Land of the living

I’ve just finished reading a remarkable book that should be read by anyone who will ever be diagnosed with cancer.

I know – that sentence is a paradox. None of us can predict that we’ll develop cancer. But one of the many rewards of this book is its unique and invaluable insider’s view for anyone who might suddenly come face to face with a cancer diagnosis, followed by the inevitable blur of decisions about treatments, relationships with doctors, and the complex responses from friends and loved ones.

An unexpected turn

The book is titled “Living Proof: A Medical Mutiny,” and the author is Michael Gearin-Tosh, a don of English literature at Oxford University. In 1994, at age 54, Gearin-Tosh was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, considered to be treatable but not curable. Less than 3 percent of multiple myeloma patients survive 10 years. When diagnosed, he was told that with aggressive chemotherapy he might live two years.

On one level, Gearin-Tosh’s story is about the world of challenges that every cancer patient experiences. The aspect that sets his story apart from so many others is the course of treatment he chose. After being told by one specialist that treating his cancer with a dietary regimen would be “useless,” and after consultations with several doctors, a good deal of personal research, and discussions with family and friends, Gearin-Tosh chose to forego chemo, opting instead for less abrasive alternative treatments.

Against all odds, nine years later, Gearin-Tosh is still alive. He’s not cured – he still has myeloma – but the fact that he’s still vital, still teaching, and still pursuing his treatments, puts him, statistically, in a class by himself.

The road to therapy

During the first weeks after his diagnosis, Gearin-Tosh researched different treatments on his own while weighing the advice of friends. During this conflicted time (made no easier by the anemia associated with his disease), he consulted several doctors, some of who were impersonal in their manner and vague when answering his questions. They insisted that immediate chemotherapy was the only reasonable way to go. What Gearin-Tosh found lacking was a rational support for chemotherapy. He wondered: If chemo is not a cure, then what’s the point? When pressed to explain the merits of chemo, all they could offer was further insistence that it was his only option.

But the book is in no way a diatribe against the medical profession. One doctor (a consultant, retired from practice) became a reliable guide without ever pushing the patient in a direction he didn’t want to go. Another doctor helped advise him in a wide variety of options, both conventional and alternative.

Finally, two months after his diagnosis, just as he was about to reluctantly begin chemotherapy, Gearin-Tosh made a breakthrough in his research of treatments when he learned about a New York City physician – Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez – who had successfully treated many cancer patients with detoxification, vitamin supplements, and a strict diet of vegetable juices.

Although he didn’t become a patient of Dr. Gonzalez, Gearin-Tosh cancelled his chemotherapy and proceeded with a dietary regimen (based on the Max Gerson cancer therapy) in combination with high doses of vitamin supplements (following the guidelines of Linus Pauling and Dr. Abram Hoffer). He also practiced visualization techniques involving special breathing exercises, took coffee and castor oil enemas (to stimulate detoxification in the liver), and visited an acupuncturist on a regular basis.

A living part

One of the most striking things about this book is the way Gearin-Tosh tells his story. He saves it from being a grim tale by frequently interjecting moments of gentle humor and interesting characters (such as a houseguest, a captain in the Russian Army, who Gearin-Tosh discovers one morning cooking breakfast at 6:00 AM and drinking champagne).

More importantly, Gearin-Tosh never preaches. He doesn’t urge other cancer patients to embrace any particular therapies. He doesn’t suggest, for instance, that acupuncture or coffee enemas or quarts of fresh carrot juice will save the lives of all cancer patients. And he doesn’t even condemn chemotherapy, noting that certain doctors have developed specialized chemo techniques combined with bone marrow transplants that have helped make chemotherapy more effective in treating multiple myeloma.

Instead, in what Gearin-Tosh calls the core of his argument, he encourages cancer patients to be open-minded, questioning, and to trust their instincts. He believes that the ideal goal is to become an involved, “living part” of any therapy that’s chosen. But with the thoughtfulness of someone who’s been there, he tempers this advice with the phrase, “if you feel you can.”

Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition

The book concludes with an eloquent, peer-reviewed case history of the patient, written by Carmen Wheatley, a former student of Gearin-Tosh’s, and one of his most dedicated supporters throughout his treatment period. Dr. Wheatley (a doctor of philosophy) concludes the history with a statement by Dr. Jeffrey Bland, a biochemist who simply states that every cancer therapy should include nutritional consultation as a standard of care. Not to, he says, should be considered, “malpractice by omission.”

Strong words. Hopefully they’ll be heard by doctors and their patients far and wide.

Carmen Wheatley’s entire case history is available online at (click on “Myeloma Case Study”). “Living Proof” is published by Scribner.

“Living Proof: A Medical Mutiny” Michael Gearin-Tosh, Scribner, 2002