Ex-trade union leader Helen Kelly seeks 'magic bullet' cancer treatment in Cuba
The odds are slim, but trade union boss Helen Kelly has headed to Cuba in a search for a miracle treatment for her terminal cancer.
Kelly, the former Council of Trade Unions president who has been leading the charge to legalise medicinal cannabis, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer last year.
She is documenting her Cuban medical journey on her Facebook page. On Wednesday she posted from the resort-style La Pradera medical centre in the Cuban capital, Havana.
Cuba's years of living under United States trade embargoes have led to it becoming a medical tourism mecca, where patients can find treatments that are either unavailable or too expensive in their own countries.
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La Pradera's treatments use monoclonal antibody vaccines as immuno-therapy. Using antibodies to bind to cells and proteins, the therapy can kickstart the immune system to attack cancer cells.
Kelly's post does not specify the treatment she is having, but she sounds upbeat, saying she feels "very pleased and very privileged to be here".
"We arrived yesterday with numerous plane dramas u always confront but we got picked up and are now safe and resting at the La Pradera medical centre in Havana. It's hot!!," she posted on Wednesday.
"Cuba looks interesting and hopefully I will get my first treatment tomorrow and feel well enough to go in to town etc. Today was test and rest day!"
Malaghan Institute of Medical Research cancer cell and molecular biology scientist Mike Berridge said the La Pradera method had had spectacular success in treating melanoma, and had been effective with head and neck cancers. However, it was not clear yet whether it would work for lung cancer.
Although the treatment was a long-shot, and a last resort after chemotherapy, it was valuable in that it allowed late-stage patients to relax from the stress of treatment in a holiday setting.
"Where there's hope and where there's a positive attitude – which she clearly has – there's a better chance of novel treatments working," Berridge said.
Kelly's bid has parallels with that of Kiwi physicist Sir Paul Callaghan, who ended his experimental intravenous vitamin-C treatment for cancer in 2012. He died later that year.
Friend and long-time labour movement colleague Paul Tolich said Kelly had always fought for others but now it was time to put herself first.
"All of us in the labour movement wish Helen all the best ... we all hope this treatment may prolong her life."
In July, tumours broke out on Kelly's back, but illegally taking cannabis has meant she's been pain-free.
Also that month, she said she was planning to head overseas to try and buy prescribed cannabis products to bring back to New Zealand – a loophole discovered by Nelson woman Rebecca Reider who won a legal victory after being charged for importing medicinal cannabis products.
On Monday Reider claimed to have made history by bringing an unconcealed bag of cannabis through customs at Auckland Airport.
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