There was a little something for everyone at the Second Annual Cancer VICTORY convention featuring laetrile this past weekend.
It had elements of high tragedy, good salemanship, serious lectures, exotic cures, plain politics. Barnumesque hoopla and ole-time religion. With its booths and speakers and skits and attendance near 1,000 the convention had some of the gala atmosphere which any gathering of Americans with a common interest will take on.
Yet the central concern at this convention was a malady of unspeakable misery and impenetrable mystery, a disease that will strike one out of four Americans at some point in their lives.
And the furious controversy about laetrile - promoted by many conventioneers as a literal godsend, and a cure - lent an air of fierce pathos to the scene, which was a colorful panorama to begin with.
There was Caroline Heddon, who recovered from breast cancer this past year and who did a cartwheel in front of the conventioneers to show what good health she was in.
There was Mohammad Saeed Khan, a native of the "disease-free" country of Hunza, "the original Shangri-La," passing out dried apricots from Hunza and promoting his new apricot import business.
There was George [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] "cheirosymbologist" or [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] fortune-teller", who understands themind through symbols in the hand and pointed cut symbols of cancer in those cancer patients at the convention.
There was Gertrude Engel, a well-known figure around Washington, a lobbyist for "Save the U.S.," dedicated to health practice, the P.R. woman handling the convention, syndicated columist for Liberty News Service and Washington correspondent for "Let's Live" magazine.
Not to mention 75-year-old Lizallota Valeska, Miss Finland in 1930, the most vivacious great-grandmother in the world, dressed in her orange leotards and tights doing headstands to demonstrate "what her health program can accomplish."
An recovered cancer patient Glen Rutherford, whose court fight led to the decision to allow terminal cancer patients to use laetrile.
And Dr. John Richardson, a member of the John Birch Society, who has had his medical license revoked but who continues to sell his book "Laetrile Case Histories" and travels around the country promoting laetrile.
There were the booths selling juicers, health foods, nature shoes, the caterers from the Golden Temple restaurants, the fact sheets on "iridology," evaluating tissues of the body through the iris.
There were the messages and testimonials from Red Buttons and Fred MacMurray, read at the banquet by Gertrude Engel. Red Buttons' wife, Alicia, had terminal cancer and recovered with laetrile, was the message, and Fred MacMurray himself had the same response, according to the message read. Neither could be there to tell the story, so Gertrude Engle was selected by them as their spokesperson.
There was poet and health food store owner Erwin Erlsfitz, who recited several "religious poems" at the Saturday banquet:
"The best way to build a junk body is to eat junk food.
"People say laetrile can be used as a control but I say diet is the most important thing.
"To be green inside is to be clean inside
"We clean the kitchen
we clean the sink.
Wouldn't it be a good idea
To clean our colons once a year."
"I don't know anything about laetrile," says Erlsfitz. "But what I do know is this. Everybody is different. Some people stay alive and others don't.
Because everybody is different, the convention appealed to nearly everyone there who found something or someone during the three days of lectures on everything from ionization to the benefits and dangers of distilled water.
But there were those who came and left still looking, those who came for hope, either for themselves or their loved ones. Those who were dying of cancer or knew someone who was.
The small gray-haired man whose wife had been operated on last Thursday for cancer of the ovaries and abdomen at George Washington Hospital.
"She doesn't know the whole story yet, how bad it is," he said sadly, shaking his head. "I hope to get her to try laetrile. I don't really believe that it can cure her but it might make it easier for her for a little while. But I wouldn't get her to try unless she wanted to. And I'm not sure she will. She's a very establishment person. A rather passive person. I'm afraid she will be guided by the almighty word of her great surgeon."
The laetrile controversy is one of those quintessential American dilemmas. We citizens demand that the government protect us from harmful drugs but we want to save ourselves when threatened. And when cancer's shadow falls, then begins the Miracle Chase. Laetrile is the newest panacea.
Laetrile is a product made from apricot pit which consists primarily of cyanide and contains a chemical called amygdalin. It is generally seen by its advocates as a cancer preventative and a cancer curative. They claim it's a vitamin, the Federal Drug Administration says it's a drug. The advocates say thousands of people have been cured by laetrile: many leaders in the medical establishment say there is no clinical evidence. The advocates say laetrile is not illegal, but the FDA will not allow it to be transported over state lines or manufactured.
The advocates say that every human being has a right to freedom of choice, that even if it doesn't help physically, if it does give hope to a dying patient, what's the harm?
But leaders in the medical establishment say laetrile can deprive those patients of otherwise effective treatment and that in some cases people have died from cyanide poisoning after taking laetrile.
And so it goes.
Carolyn Heddon is a 34-year-old woman with rosy cheeks, blond curly hair, a bright smile and a lot of spunk. She was nervous about speaking in front of such a large group and laughed that she had been running back and forth to the ladies room all morning, she was so scared. But not too scared to tell her story to the testimonial-hungry audience.
In May 1976, she says, she found a lump in her breast. It was diagnosed by four doctors as a cyst. Finally, when her breast and shoulder began to hurt unbearably and the lump had grown much larger,she had it removed and it was found to be malignant. This was, she says, at a prominent eastern hospital and she has the medical certificate to prove that she did have cancer.
Her doctors, she says,insisted on a radical mastectomy. She refused after praying all night. "My doctors," she says "looked at me as though I were an ignorant savage when I told them I had consulted God, and they told me I was going to die."
Finally she walked out, signing papers saying she was responsible for her own death, and at the urging of a friend who had been to Mexico for laetrile, she began to take it and also went on a health diet, fasting, then eating fresh fruits and vegetables. She found a Virginia doctor to prescribe laetrile, she began to take it and also would give it to her."There's a lot of laetrile on the underground too," she says smiling.
She claims that the lump disappeared and she became smug, abandoning her diet, cutting down on the laetrile. At that point, she says, a lump began to grow on her scar, wher she had the last one removed. Now she's back on laetrile and back on the diet.
She told the audience, "I'm a weak person, I don't mean to stand up here and act holier than thou. But I'm sure I'm going to win this one now. I've got my head on straight. I would like to see laetrile for anyone who wants it. If you want chemotherapy and a mastectomy, well hey man, go ahead if that's your bag. But just don't force it down our throats."
She says she has enough laetrile to last until December. But it's hard to get and she refuses to sign an affidavit saying she is terminal, which is the only way one can obtain it legally, daughter with her to Arizona soon.
If she can't get it after that, I'll sue the FDA. I'll picket the White House. They can't take it away from me."
After her talk, where she received a standing ovation. Heddon did a handspring to show how fit she was.
However, she told her audience, the lump recently had become larger again. She had, she explained, received several blows to her breast. She had to be hospitalized because of it, she told them. "I had bruises on my breast and that," she said, "contributed to the growth again."
Her husband, she says, "thinks laetrile is a bunch of stuff." I part, because of his attitude she has filed for divorce and plans to take her 4-year-old daughter with her to Arizona soon "to write a book on cancer."
Glen Butherford, another speaker who has given his testimonial so many times he has it memorized, is a short gray-haired little man who wears double knits and a string tie. He struts around with his laetrile buttons as proud as can be. It was in 1971, says Rutherford, when he got cancer, lumps in several parts of his stomach and abdomen. He'd heard about the Good Samaritan Research Center in Tijuana, Mexico, from a friend. So he went there all the way from Kansas and took the treatment, which cost him, he says, $13.50 a day. "I five days I stopped bleeding," he says. "In 15 days they'd shrank my growth to the size of a small grape. In six weeks time the soreness and disappeared. Then I expelled the growths. It was about the size of a large black walnut. If I'd a known I'd of fished it out and put it in some alcohol. But you know, you're so glad to get rid of 'em you don't think of the scientific ramifications."
Rutherford is outraged that laetrile is not readily available to cancer patients in this country. "It is because of the scientific, bureaucratic, arrogant mind," he recites.
"Which has the audacity to flaunt the laws to the Bible, the laws of God, the laws of common sense and the laws of nature." He pauses to see how this has gone down, then says, "You want me to go through that again?"
Two older ladies pass by him and listen. "Praise the Lord for you," says one. "God bless you," says the other.
Arlin J. Brown is the man who put on the Cancer VICTORY Convention and he's also the one who set up the Arlin J. Brown Information Center, Inc., to inform the public about cancer and its causes and cures. He is a tall, balding, nattily dressed man who likes to tell how he first got involved in cancer.
He was working for the Army in Panama, he says, when he met a man who had cured a terminal cancer patient. The patient had been given two weeks to live but the man fed her natural herbs three times a day. Her body, he says, was totally rid of cancer, and when she died two years later, he says, "she died of malnutrition, not cancer."
Brown tried to tell the National Cancer Institute of this miraculous discovery and when they refused to listen, he set up his information center, "the first one like it in America." In the beginning, says Brown, "I was an outcast, I was ashamed to tell people what I knew."
He wrote one book called "March of Truth on Cancer" in 1968. "I'm going to write another edition," he says. "It's going to be a real block-bluster."
Brown, who wears an American flag pin on his lapel, joined an interview with his friend Mohammad Khan, the Hunzakut, to discuss the value of apricots.
Khan is a total fashion plate. He wears a cream colored three-piece linen suit, with wide shoulder pads, nipped in at the waist, and very long bell-bottom trousers. Very together. He has set up a company in New York called until recently. "Rejuvenation Foids" which he has just changed to Hunza foods. It imports dried apricots and would like to import apricot seeds which is now against the law.
He has taken an apartment in New York where he is forced to spend a great deal to time away from his wife and 2-year-old baby, who live in Hunza.
"In Hunza we don't sleep with the wife for three or more years after the baby is born because she is breast-feeding and she needs her strength for taking care of the baby," he explains matter-of-factly. He speaks perfect English, having been educated in England.
He explains that Hunza is its own country, the "original Shangri-La" in the movies, which was discovered in 1930. Unfortunately, he says, it is now a part of Pakistan, though it is high in the Himalayas.
"It is the healthiest country in the world, isn't it? "prompts Arlin Brown, who discovered Khan. "There is no cancer, no degenerative diseases, isn't that correct?" says Brown.
"That is correct," Khan replies.
"We, of course, have dozens of degenerative diseases in the U.S.," says Brown. "Why do you suppose there are none in Hunza, why is there no cancer there," he propmts again.
"Because," says Khan, "in Hunza we give the babies, when they are born, apricot oil. And every day we eat at least 100 apricot kennels, like nuts. And we eat dried and fresh apricots so we never have cancer. It has been one of our staple foods for over 2,000 years. There are lots of apricots in Hunza."
Khan cannot divulge his profession in Hunza because, as he explains it. "I am like a Sufi and we cannot talk about it." He says that the average life span in Hunza is 115 years, there are no crimes and no police, that 95-year-old men father children, that they drink glacier water. He says the reason he looks his age, in his early 40s, is "because I have spent so much time outside of Hunza."
But Khan is confused. He doesn't understand why he can't sell his apricot kernels in the United States. "Isn't this a free, democratic country?" he asks. "When, then, are people not allowed to choose what they eat"
There are a lot of people who see the laetrile movement as a conservative movement, a movement populated by right wingers who are using this as a political issue. The "freedom of choice" issue.
But Dr. John Richardson, a member of the John Birch Society, disagrees. Richardson, author of "Laetrile Case Histories," flew from California to speak at the convention. Dressed in a three-piece gray suit and white shirt, he talked quietly and in a controlled voice about how his license had been removed after the FDA took action against him for practicing with laetrile and how his book is often confiscated from health food stores for false advertising.
He now travels around the country lecturing on laetrile, and he is concerned that people will think of this as overly conservative, especially because laetrile gets its strongest support in Congress from John Birche Larry McDonald (D-Ga.).
"I don't think it is," he says. "I have so much backing from left wingers in medicine. You see, cancer doesn't ask what your politics are. No matter what your politics are, it's a matter of freedom of choice. I think it would be unfortunate for the 20th century if, when laetrile is finally accepted, that it would be remembered as a last-ditch effort of the John Birch Society."
"Do you realize there's a guy at Johns Hopkins right now who says the John Birch Society is trying to take over medicine is the United States?"
There are also people who think of the laetrile crowd as a group of religious nuts, Jesus freaks who say with a little apricot juice and faith in God your cancer will go away.
Dr. Carey A. Reams, winner of this year's Caner Victory Award for his research in ionization ("It lets us know what's in our body"), would disagree with that.
"I'm not against drugs or medical doctors," he says. "I'm against their abuse. But the Bible has the best health message in the world. In the eleventh chapter of Leviticus it says you must not eat those meats which are unclean. And if they'll purn up a jew in the Old Testament they'll burn up a gentile in the New. If you want a short cut to the cemetery you just break the rules of the Bible.
Gertrude Engel, who has been handling the public relations of the Cancer VICTORY Convention and who has been acting as the master of ceremonies as well, has been interested in health and laetril for a very personal reason. Her husband has had four cancer operations.
Her mother, too, has had cancer. But not Engel herself. "I call myself the healthiest gal in America," she says. "But I practice what I preach. I'm religious about it." She says she has to have healthy diet because of her busy schedule. Apart from being a reporter, columnist and lobbyist, she also is a public relations person. "I handled the Apollo 12 astronauts when they came back from the moon," she says. "They didn't like me. I wouldn't let them have a drink. I don't drink," she says. "I'm also in the archives of the city of Detroit. I was the official hostess of that city. I met the great and the near great."
Engel is very concerned, as a lobbyist and a newspaperwoman, that people might think she is representing the laetrile manufacturers.
"We're not being paid by them," she announced to the assembled group. "We're only asking for freedom of choice. We're endorsing no products. There are no shenanigans going on here."