Malignant Law Enforcement

By Doherty, Brian | Reason, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Malignant Law Enforcement

Doherty, Brian, Reason

Mary Michaels is pleased to tell me that her 16-year-old son, Paul, is in front of their house in Troy, Michigan, washing the car. More pleased than you might imagine. Nearly a dozen years ago, the 4-year-old Paul was diagnosed with an astrocytoma, the most common type of brain tumor. The prognosis was grim. Doctors warned that the tumor was too entwined in Paul's brain and optic nerve for debulking surgery - where doctors saw through the skull and physically remove the cancer - to do any good.

More bad news followed. Radiation and chemotherapy are the main weapons of mass destruction in the cancer doctor's arsenal. But they've got their own problems. Chemotherapy powerful enough to annihilate Paul's tumor would probably kill him too. The radiation would likely blind him, stunt his growth, and make him incessantly nauseated, and in the end might not give him much more time.

"We started thinking, 'Why would we do this?'" Mary says. "It would be torturing Paul. But the doctors' attitude was, 'You have to treat it somehow.'" So the Michaelses turned to the grab bag of alternative cancer treatments popular among those mistrustful of standard medicine: "We became macrobiotic. The tumor grew. We went to Mexico for Laetrile. The tumor still grew. As crushed as you are coping with a malignant, inoperable tumor, it takes a lot for hope to die."

Then Mary saw an episode of the Sally Jesse Raphael show about a Polish-born cancer doctor named Stanislaw Burzynski. Some of Burzynski's patients had suffered from astrocytomas that apparently had been cured by his unorthodox treatment. "The people on the show were so healthy-looking," Mary recalls. "I couldn't believe they were cancer patients." By that time, doctors at the prestigious Mayo Clinic had given Paul a definite death sentence. He had the largest brain tumor they'd seen in anyone that age, they said, larger than an egg. In a last-ditch effort, Mary sent Dr. Burzynski her son's scans and medical history. Burzynski thought he might be able to help.

That was more than a decade ago. Whether Burzynski in fact helped Paul remains an open question. But after years of treatment with Burzynski's patented substances, antineoplastons, Paul is 16. Back in the early years of his cancer, every doctor assured Mary that Paul wouldn't make it past the age of 10. The egg-sized tumor is now pea-sized, and, unlike heavy users of chemotherapy and radiation, Paul is neurologically normal and healthy in every way. The cancer, for now, seems under control. (Tumors are often known to return with a vengeance after seeming remission, however.) The biggest danger now to Paul's continued life and health, his mother says, is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA has a long-standing dispute with Stanislaw Burzynski that has embroiled both parties in legal maneuvers for 14 years and earned the agency the ire of Burzynski's patients. As Paul Michaels is wont to tell the press, echoing many other patients, "The government is trying to take away the only weapon I have against cancer." In the struggle for the hearts and minds of politicians and journalists, Burzynski and his patients are at least holding their own. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, has led sympathetic congressional hearings. While the print press tends to be skeptical, Burzynski has been presented in a mostly positive light on TV shows ranging from Hard Copy to CBS's 48 Hours and ABC's Nightline.

Depending on your point of view, the FDA officials battling Burzynski are mindless bureaucrats blocking access to a promising new therapy or dedicated public servants trying to prevent a quack from taking advantage of desperate patients. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. On the one hand, the government has been hard pressed to cite any serious danger from allowing Burzynski to continue treating patients with antineoplastons. On the other hand, despite numerous dramatic anecdotes and testimonials, the effectiveness of Burzynski's approach has yet to be demonstrated. …

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