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Book review: Curious ways to fight cancer

By MARTIN SIEFF   |   July 31, 2002 at 1:55 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, July 31 (UPI) -- If you are suffering from cancer, read this book, "Living Proof: A Medical Mutiny," by Michael Gearin-Tosh (Scribner, New York, $25, 331 pages).

If you have any family members or friends suffering from cancer, read this book. If you think there is any chance that you or any loved ones may ever suffer from cancer, read this book. And if none of the above applies, read it anyway.

This is a quite extraordinary story told in an exceptionally authoritative way. At the age of 54, Michael Gearin-Tosh was diagnosed in 1995 with myeloma, bone marrow cancer, one of the most lethal cancers known.

The usual survival time with treatment is two to three years; without it, one year. Seven years later, when this book was published, the cancer was still in remission and Gearin-Tosh remained active and although understandably careful about his health, remarkably robust, a fully functioning member of society.

The odds against his survival beyond three years were 99.995 percent. He calls himself "The 0.005 Percent Survivor."

Gearin-Tosh rejected chemotherapy, the universally accepted treatment for his form of cancer, just as it is used for many others. An expert in the field, Ernst Wynder, former professor at Sloan-Kettering Hospital and recipient of a medal from the American Cancer Association, advised a mutual acquaintance to warn the author, "If your friend touches chemotherapy, he's a goner." This message understandably had a sobering effect.

Gearin-Tosh fought his cancer with a truly bizarre combination of therapies physical and spiritual. He undusted an old juicer and applied himself to the Gerson Therapy, which required an astonishing daily intake of freshly squeezed vegetable juices -- and also at least three coffee enemas a day to repeatedly flux out the digestive system and purge the liver. He took regular acupuncture treatments. He consumed enormous daily doses of vitamin C as Dr. Linus Pauling prescribed, ignoring conventional medical claims that it was only a placebo.

He did Chinese breathing exercises, thousands of years old. In these he had to visualize for at least an hour at a time breathing oxygen in through his toes. In other visualization exercises, he repeatedly imagined the heroic Imperial Russian armies that defeated Napoleon in 1812 marching through his body looking for white cancerous cells to hunt out and destroy.

Gearin-Tosh is no crackpot. He is a fellow in English literature at St. Catherine's College, Oxford, and a visiting professor at Stanford University. His friends include some of the leading conventional oncologists in the world. Two of them contributed medical assessments to this book. Other world-famous medical experts have enthusiastically praised it. Gearin-Tosh really had a cancer that is invariably fatal yet he beat it using a combination of exceptionally unconventional alternative therapies, and he remained alive and well and active to tell his story.

In large part, Gearin-Tosh owed his survival to being a scholar of English literature. His academic discipline, by training and experience, gave him an exceptional understanding of the weasel words and code language that doctors use to manipulate their patients into taking courses of treatment that will inflict horrendous suffering upon them for astonishingly little, if any, long-term benefit.

A respected cancer specialist trying to persuade the author to take chemotherapy treatment writes him a warm and friendly letter. In it, he casually remarks: "I am sorry I forgot to mention to you that the best way of administering this chemotherapy is through a Hickman line which can be placed into one of the big veins, and tunneled out under the skin of your chest wall. This then stays in place for the duration of your treatment."

Gearin-Tosh comments, "His phrase 'I forgot to mention' makes me paranoid about gradual disclosure, about bad news dripping out. Will there be more?

"And I saw a Hickman line at the Marsden (hospital): a patient's shirt was open and a rubber tube hung from his chest ... I decline the treatment."

Gearin-Tosh's description of the de-constructive interpretation he puts to the carefully calibrated soothing language aimed to coax him into a regime of chemotherapy while hiding its horrors and ultimate hopelessness is worth the price of the book itself. It is a stunning demonstration of why all values and qualities in any society, including technological progress and the struggle to maintain social justice and human liberty, ultimately depend on the honest and accurate use of language. "In the beginning was the Word." And without it there is no salvation.

And no physical cure or relief either.

Gearin-Tosh is a glorious writer, and appears to be a uniquely attractive human spirit as well. He never loses his sense of humor, his tolerance or his intellectual curiosity. He does not trivialize or lessen the terrors and horror of his cancer treatment odyssey. But from the very beginning, it appears to have been a voyage of spiritual as well as physical discovery and renewal for him as well.

He meets wonderful people along the way. There is Sir David Weatherall, Regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and head of the Institute of Molecular Medicine, who frankly tells him, "What you must understand, Mr. Gearin-Tosh, is that we know so little about how the body works." A captain from the Russian army -- President Vladimir Putin's, not Marshal Kutuzov's one of 1812 -- stays with him and gives him needed encouragement.

Gearin-Tosh's book invariably invites comparison with another recent classic cancer memoir, the late John Diamond's "C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too." The books complement each other to an astonishing degree.

Gearin-Tosh's memoir, for all its unrelenting honesty and accuracy, is a warm and welcoming read. The author comes across as an exceptionally nice man, a literary voice who immediately becomes a lifelong companion and cherished friend. He is open-minded and intellectually curious about alternative therapies. He claims to be repeatedly terrified and afraid and that is probably true, but the heady, intoxicatingly joyous contagion one picks from him instead is his gloriously resilient courage.

Poor Diamond, a star columnist for the London Times, went through the torments of the damned with conventional chemotherapy and died terribly, anyway. His account is as terrifying as the memories of an inmate at Dachau.

It revives Alexander Solzhenitsyn's haunting metaphor of the cancer ward as a medical gulag.

Yet, Gearin-Tosh notes that Diamond's Times obituary records, "He hated complementary (or alternative) medicine." This provokes Gearin-Tosh to ask, "What is it to be a rationalist cancer patient? What is meant by a rationalist's hate of complementary medicine? Do not cancer patients have choices? Is there, from the start, a note of fatalism in this so-called rationalist position?" In other words, to accept Diamond's position, you have to accept and obey what conventional medicine tells you to do, even though you know it will torture you and soon you will die anyway.

Gearin-Tosh does not have to spell out the ultimate contrast between him and Diamond. He survived to continue living a happy and fulfilling life. Diamond, who repeatedly sneered at alternative therapies and put his fate in the conventional wisdom of contemporary medicine, did not.

The list of testimonials to this book is almost as astonishing as its contents. "Except for two forms of cancer, chemotherapy does not cure. It tortures and may shorten life -- no one can tell from the available data."

These are not the words of a crank. They were written by Dr. Candace Pert of the Georgetown University School of Medicine. She goes on to ask "whether that very intimidating emperor (the modern cancer industry) is quite naked after all."

Dr. Robert Kyle of the Mayo Clinic advises, "All physicians should read this book. He concludes that "the role of the 'unorthodox' treatments in (Gearin-Tosh's) own experience deserve scientific study and scrutiny."

Indeed.

Other glowing testimonials come from John Bayley, husband of the late great novelist Iris Murdoch and a prominent literary critic himself and from the beloved actress Dame Diana Rigg.

Cancer memoirs from Solzhenitsyn to Diamond share one characteristic. They are invariably terrifying. This one is not. It is one of the most inspiring works you will ever read. It cries out to be made into an HBO or Showtime movie. Perhaps even TNT could get Disney or Hallmark to sponsor it. It cannot be recommended highly enough.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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