Sarah Hershberger, pictured with her family in a screenshot from a 2014 Reason.tv video.
One of the more depressing topics that I regularly write about on this blog includes of analyses of news stories of children with cancer whose parents decided to stop science-based treatment (usually the chemotherapy) and use quackery instead. There are, of course, variations on this theme, but these stories take form that generally resembles this outline: A child is diagnosed with a highly treatable cancer with an excellent cure rate. Standard science-based treatment is begun, but the child suffers severe side effects from the chemotherapy. After an incomplete course of chemotherapy, the parents, alarmed at their child’s suffering, start balking at further chemotherapy, either because the child refuses further treatment or because they do. At some point in this process the parents become aware of the claims of practitioners of this or that alternative medicine, who tell them that their child’s cancer can be cured without toxic chemotherapy, and, wooed by the siren song of a promise of a cure without suffering, the parents choose that instead. At this point, physicians, alarmed at the parents’ choice, call in their state’s child protective services team, and a court battle ensues. Sometimes the court battle results in an order that the child complete conventional therapy, as it did with, for example, Daniel Hauser or Cassandra Callender. Sometimes it ends with a compromise in which the child and/or parents can choose an unconventional practitioner, as in the case of Abraham Cherrix. All too often the courts utterly fail to protect children with cancer, as the Canadian courts did in the cases of Makayla Sault and JJ. Not infrequently, if the court rules against the parents, the parents flee with their child to avoid treatment, as happened with Daniel Hauser, Abraham Cherrix, and Sarah Hershberger. Usually, they ultimately come back.
However they turn out, over the years of looking into them I’ve found that these stories tend to bear a depressing similarity and predictability. For example, if the child does well, it is always attributed to the alternative treatment, even when the child received a significant amount of conventional therapy. This attribution derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the treatment of cancer works in that the problem with incomplete cancer treatment is not that it can’t cure the cancer but that it has less of a chance of doing so. As I’ve explained many times, the reason that treatment regimens for many pediatric cancers involve two years’ worth of chemotherapy is that over time pediatric oncologists learned the hard way that, although the first cycle of chemotherapy (usually called induction chemotherapy) can lead to remission, without the additional cycles the chances of recurrence are very high—unacceptably so. Consequently, children who stop chemotherapy early can be in remission; they’ve just been put at a high risk of recurrence.