMONA: He looked up at me and his eyes were filled with tears. "Ramona, I made a really big mistake. I made a really big mistake."
Ramona's father died from prostate cancer the week Donsbach was arrested in April 2009.
YALDA HAKIM: And if you want advice from legitimate cancer experts in Australia about treatments, we've put together a page of useful links on our website. That's at sbs.com.au/dateline.
Original Music composed by CHARLIE MOLE
A MAKE WORLD MEDIA AND AL JAZEERA PEOPLE & POWER PRODUCTION
6th March 2012