[Update: Adam M. died on Sunday, 7 July 2013.]
This is an especially sad story. His wife tells the story about the first days, waiting outside while Adam was in the operating room. The surgery was successful and the doctor suggested it was “possibly a mid-grade [glioma].” In three days, Adam had sprung back:
That’s when we started researching like crazy. Regardless of what the result was, we were going to go alternative. Adam definitely did not want chemo or radiation, and the more research we did, the more comfortable we felt with that decision.
If the tumor recurred, Adam’s prognosis was probably very bad. They made (generally healthy) lifestyle changes and stopped using cell phones, hoping to ward off a return of the cancer. They also got in contact with the Burzynski Clinic, who are completely incapable of making any promises. Apparently, by the end of January, they were planning to go to Houston.
Their first consultation with the Burzynski Clinic was on the 6th of February of 2012. The parents were not available and missed 2 of their children’s birthdays during that trip. They rented a Chevy HHR, left the kids with the grandparents, who were in from the UK, and drove down to the clinic. And then they were hit with the bad news, and an interesting look at what goes on inside the Burzynski Clinic (emphasis added):
Dr. Szymkowski met with us to discuss Adam’s medical history and confirm the details of his brain cancer. She also briefed us on the two possible approaches that Dr. Burzynski would take in Adam’s case. The first case scenario is his patented antineoplaston therapy. To qualify for that therapy, you have to apply to the FDA for special permission, and show that the cancer is “persistent” after using traditional therapy. Well, we assumed that this approach would not be appropriate, simply because the tumor has been removed and hasn’t had time to become what could be considered “persistent”. We then got to meet the man himself! The meeting lasted less than 10 minutes. He briefly explained that he would most likely be using a “gene targeted” approach to treat Adam’s cancer. […] One of the medications is sodium phenylbutyrate, which is one of Dr. Burzynkski’s signature medications. We were definitely excited about that one, because obviously we can only get that here. After being shuffled around a bit more, we were then sent to the financial coordinator. She showed us the fee chart that we had already received in our information packet. So, no surprises there. But… then she starts lis[t]ing the medications that Dr. Burzynski has prescribed for Adam, which are not included in the treatment costs. Sprycel… $8,314.80. Votrient… $3,098.40. (emphasis added)
The family found that the cost would be in the area of $25,000 a month. And it’s simply not true that the only place to get sodium phenylbutyrate is the Burzynski Clinic. It’s an orphaned drug usually used to treat urea cycle disorders. Just about the only place on earth where they’ll prescribe it for cancer is the Burzynski Clinic.
Clearly these patients were being told that Burzynski would be treating these patients. Legally, this is very interesting since the entire premise of the TMB withdrawing their complaint against Burzynski in October 2012 was that Burzynski was not directing treatment.
Bunk. And this is going on even as his lawyers are arguing in court that he is not responsible for the “decisions” that his doctors make. The family then became aware of the serious side effects of these chemo cocktails that Burzynski was proposing, contrary to the hippy-dippy natural side-effectless hype that his supporters parrot:
At home we started talking. I did some online research into the drugs, and really didn’t like what I was reading. Side effects like “severe or like-threatening liver damage”, and “may cause you to develop a hole in the wall of your stomach or intestine”. My favorite one was, “may cause abnormal passage in the body”. Abnormal passage? So, not only would we have to spend $25,000 a month for the drugs, but Adam might develop a whole host of other problems as a result.
The family had initially decided against any chemo treatment, but (surprise, surprise) when they announce this to the Clinic, the doctors tell them that they have found lesions on the MRI, which makes Adam a potential candidate for one of the 60 ANP trials that never seem to get finished or result in any meaningful publications.
The family is about to back away from the therapy and, and only after that threat to Burzynski’s bottom line does the Clinic bother to inform them that there are more lesions in Adam’s brain:
Dr. Sano was very nice, and said she would certainly respect our wishes. However, since they found lesions in Adam’s brain this morning, it looks like the cancer may have returned and therefore the drugs would really be necessary. I nearly dropped the phone. Lesions? Already??!! It just wasn’t possible. The doctor explained that due to the change in circumstance, she would need to meet with Dr. Burzynski and discuss what he wants to do next, and she asked us to go to the waiting room where she could talk to us face-to-face.
Boy, Texas Medical Board, it sure looks like he is directly managing patient care, doesn’t it? And that doctors working under him defer to his judgment instinctively, doesn’t it? I wonder whose signature is on those records? That would be very interesting to know.
And we were totally honest with [Dr. Sano]. We can’t afford the meds. We just can’t do it. She told us that it was now possible that Dr. Burzynski might want to put Adam in the clinical trial. Now he had a “persistant” tumor, and there was something measurable. If he was given permission by the FDA to receive the antineoplaston treatment, now there was material they could measure and watch it shrink. This is essential to be considered for the trial. […] (emphasis added)
Later that evening, they receive a phone call:
Dr. Burzynski is putting Adam forward for the trial. He is going to receive the antineoplaston therapy. The therapy we have read about from the beginning. The real reason we came here. She doesn’t know anything about the financials, which we’ll have to work out with the counselor tomorrow.
So, the Burzynski Clinic is doing a wallet biopsy, the only procedure that they are any good at. The M. family went ahead with ANP. They are desperately looking for supernatural signs that what they are doing is right, and they find them everywhere.
On the 15th of February, they received news that the FDA would abet another patient’s entry into a trial:
Adam’s approved!!!!! Tomorrow morning Adam has an appointment at a Houston clinic to have his catheter fitted, then Friday he gets hooked up to the antineoplastons. […] Also, we’ve been told that Adam’s sodium intake has to be meticulously watched, and his fluid intake and excretion carefully monitored. I’ve been told, “If you can’t wake him up in the morning, get him straight to the hospital.” Fluid can accumulate in the body or brain and cause complications. (emphasis added)
As always, even the ANP can have dramatic and potentially lethal side effects, no matter what you hear.
Healer in your Heart: Researching the treatment
And, WOW, when you look at the status of all those lesions that Burzynski’s group “found” on the MRI, it looks like their status/existence was not completely certain:
We also had an appointment with the radiologist which was a bit depressing as well. We were misinformed before. The current tumor was NOT there immediately post-surgery. The post-surgery MRI shows a clear cavity. But, 6 weeks later there was definitely a “suspicious” enhancement within the cavity. It’s no bigger than a pea, but it’s probably a recurring tumor. There’s a small chance it might be nothing, only time will tell. I don’t know why, but that news really got me down. (emphasis added)
Are you paying attention, Texas Medical Board? That needs to be clarified.
On Feb 25, the doctors at the Clinic show that they are having a hard time distinguishing between someone retaining water and being dehydrated:
Although Adam had drank 11 liters (yes that’s right) of water, he had excreted 12 liters. His weight had dropped by 2 pounds, so Dr. Barbara explained that he is probably dehydrated. She recommended that we only increase the dosage by 20ml on Saturday just to be on the safe side, but to keep an eye on his fluid intake and weight. So, Adam has been drinking and eating like a champ and polished off a massive dinner last night. He drank even MORE water this morning to make sure his weight was back up. He still came up a bit short on his fluid totals (intake was 12 liters, but output was 13 liters), but weighed in at a much healthier 155lbs. this morning. But, the substitute doctor wasn’t happy. She thinks that Adam is retaining water. What?? He excreted more than he took in. He can’t possibly be retaining water. What the heck is he retaining? His weight gain can be easily explained by the mountain of penne bolognaise I forced him to eat last night. But, she refused. No increase in dosage.
So who’s really in charge of the patients at the Burzynski Clinic?
The other good news is that Adam is at his target dose. Dr. Burzynski himself has been reviewing Adam’s case, and for mixed gliomas the dosage can be lowered and still be effective. Adam is NOT on any steriods and has not suffered any fatigue at all. This is nothing short of miraculous. Many patients have ended up in wheelchairs because of the debilitating fatigue. And everyone has to take Decadron to keep cranial pressure down. Adam hasn’t needed any. Everyone is really pleased with how well Adam is doing so far. And Dr. Burzynski has a prediction… he believes that Adam’s tumor will be gone within 2 months, and after 8 more months of maintainance treatment, it should never recur. I LOVE that prediction. (emphasis added)
Since I started exploring extraordinary claims, I have noticed that people are willing to pay almost anything for 1) hope and 2) flattery.
In March, after Adam and Vanessa have returned home, they received the results of their first MRI after treatment began:
We just received a call from Dr. Barbara. The radiologist still has to do a few more measurements, so he cannot say for sure if the tumor has shrunk. However, there is considerably “less enhancement” in the tumor. This means that there is less activity, and the tumor is showing up less dense on the MRI than before. That explains why it is so difficult to see in the image. All good news!!! Dr. Barbara said, “Geeve Aatum beeg hug frum mee and goa celebrate!”
I’m no doctor, but it just doesn’t sound like the tumor is shrinking. And this seems to be confirmed in the May 12th update, when it is revealed that the tumor has grown 20% in the last 8 weeks. (The progress of the disease, as is often the case w/ Burzynski, seems independent of the ANP dosage.):
The MRI showed that the tumor that had shrunk by 40% 8 weeks ago, has now increased in size by 20%. There is also another lesion that has remained unchanged. […] The tumor seems to be affected by the treatment, but apparently this dosage level just isn’t going to cut it. So, Dr. Barbara has decided to increase Adam up to the maximum dosage. To put it bluntly, this sucks. It sucks on so many levels.
On June 11th, we get a report that looks like someone at the Burzynski Clinic nearly gets Adam killed (they never find out who it was…apparently they don’t put things like “calls to patients” in patient files at the Clinic or something) when they call saying that his blood work is bad, setting off a chain of events that leads to him nearly slipping into a coma.
On the 22nd of June, the MRI shows that Adam’s tumor is “stable,” which is a “success” at Burzynski’s Clinic, but it is a loose interpretation of “success” that no other researchers find acceptable. According to a site review of Burzynski’s clinic: “Moving from protocols to results, I am surprised by Dr. Burzynski’s statement that stable disease is a positive outcome. That runs contrary to established criteria for trial design. In the context of phase II trials, which are short-term studies, stable disease is not reported as a positive outcome.”
By August it seems that the tumor is growing again, and we get the sad news in one of the most raw moments I’ve seen since I’ve started this project:
It’s 5:00 in the morning, and I just can’t sleep. Adam and I have been talking, holding hands in the dark. The bedroom is actually dark for the first time in 6 months. And completely silent. The whooshing of the pump is gone, as is the pump’s bright display that used to cast a glow around the whole room. It’s over. We received a call yesterday that shocked both of us to the core. Adam’s lesions have grown since the last MRI 8 weeks ago, and there is now a third lesion. The treatment didn’t work. It’s worked for so many others. It is the one treatment that gave us any hope of Adam seeing the boys grow up. He probably won’t ever get to meet his grandchildren. He probably won’t see his boys get married or finish school. He may not ever get to hear Finlay say “Daddy”.
What is all the more galling, that after failing to help Adam in any meaningful way, the Clinic suggested that he come back and start a NEW course of treatment:
We don’t know what we are supposed to do next. We have discussed a few options, but they all look so awfully wrong. The Burzynski clinic is encouraging us to come back to Houston so he can start gene-targeted therapy. It just feels wrong. First of all, we need to come up with $30,000 to start the other treatment, not to mention all the expenses of going down there. It makes both of us nauseous just thinking of going back to that place and starting over. The monthly cost of the treatment is over $20,000. And it has a much lower rate of success than the antineoplastons.
They eventually moved on to another therapy. He died in July 2013.