Over the last few days, I (Bob) have been contacted by a handful of parents whose stories are on The OTHER Burzynski Patient Group. I have received two legal threats. First was an email from a father who ended his angry email: “I suggest you take down the personal blog that I wrote about my son […].” (The story, by the way, was by any measure the most horrifying illustration of alternative medicine’s predatory nature I have ever encountered.) I replied that I do not take stories down. Ever. He repeated the threat:
I expect it taken down – PERIOD – or you’ll be hearing from MY lawyer …
You have absolutely NO right to republish my blog …
Just try me – you can look up my current company [website] to see that I’ve been building another successful business and I’ll gladly use ALL the resources I have to fight this unlawful use of my personal story.
You have NO idea who you’re messing with!!
The second threat came and went while I slept. On the morning of March 3rd I received an email from my host, WordPress, which read in part:
We have received a DMCA notice (https://www.eff.org/issues/bloggers/legal/liability/IP#dmca) for material published on your WordPress.com site.
Normally this would mean that we’d have to disable access to the material. However, because we believe that this instance falls under fair use protections, we will not be removing it at this time. (emphasis added)
Section 107 of US copyright law identifies various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. You can learn more about that here:While we believe that your use of the material is protected (we have fought for our users in similar cases in the past –http://en.blog.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/striking-back-against-censorship/), please keep in mind that the complainant may choose to continue to pursue this matter, perhaps directly with you. If you would prefer, you are still able to delete the content from your site yourself.
The question of whether or not I will take down posts is a non-starter. I have tried very hard to balance patient privacy and responsibly publishing information that I believe is in the public interest while also citing my sources. That so few patients have contacted me over the course of the last few years (and despite the fact that TOBPG appeared in a feature-length Burzynski-themed infomercial by Eric Merola) suggests that I have largely succeeded.
The night before the DMCA notice arrived, the following comment appeared in the comments of the “About TOBPG” page:
I just want to thank you so much for this site. My best pal is two years into a most likely fatal cancer diagnosis. As the traditional treatments have failed to cure her, we are searching far and wide for the next possible step, and Burzynski’s name came up. Seeing the facts laid out on your site (and others) made it so easy to understand that this is nothing more than quackery. Thanks for helping us avoid what could have been a horrible misstep.
The site and all the stories stay.
I have retained counsel, Ken White of Brown White & Osborne LLC, who writes at @Popehat and who represents me pro bono on First Amendment and free speech issues.
As Stanislaw Burzynski heads to court again to answer charges made by the Texas Medical Board on behalf of a variety of patients, he is doubtlessly preparing by getting the testimony of current and former patients. In anticipation of this pony’s one trick, we are going to start telling the stories of patients who have testified on Burzynski’s behalf over the course of his long, dubious career and see where they are now.
Douglas W. was a Burzynski superstar. He was a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam and then became a corporate jet pilot. On June 26, 1994, according to a March 6, 1996 report in The Oregonian, Douglas received a bad diagnosis. He had a brain tumor, a glioblastoma. According to the report:
[Douglas’s] life gave way to surgery, 33 radiation treatments and four months of conventional chemotherapy. The worst still was to come.
In January 1995, [Douglas] and his wife, Lola, heard bad news from their oncologist: The tumor still was growing. The doctor told [Douglas] he had three or four months to live.
At this point, Douglas turned to the Burzynski Clinic and went on antineoplaston treatment. It was not cheap:
In the past year, his quest for life has taken him close to the center of a national medical controversy. He’s spent $75,000 traveling to Texas and paying for chemotherapy that his insurance wouldn’t cover.
Antineoplastons are the almost certainly ineffective chemotherapy that cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski has kept “experimental” for 4 decades. Though the experiments have led to no reputable publications, he sure has managed to charge hundreds of patients top dollar for the drug derived initially from human urine and blood. Essentially, Burzynski posits that cancer is caused by a lack of “antineoplastons” in the blood, that cancer is basically an antineoplaston deficiency syndrome. No other physician on the planet recognizes this as a cause of cancer, and no competent physician says there is evidence of this alternative immune system that is supposed to take care of cancer.
Regardless, the reason why Douglas is a superstar is revealed in the next few paragraphs of the article:
Eleven months after he started a chemotherapy unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration, [Douglas] is in full remission. […]
Last week, [Douglas] testified before a congressional subcommittee investigating the Food and Drug Administration’s obligation to patients with life threatening illnesses. He appeared on “Nightline” with Ted Koppel in defense of Stanislaw R. Burzynski, a Texas doctor who has been giving unorthodox chemotherapy to cancer patients.
In fact, according to the transcript of the May 19, 1995 Nightline episode, Douglas was used as an example of “desperation”:
DAVE MARASH, ABC News: [voice-over] The first thing you feel in the waiting room of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s Houston, Texas cancer clinic is the desperation.
DOUG [W.] My name is Doug [W.], and I’m from Estekay [sp?], Oregon, which is southeast of Portland, and I’ve got a- I don’t know what it is, but it’s a brain-
WIFE: It’s a glio- it’s a glioblastoma.
DOUG [W.] : -glioblastoma, stage IV.
Back to the Oregonian article, where we see some surprising endorsements:
[Douglas] is in the spotlight because his tumor, an aggressive, advanced stage of glioblastoma, no longer makes a blip on a brain scan. His remission amazed his doctors in Portland.
Dr. Gerald L. Warnock, a diagnostic radiologist with the East Portland Imaging Center, has evaluated four or five of [Douglas’s] brain scans in the past year. He said the most recent scan, in January, was totally clear of a tumor.
“I have never seen it happen before,” said Warnock, who has evaluated about 50 patients with brain tumors.
He said [Douglass’s] remission could be a delayed reaction to his conventional treatments, a miracle, or the result of antineoplaston, the drug administered by Burzynski.
Warnock said he is skeptical of unconventional treatments.
“One case doesn’t make a doctor a hero,” he said.
Still, Warnock is impressed with [Douglas’s] remission, because he’s seen his brain scans, both before and after antineoplaston.
“If I had a relative with that particular type of tumor, I think I would send him down there,” he said.
Dr. Bruce Dana, a medical oncologist who treated [Douglas] with FDA approved anticancer drugs, also is impressed with [Douglas’s] remission. He said he has never seen a glioblastoma disappear after earlier scans showed it growing.
By any measure, these doctors are being irresponsible. Going to the press with a data set of one person is irresponsible, especially when the stakes are so high, namely a treatment for an intractable tumor. This is not the last time we’ll hear from Dr. Warnock, however.
Of course, we have seen too much weirdness with Burzynski’s charts in the past (we’re thinking of the time that the FDA got two different sets of records, one from Burzynski’s IRB and a different one from the Clinic, about a child whose death sparked a federal investigation–whoops!) for us to accept the interpretations of anyone who has received records from the Clinic. This is a major reason that the definitive study of ANP can’t possibly come from Burzynski’s outfit. They have shown themselves endlessly incapable of maintaining charts and running clinical trials.
Douglas was out among the 75 patients protesting outside the courthouse as Burzynski faced federal charges in February 1996:
Doug [W], a patient of Burzynski’s, expressed hope that Lake will allow continued treatment. After being on the unorthodox treatments since last summer, [Douglas] said his brain cancer has disappeared.
“I had done everything my doctors in Portland told me to do and then after 33 treatments of chemotherapy and radiation, they told me to give up hope. They said I only had two to three months to live. But I wasn’t ready to give up hope. That’s why I came here.”
On the 29th of February, Douglas was in Washington, D.C. and had five minutes in front of a House committee as patients were paraded in front of congressmen and cameras to beg for their lives.
And here’s why Burzynski and his legal team use patients as human shields. Because patients channel their whole being, their entire hope into the campaign to keep their doctor, who they are allowed to believe is the only thing keeping them alive.
The next time Douglas appears in the media, it’s in the Peoria Journal Star on 5 July 1996, which opened:
Just months after Douglas [W.] went on national television and before Congress to praise an unproven drug for obliterating his brain tumor, he got a shock: The cancer was back.
[Douglas’s] trauma illustrates the contention swirling over “antineoplastons. ” Are they the wonder drugs that desperate patients insist? Or are patients the victims of a fraud charged in a federal indictment of the drugs’ creator, Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski? “There is a long history of promises of miraculous treatments, and they unfortunately generally don’t pan out,” said Dr. Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute.
[Douglas] even stands by Burzynski, abandoning antineoplastons only when his brain tumor tripled in size. “We believe that treatment did work with Doug for a year,” said his wife, Lola [W], of Estacada, Ore.
It is sad, but entirely to be expected, to see that Douglas supported Burzynski after a clear failure. They believe the treatment works, but from the outside it is impossible to distinguish between a tumor growing steadily but slowly for a year and a tumor growing like crazy only in the last weeks. This is why we need trials. This is why patient testimonials are veridically worthless.
And we’re not the only ones who question the value of Burzynski’s treatment. Dr. Warnock, the radiologist who said that it looked like he would consider sending a family member to the Clinic after he saw Douglas’s scans, has had a come-to-Jesus moment:
The biggest question is how patients fare over the long term.
Take [Douglas], whose brain scans showed in January that his tumor was gone. In April, it was back. Triple antineoplaston doses failed.
[Douglas’s] doctor cannot explain the initial disappearance. But the relapse and a second patient who had “a flagrant progression of the tumor in 60 days” make him “extremely skeptical,” said Dr. Gerald Warnock.
We suspect Warnock has learned to not speculate wildly in public and that’s why he doesn’t explain the initial disappearance. Doctors and other medical professionals who work with Burzynski’s patients have reported being stung when they see what giving him the benefit of the doubt leads to. Take Dr. Bennett, who treated a girl in New Hampshire earlier this year:
Bennett’s decision [to treat the girl] was based, in part, on a newspaper article that said Burzynski had agreed to donate the medicine required for [ML’s] treatment. But what Bennett didn’t know is that Burzynki planned to charge the family for the clinical costs associated with the therapy.
[ML’s grandfather] said the first month’s bill is expected to be $28,000. Every month after that is expected to cost $16,000. The treatment usually lasts eight to 12 months.
Bennett says a representative of the Burzynski Clinic called him on that date seeking payment for the first month of [ML’s] therapy. Prior to that, Bennett, who is donating his services, thought Burzynski was doing the same.
Instead, said Bennett, “I’m supposed to be the bag man for all of this. They want me to collect the 30 grand for the family and send it to Burzynski.”
“This is a classic bait-and-switch operation,” Bennett said of Burzynski in a recent phone interview. “He suckered me and this family into buying into a very expensive treatment plan.”
Bennett has become dismissive of Burzynski’s alleged treatment.
“His claims have no merit. He has never tested any of it realistically,” said Bennett.
And the IV-certified nurse who visited the Burzynski Clinic was apparently not impressed either:
Bennett noted as an example training for Ariel Dye, a registered nurse from Derry who oversaw the intravenous injections of [ML], which cost many thousands of dollars but provided nothing of value. Neither Bennett nor Dye were paid for their help.
“I went out there and watched the nurse teach a layperson how to work off a central line. It was nothing,” said Dye, who is an IV-certified RN. “It was crazy to me that they charged this.”
“I got little to no instruction saying (things like) if there are major reactions, this is what you’re going to do in this case, in that case,” she said. “They made it seem like it was this big training program they put me through, but they lied and were looking to make money.”
Nonetheless, in the same article, and despite the fact that ML reportedly had a bad reaction to the drugs, her grandfather still supports Burzynski:
But [ML’s grandfather] thinks Burzynski has shown at least anecdotally that his treatment has more promise than anything developed by mainstream medicine.
“If he had more funding, he could come up with answers, but nobody wants to do trials with him,” said [ML’s grandfather], who blames Burzynksi’s patent for the opposition. “Because one individual has controlling interest over this, they can’t make any money from this man.”
[ML’s grandfather] also thinks that if the FDA had allowed [her] to be treated at Burzynski’s clinic in Texas, rather than requiring it to be done in New Hampshire under the oversight of a local doctor, she might have done better.
“I don’t believe any of that nay-saying stuff. I’m not going into this blindly,” said [ML’s grandfather], talking about the months of reading and work and meetings he has held on the topic. If somebody else he knew was diagnosed with DIPG, he’d recommend going to Burzynski.
Even though knowledgeable professionals who have nothing to gain from seeing Burzynski shot down and who clearly want to help cancer patients in any way they can, once they have actually worked with Burzynski very commonly come out entirely disillusioned, the targets of Burzynski’s scheme, the fundraisers and family’s and patients, often cling harder to the Clinic, because the alternative is perhaps too horrible for the healthy mind to contemplate.
According to Douglas W.’s obituary in the Sept 8, 1996 Oregonian, Douglas died on the 6th of September, mere months after he appeared before Congress as an apparent cure to testify for Burzynski. He was 48.
[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.