CANCER HOPE REBORN
ESSIAC is a herbal remedy that is said to have cured thousands of terminal cancer cases since the 1920s. Elaine Alexander, a former radio hot line producer, holds the secret formula. Now she hopes to see it become a medically approved treatment-- at last.
Mia Stainsby investigates:
Interest in the treatment, derived from a native remedy, is being revived after three decades of great public interest in the 1920's, 30's and 40's.
The truth of it is, Peggy Good was a goner two years ago. In the previous two years, surgeons performed a quadruple bypass to rescue an ailing heart. As if that wasn't enough for a lifetime, there was this other matter of ovarian cancer, a tumor as big as a grapefruit.
Surgeons went in again, removed some of the tumor, but left some behind. Too risky. Too close to vital organs.
That wasn't the end of it. She developed diabetes and learned all about injecting insulin into her veins.
Then she started chemotherapy. And she agonized. She had two months to a year to live, doctors told her. After five sessions of chemo, Peggy, 70, couldn't take any more of the chemo-misery and told doctors she preferred to die in peace.
"I was not even human," she says. "I was sick to my stomach, I had headaches, fevers, I was not eating. I was going downhill very fast in the five months I was taking chemo."
She didn't fear death, but she did have a lot to live for. A caring husband, three great children and a flock of cuddlesome grandkids. And of course, she couldn't forget how rich life used to be, waking up to a Langley morning, looking out at her spot of Earth, surrounded by fruit trees and vegetables and flowers. So when she heard about a woman in Vancouver who had a herbal tea that apparently had worked magic on terminal cancer victims, she was curious.
She phoned the woman, Elaine Alexander, who said, certainly, try it, see if it helps. The herbal tea, Peggy learned, is called ESSIAC. She had nothing to lose, she reasoned, and obtained some at no charge from Alexander.
Peggy is certain ESSIAC saved her life--handed it back in better condition than she'd known it for a long time. After six weeks of ingesting ESSIAC, a frightening event took place in the middle of the night. "I'm wetting the bed," she thought. She looked under the covers. Thick, greyish matter poured from her vagina. "It looked like scum, like pus."
Over the next couple of weeks she excreted "awful stuff," sometimes two feet long and an inch and a half in diameter. Then death began to lose its grip. "It's hard to explain to people. It's too unreal," she says. "I started to feel so good, I couldn't believe anyone could feel so good. I felt better than I had in the last 10 to 15 years." Joie de vivre returned.
When she returned to the BC Cancer Clinic for a scheduled examination, the doctor gave her a clean bill of health. Shocked, stunned, she fell silent. He too was silent. He repeated, "I'm giving you a clean bill of health." Then he walked out.
"He didn't ask me what I had taken, what I had done, so I was left muttering to myself." Doctors never asked her about what happened. "I would gladly have told anybody if they'd asked, but nobody seemed to care."
In the days that followed she started having a reaction to the insulin injections and slowly went off the needle. "All I know is that I take nothing for diabetes now."
Six weeks after starting on ESSIAC, she was turning sod on the first of three large flower beds on their hectare of land.
Back when Peggy was sick, she confided to her husband Harold that she wished they had bought a motorhome and done a bit of traveling. "You get out of here and I'll get you a motorhome," he told her. Two years later, they've logged thousands of kilometers in their four-wheeled home. She has signed up for guitar lessons and she drinks in the countryside on her long walks. Life is full of newfound meaning.
This isn't where the story ends. Harold, now 71, has one to tell too. He had a prostate problem for years. Every night, he got up to urinate almost once an hour, a painful and exhausting ritual.
Doctors advised him it wasn't time "to do anything yet" about the condition. Harold started taking ESSIAC last year. Early one evening, exhausted, he went to bed. He got up later, went to the bathroom in a sleepwalk and went back to bed. Peggy was astonished to see what he left behind in the toilet bowl. A "bowl full of pus," as she describes it. She went to wake him, to tell him there was something wrong, but he was deep in sleep. That was his last nightly excursion to the bathroom.
By last February, Peggy, a personification of understatement, believed in miracles. She gave some of her ESSIAC to an octogenarian neighbor. He had been given one month to live and members of his family had arrived from England to prepare for a funeral. Peggy and Harold motored off for a three week holiday. When they returned, they saw the neighbor walking down the road, "full of jokes and smiling and laughing and carrying on," Says Peggy.
His relatives took some ESSIAC back to England for a family member with lung cancer. "I understand she was to the point where she was bedridden and wouldn't let anyone in the house. After two or three weeks, she got up and went to bingo. The relatives are keeping me posted."
"I'm certainly a believer," says Peggy. I'm sure I would be dead without ESSIAC. I was ready for bygones."
ESSIAC has received several convincing testimonials from healed cancer patients, yet it's up to a Vancouver woman to convince health authorities to endorse it as a mainstream medication.
The story of ESSIAC is one that has refused to die. It flared into public attention in the 1920's and burned through the 1930's. For two decades, it claimed international attention, grabbed front-page headlines and gathered thousands and thousands of supporters.
Today, Vancouver's Elaine Alexander, a former CJOR hot-line producer, could well be the person who puts to rest, once and for all, the question of whether ESSIAC is scientifically legitimate. But until it's proved efficacious to the satisfaction of the authorities, ESSIAC, for all its anecdotal support, must idle in the parking lot with many other cancer treatments.
After researching ESSIAC for years, Alexander was recently given the rights to its closely guarded formula, the "vital know-how," as she describes it
Rene Caisse, a nurse from Bracebridge Ont., is the legendary figure who unleashed the wave of controversy (ESSIAC is Caisse spelled backwards.)
Caisse reportedly healed thousands of terminal cancer victims with ESSIAC in her clinic in the '20s, '30s, and early '40s. Since ESSIAC was never tested or approved as a drug, she worked only with the hopeless cases, the patients who had nothing to lose. She claimed ESSIAC would not be effective in combination with radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
Patients required a doctor's reference and a diagnosis of terminal cancer from more than one doctor. At the height of her involvement, Caisse and an assistant saw up to 600 patients a week.
She never claimed ESSIAC was the panacea for all cancer cases, but the legacy of testimony and surviving patients leaves a big question. What exactly did it do?
Caisse originally obtained a crude recipe for the remedy from a patient who, in her youth, had treated breast cancer with it. The patient got the recipe from an Ojibway medicine man in northern Ontario.
When Caisse's aunt was in the final stages of cancer, Caisse got permission from her aunt's doctor to give her the herbal tonic.
After two months of treatment, the aunt recovered. She lived for another 20 years. Caisse and the doctor tried it on other terminal cancer patients and they, too, improved.
Over the next two decades, Caisse played cat and mouse with federal health officials. Bracebridge city council gave her the use of an old hotel as a clinic to treat cancer patients diagnosed as "hopeless" by two or three doctors.
The authorities demanded clinical tests. But she stubbornly refused to divulge her formula unless she got official assurance that ESSIAC would not be lost to the people who needed it. Her first loyalty was to the people who came to depend on her. But the authorities couldn't give her the assurance she wanted. Finally, fear9ing prosecution, she closed the clinic in 1942 and went into seclusion.
During Caisse's high-profile years, Dr. Frederick Banting, of insulin fame, wanted to test the substance in his laboratory, but Caisse eventually backed down because he wanted her to close the clinic while tests were underway on mice.
Two Ontario premiers, Mitchell Hepburn and Leslie Frost, responding to constituents, went to bat for her. At one point 55,000 North Americans, including many doctors, signed a petition supporting a private member's bill to allow Caisse to practice medicine in Ontario in the treatment of cancer. The bill missed passing by three votes.
Instead, a commission to investigate cancer remedies was created to pass judgment on ESSIAC; 387 of Caisse's patients showed up to speak on her behalf. At another time, she came under fire from authorities when a terminally ill cancer victim died, 17,000 signatures were collected.
The world's largest cancer research centre, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, in New York, could not wrestle the formula from Caisse despite pressing and pursuing.
A steady stream of doctors visited her in Bracebridge, observing, examining case files, talking to patients, and leaving testimonials. She was offered huge sums of money to commercialize ESSIAC, but refused all but minimal amounts of payment for her services, often running after clients who gratefully and quietly left her money.
She lived a modest life in a modest house, clinging to her secrets, fearing the herbal mixture could become difficult or illegal to acquire.
She died in 1978 at the age of 90, but before she died, she signed over the rights to the ESSIAC formula to two parties: to Respirin Corp. of Toronto, to test, manufacture and distribute it; and to a long-trusted friend, Dr. Charles Brusch of Cambridge, Mass., director of the prestigious Brusch Clinic and personal physician to former U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Brusch himself had cancer of the lower bowel which completely disappeared after ESSIAC treatments.
Respirin's clinical trials, conducted between 1978 and 1982, were shut down under the Canadian Food and Drug Act because of poor documentation, poor test procedures, and poor results.
Respirin did not have the final improved-upon ESSIAC formula, since it had insisted on the "original" formula, Alexander says. The company and participating doctors did not have enough of that "know-how" to give ESSIAC a proper trial, she says. Respirin president David Fingard died last year and the company was sold to a U.S. non-profit group called Mankind.
In 1988, an aging Brusch (now 84) signed over his rights to Alexander, who had devoted many hours to ESSIAC on her radio program "Staying Alive". She is determined to set the record straight for ESSIAC.
Only three parties ever had the rights to ESSIAC, Alexander says, fanning out the legal documentation in front of her. "Respirin, Dr. Brusch, and myself." Her lawyer, Martin Gifford, confirms that.
"Respirin, I feel, have been negligent," says Alexander. "Their people had it in their hands for 15 years and didn't so anything with it."
In 1989, Alexander signed a contract with an unnamed health products company to research, test, manufacture and distribute ESSIAC. She keeps the name of the company close to her chest until trials get under way. "Hopefully, we'll prove its efficacy and we'll do it the right way," she says.
Since Caisse's death, products claiming to be ESSIAC have appeared and disappeared. That concerns Alexander. "There are many imitators out there, openly claiming it's the real ESSIAC, and that it's a cure for cancer. It makes me very upset to feel there's such confusion out there, with all the people who don't have time to fool around."
Although ESSIAC didn't make it through the first clinical trials, determined terminal cancer patients have been able to obtain ESSIAC under the Emergency Drug Release Program from Respirin. The EDRP is the same program under which AZT was made available to full-blown AIDS patients until AZT was legalized in 1989.
But the process requires a sympathetic doctor and approval from the program's oncology specialists, after all conventional methods have been tried.
Ed Zalesky, 63, of White Rock, was one of the patients treated with ESSIAC in 1978 during the Respirin clinical trials. "When they diagnosed me with cancer of the small intestine, they took out four feet of gut but couldn't get all of the cancer. They said I had six months without radiation and two years with radiation."
Fourteen years later, he's still impressively alive, running "Surrey's best kept secret," the Canadian Museum of Flight. He devotes seven intensive and unpaid days a week to his passion for planes.
In a 1982 letter to the editor of the Orillia, Ont. newspaper, he blasted critics of ESSIAC: "Why can't people who administer cancer funds give it a fair trial? It isn't going to hurt anyone and the medical profession should stop playing God and allow us cancer patients to use the treatment of our choice.
"I had a terrible time convincing my doctors to submit the short reports required by Respirin to compile test results, let alone make any commitments. It seems that many doctors refuse to complete the forms or conveniently forget, or make them so vague so as to be useless."
Under the law, any"cure" for an illness must be registered as a drug by the Food and Drug Act under Health and Welfare Canada. The agency's position is that ESSIAC is harmless but ineffective for cancer and that anyone marketing ESSIAC is liable to fines or imprisonment.
Dr. Paul Rennie, director of the BC Cancer Research Centre, Says the first line of defense against cancer must be the tried and true medical approach. but he's open to the possible value of herbal remedies like ESSIAC. "it's worth consideration," he says.
"Products derived from plants have proven to be of tremendous value in treating cancer. For example, an extract from periwinkle is the main arsenal for the treatment of leukemia. We can''t downplay the potential role of herbal medicine.
"Our experience with periwinkle says we have to look at these things fairly seriously, but we have to separate the wheat from the chaff. I've had calls from people saying that slug slime is a wonderful treatment for cancer. I emphasize that the first line of any cancer treatment is the conventional medical forms. Anything else is supplementary."
The main ingredients in ESSIAC are: Burdock root, sheep sorrel herb, turkey rhubarb root and slippery elm bark, all of which grow abundantly in Ontario. But details and intricacies of harvesting, handling, processing, decocting and treatment were never made public.
Dr. Jim Chan, a Vancouver naturopathic physician who also teaches at Bastyr College, a naturopathic college in Seattle, says Burdock root contains inulin, a very powerful immune modulator, "It hooks on to the surface of white blood cells and makes them work better," he says, He adds, however, that it is not as powerful as other agents, such as the mycelium of shiitake mushrooms appear to be.
Chan has obtained ESSIAC for cancer patients through the emergency drug release programme and says, "It's not 100 per cent effective, It depends on the individual scenario, in terms of the kind of carcinoma and when they start taking ESSIAC."
He has had the highest success with those who had the least amount of radiation of chemotherapy, but most people look at the ESSIAC alternative in the very late stages. Chan, however, does not encourage going off chemo or radiation therapy and says ESSIAC is not the only great hope for cancer.
In 1977, Homemakers magazine initiated an investigative story on ESSIAC. "Little by little, our skepticism gave way to a mounting enthusiasm," two reporters wrote. They interviewed scores of former "hopeless" cancer victims who lived for decades after ESSIAC treatment. They reviewed hundreds of patient cases. they researched the complicated anecdotal and political history and concluded:
"Essentially, Rene's story was true," they wrote about Caisse. "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."
Homemaker's magazine staff were so convinced that ESSIAC should be given a shot at either succeeding or failing that they took the unusual step of asking to get involved. They offered to set up a trust to represent Caisse in speeding ESSIAC through the bureaucratic maze to get a patent, while protecting the formula. Weary of fighting, she declined the offer.
Alexander, however, believes in and hopes for a happy ending for ESSIAC: "I can only refer to the decades of its open use of terminally ill cancer patients who turned around and lived," she says. MIA STAINSBY