Over at my not-so-super secret other blog, one common type of story that I’ve blogged about has been that of the “chemotherapy refusenik.” It’s a topic I write about here not infrequently as well. People like Suzanne Somers and Chris Wark come to mind, mostly people who had effective surgical therapy for their cancers and then decided to forego adjuvant chemotherapy in favor of quackery. Not surprisingly, they attribute their having beaten cancer not to the surgery that saved them but to the woo du jour that they chose instead of chemotherapy, not understanding that such chemotherapy is not the cure; it only reduces the risk of recurrence after surgical extirpation of the tumor. What I haven’t discussed as much here as I have over there are cases of children with cancer whose parents refuse effective chemotherapy to treat their malignancy (other than Daniel Hauser). Because most childhood cancers are not treated with surgery, chemotherapy ± radiation therapy really is the primary therapeutic modality for most of them; so refusing it has a very high probability of resulting in the unnecessary death of a child. Generally pediatric cancers have an 80-90% five year survival, and recurrences after five years are rare, which, as I described recently, is an enormous improvement over 40 years ago.
Sadly, there have been many such cases, such as the aforementioned Daniel Hauser, Abraham Cherrix, Kate Wernecke, and Jacob Stieler. All of these are stories of children who were diagnosed with highly curable cancers who refused either chemotherapy or radiation therapy and were supported in that decision by their parents. Indeed, of these, Cherrix, Hauser, and Wernecke ran away with their parents to avoid chemotherapy. They all came back, but with different results. Hauser came back, started chemotherapy again, and is doing well. Cherrix ultimately came back, but the court made a deal with his parents that let him be treated by an “integrative medicine” doctors who treated him with low dose radiation and a bogus “immunotherapy.” As a result, several years later his tumor recurred, and he was last seen earlier this year asking for money for treatment. His battle in the courts in Virginia also inspired the passage of a supremely bad law that basically allows open season on teens for quackery. Wernecke disappeared when her parents refused radiation therapy after having undergone chemotherapy and took her for intravenous high dose vitamin C. In 2007, her cancer recurred, but the recurrence appeared to have been treated successfully. It’s not clear how much conventional therapy she had received, at least as of 2010, which was the last time I could find anything about her online.
The latest of these cases that has come to my attention is the case of a 10-year-old Amish girl from Medina County in Ohio named Sarah Hershberger, who developed T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive form of lymphoma, underwent chemotherapy for a few weeks, and then decided she didn’t want it anymore. Her parents, convinced that the chemotherapy was killing her, instead of insisting that she undergo potentially curative therapy, which her doctors estimated to have an 85% chance of eliminating her cancer, refused to let undergo any further therapy. This led to a court case in which Akron Children’s Hospital (ACH) sued to obtain medical guardianship of the girl in order to make sure that she would undergo curative chemotherapy. The first ruling in the case in a Medina County court was for the parents. Then on appeal the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals ordered Medina County Judge John Lohn to take another look at the case, ruling that he had failed to weigh adequately which course would best serve her interests — the decision of her parents to withhold treatment (at her request) or to appoint a limited guardian to make medical decisions, as proposed by Akron Children’s Hospital. Amazingly, Judge Lohn reiterated his previous ruling, finding that appointment of a guardian would interfere “with Sarah’s need and desire to be cared for by her loving parents” and stating that “the guardianship will not promote Sarah’s interests.” One month ago, Judge Lohn’s decision was reversed on appeal to the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals, which caused everyone’s favorite quackery supporter to lose his mind in rage.
Since then the case has only gotten stranger, as hard as it is to believe. Indeed, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on, although discussing the case allows me to discuss a both the science and ethics of treating children with cancer using science-based modalities.