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Christian Believers Have Faith in Unproven, Dangerous Cancer “Cures”

The e-mails began arriving as we covered Ravi Zacharias’s losing battle with cancer, imploring us to inform the evangelist of natural cures, nutrition regimens, and unproven treatments that could heal his disease, some of them available through unregulated treatment centers in Mexico.

Ravi Zacharias needs to seek holistic measures, not chemo or radiation,” read one. “Both medical treatments kill as many good cells as bad. There are already cures for cancer but the pharmaceuticals (sic) and insurance industries want population control, especially for Christians.

“We are Praying that Mr. Ravi Z. does not give up but focuses instead on God’s gifts of life by consuming vegetables and fruits that are NON-GMO,” read another.

Another e-mail warned that time was of the essence. “We could go on, back and forth, on this issue, but, in the meantime, a treasured and anointed servant of God is wasting away…If you can get this information to him, there just might be enough time.”

One e-mail promoted the work of Dr. Joshua Axe, who recently appeared in an online talk with Gabe and Rebekah Lyons, founders of Q, which organizes conferences for Christians. Among Axe’s claims: that practicing gratitude and consuming essential oils can protect people from the coronavirus.

Another e-mail recommended that Mr. Zacharias could benefit from the work of Dr. Judy Mikovits, the anti-vaccine activist featured in Plandemic, a video full of false claims and conspiracy theories that were debunked by the magazine Science.

The New York Times reported that the Plandemic video was “a slickly produced narration that wrongly claimed a shadowy cabal of elites was using the virus and a potential vaccine to profit and gain power.” The video has been viewed by more than eight million people, generating far more traffic than sites offering reliable and scientifically tested information on the pandemic.

Cancer is a killer—it’s the second leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease—so there’s no surprise that people seek hope and healing in the face of grim diagnoses.

What is surprising is that so many Christians seem to be putting their faith in a host of unproven, unregulated, and potentially deadly cures offered by dozens and dozens of Mexican clinics and treatment centers.

Plus, the treatments are expensive, and aren’t covered by U.S. medical insurance. One Christian school teacher from California received 21-day treatments in 2018 that cost $30,000, and she paid $5,000 for maintenance supplies and vitamins.

Hyping Hope

The Oasis of Hope Hospital in Tijuana was one of several organizations MinistryWatch readers asked us to look into.  It is one of the oldest and biggest of the 60 or more below-the-bordertreatment centers.

“Oasis of Hope is a world leader in alternative cancer treatments with close to 50 years of experience, 20 years more experience than Cancer Treatment Center of America,” it boasts.

The clinic does not publish its costs for treatment, but Heal Navigator, a site that helps people find treatments in Mexico says the clinic’s costs are $19,000, for the 18-day “Core Program,” and $28,000 for its three-week “Enhanced Program” with additional treatments. These rates include a private room with two beds and meals.

Like many of the believers who contacted us about Ravi Zacharias, the center is critical of mainstream approaches to fighting cancer.

Oasis of Hope focus (sic) on the patient first, where traditional western medicine treatments focus on the disease first and then the patient.

While not a Christian ministry, the center targets people of faith, often mentioning faith and prayer in its testimonials and marketing material.  It also celebrates the facility’s founder, Dr. Ernesto Contreras.  One article on the organization’s websitedescribes a session led by Contreras:

After jokes and songs, he would ask everyone to form a circle, hold hands and pray. He would pray in a very low and humble voice. He had a simple faith that was contagious. To close, he would prescribe 12 hugs and more tears of relief and joy would often come to the eyes of many.

This story is more than heartwarming; it is fundamental for the cancer treatment approach at Oasis of Hope. Though there were no published clinical trials on the healing importance of a patient’s spirituality when Dr. Contreras, Sr. opened Oasis of Hope in 1963, intuitively, he knew that he must address the needs of the whole person—body, mind and spirit. It was because of Dr. Contreras, Sr.’s vision of lifting a patient’s spirit that he would integrate music, laughter, prayer and hugs into his medical program. 

“Oasis of Hope is designed to build community,” the center’s website says. “Our treatment room is a comfortable place where you can relax with other patients and receive treatment while listening to different speakers,” it says. “The chapel and garden areas are other places you will find wonderful people who are on similar journeys to victory over cancer.”

Treatment center websites are long on testimonies of cancer survivors but short on scientific data. Testimonials from patients at Oasis of Hope express thanks to god, always with a small g.

“Out of all places in the world I checked, I’m glad god put helped me decided for Oasis of Hope,” said one. “I’m thankful for god for the healing that he allows in this place,” said another. “You can feel the love of god in this place, it doesn’t feel like a hospital, they heal your body, spirit and emotions,” said a third testimonial.

Half a century of “whack-a-mole”

Mexico’s cancer clinics have operated since the 1950s, attracting customers from America, Britain, Australia, Japan, and around the world.

When they make the news, as when actor Steve McQueen died at one clinic in 1980, government officials often quickly close down offending clinics, only to see them reopen again under new names.

According to one former health regulator from Baja, California, “If the government does close them, nothing will keep them from opening next door. They get a new company name, and they set up another clinic, supposedly again as a regular clinic, and they keep on doing what they were doing.”

Hospital Santa Monica, the Mexican clinic where Coretta Scott King sought treatment for ovarian cancer and died in 2006, was quickly shut down. But according to a 2012 undercover report and film, this wasn’t the clinic’s first exposure to the glare of bad publicity.

The clinic’s American founder, Kurt Donsbach, was jailed in the U.S. in 2011 after pleading guilty to 13 felony charges, including impersonating a doctor, selling supplements containing banned pharmaceuticals, and telling an undercover FBI agent that the clinic had achieved a 60 per cent success rate for treating terminal cancer patients.

In one 18-month period, Donsbach made $32 million selling alternative cancer care.

The Mexican clinics got a big boost after 1962, when the Kefauver-Harris Amendments to the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act cracked down on nonstandard therapies. The Oasis of Hope opened the next year.

In the 1970s, patients flocked to be treated with Laetrile, which has proven ineffective in treating cancer and is potentially toxic or lethal.

The clinics’ growth came under pressure after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and the creation of the Mexico-United States-Canada Health Fraud Work Group, which focused on cross-border health fraud.

But Mexican law enforcement rarely polices the clinics, and American law enforcement has no enforcement power in Mexico.

In 2018, Robert O. Young, a San Diego area “miracle cure doctor” was hit with a $105-million verdict in a civil lawsuit brought by a former patient who claimed he failed to cure her breast cancer, which then spread to her bones. At the time of the verdict, Young was serving a jail term for practicing medicine without a license.

If Young’s clinic had been based in Mexico, the patient would have had no chance to sue the quack doctor.

In Britain, cancer providers are prohibited from making claims about cancer treatments on their websites. In 2014, after Oasis of Hope marketed its clinic to British audiences through a series of promotional meetings, it was required to remove these claims from its Oasis of Hope UK website:

“Oasis therapies often work when chemotherapy fails”
“Chemotherapy, Radiation & Surgery Rarely Cure”
“Survival rates in stage IV cancers are 3 to 5 times better.”

Care or Quackery?

Since 1973, the Cancer Control Society has been a source for Americans seeking information for on doctors and centers.

CCS organizes regular bus tours of Mexican cancer clinics that expose visitors to a dizzying array of purported treatment options, including: shark cartilage, microwaves, apricot seed extract injections, injections of living sheep embryo cells, hyperthermia, “Sono Photo Dynamic therapy,” Integrative Regulatory therapy, ozone treatments with UV, oxidative pre-conditioning, immune stimulation, signal transduction, cytoxic therapy, neutraceuticals, detoxification methods such as enemas or electrical therapy, hyperbaric oxygen and ozone therapy, UV blood irradiation, autologous stem cell therapy, autoimmunization and dendritic cell vaccine, detoxification, anti-oxidant therapy, acupuncture and acupressure, chelaton, injections of hydrogen peroxide, large quantities of pressed liver and carrot juice, coffee enemas, infusions of Laetrile mixed with massive doses of vitamins and dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO), anti-cancer “vaccines,” and emotional and spiritual support.

But according to articles archived by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, these complex-sounding alternatives can be boiled down to two words: “Cancer Quackery.”

“Unfortunately, no evidence exists that any of these modalities is more effective than no treatment at all,” reported another article archived by the NCBI.

“The modalities and regimens used are often referred to as metabolic therapy and, for the most part, are either not based on sound scientific principles or have been shown in controlled clinical trials to be useless or even dangerous…Patients traveling to the Mexican border clinics…are subjecting themselves to costly and hazardous regimens, especially if they forgo responsible medical care in the process.”

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.