The Sad Allure of Cancer Quackery

By Thompson, Richard | FDA Consumer, May 1985 | Go to article overview
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The Sad Allure of Cancer Quackery


Thompson, Richard, FDA Consumer


Had you called a certain 800 number a few months ago and said you were looking for treatment for cancer, you would have found yourself talking to a woman in Salt Lake City. She would have made travel arrangements and an appointment for you at one of several "cancer clinics," in particular the Universal Health Center in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas.

The woman is no longer taking calls. She and her husband were indicted for interstate wire fraud, pleaded guilty in March 1985 to a lesser offense, and now await sentencing. Both have been arrested by Texas authorities and face state charges. A dozen other persons with ties to the center were indicted on medical fraud and drug charges. They also pleaded guilty or were found guilty at the March trials and await sentencing. The clinic itself has been closed by Mexican officials and its operator, James Gordon Keller, and his brother Ronald are wanted by the FBI on a fugitive warrant and are thought to be in Tijuana, Mexico.

Keller is a former water-softener salesman who, with a chiropractor-nutritionist, had earlier set up a similar clinic in Baton Rouge, La. When that was closed down by the Food and Drug Administration and state authorities in 1983, Keller and his associates made Brownsville their base and located the new clinic just across the Rio Grande in Matamoros. They assembled a staff of "therapists" and hired a Mexican doctor--who turned out to be unlicensed--and began advertising their services and their 800 number.

Their brochure was not modest in its claims. The center, it said, offered "an effective therapeutic approach to treatment of cancer and other diseases, including multiple sclerosis, lupus erythematosis, Parkinson's, muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular and other degenerative diseases," with cancer control their specialty.

For cancer therapy, Keller was using virtually all the popular but unproved remedies. His brochure listed "tumorex and other support modalities, including DMSO, live cell therapy, Gerovital, enzyme therapy, cardiovascular chelation, nutritional education, colonic irrigation, reflexology, iridology, and deep nerve, deep tissue, lymphatic and Shiatzu massage therapies."

Keller bought 10 condominiums when he arrived in Brownsville, using one and renting the others to patients whose course of treatment would run about two weeks and cost some $3,000. The operation grossed over $100,000 a month.

Patients came from throughout the United States, with 20 or more in the reception room at a given time. Many were elderly and in the late stage of terminal cancer. If they appeared too near death, Keller might tell them they were anemic and needed a blood transfusion, which he could not give because, he said, "the medical establishment has a monopoly on blood." He would then refer them to a Brownsville physician, who began to find these confused people in his waiting room. The physician could not be a party to what Keller was doing; these people did not need transfusions; they were dying of their disease. The physician's encounters with these patients became part of the case that was developed against Keller.

Some patients coming to the clinic were not actually ill but had convinced themselves they were and were fearful of doctors. Keller would then diagnose a condition they did not have and "cure" them of it. Some, however, were truly ill and could have been helped with conventional medicine. Among these was a child with leukemia--a very treatable condition today--whose parents refused an offer by a pediatrician to send the child, at the doctor's expense, to a hospital specializing in that disease. Instead, they took heraway from this doctor's care and over to Keller's clinic. The outcome of her illness is unknown.

All of this may have been too much for Keller's chiropractor-nutritionist partner, Barbara Masse.

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