Naturopathy under microscope after cancer sufferers speak from under shadow of death
It is late July. An Auckland woman sits at her dining room table, frail, cosseted in a wool-knit beanie, brittle wisps of hair poking out.
She knows her time is running out. She doesn't know it, but she will be dead in two weeks.
First, though, she wants to speak out to call for regulation of naturopaths after her bitter experience with alternative therapies.
"From my point of view the naturopath has used people like me as guinea pigs," the Auckland woman told Stuff. "I don't think naturopaths should try to heal cancer. I trusted in naturopathy, I don't trust in it any more."
She is one of two women who died of cancer this year, after trusting in a naturopath to cure them.
The other, Jane Norcross-Wilkins, 55, did two last things before her death: she married longtime partner Mike Malcolm in a poignant ceremony and she emailed the naturopath one last time: "I strongly suggest you set up supervision for yourself ... I do not wish to continue as your client."
The two couples offered their experiences as a cautionary tale for those fighting cancer by alternative means.
The naturopath strenuously rejects the suggestion she promised to cure either woman's cancers. "I would never say to a patient I could stop their cancer," she insists. "My words to patients are always, 'there are no guarantees for treatment – they're always my words'."
In New Zealand, naturopaths are unregulated, able to set up shop with no professional oversight. Even the country's largest naturopath association wants regulation – but pleas have thus far fallen on deaf ears.
It will be too late for the Auckland woman we interview at her dining room table – but she wants others to know, to be warned.
In July 2013 she had been diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a pre-cancerous breast condition. Her oncologist told her she had a "50/50" likelihood of contracting breast cancer, and recommended an immediate double-mastectomy.
"I was shocked and scared of surgery, I'd never had surgery. Then you face one breast, both breasts, no breasts, you start looking for alternatives."
Unaware some DCIS strains are more aggressive than others, she believed time was on her side and she could try alternative medicine.
This couple, too, had heard encouraging stories about the naturopath's success-rate. They travelled to her clinic in August 2013.
On her website, the naturopath said she had an MDipNat.Herb from the South African College of Natural Medicines, which she said was affiliated with Cape Town University.
"I'll try and help you," the naturopath said.
The naturopath continued treating the Auckland woman over the internet using words such as "tumours" and "cancer". "At this stage there is nothing to worry about," she emailed.
Apart from a gruelling regime of daily natural supplements, for a time the naturopath told her to simply apply ointment to her breasts.
The woman emailed the naturopath photos of her bruised breasts: "Hi, those green spots definitely little tumours," the naturopath replied. "It looks like there is just the start of cancer, would most probably have developed into major pictures!!! ... fantastic those come out".
A week later the Auckland woman sent more pictures.
"Wow, girl this looks great," the naturopath replied. "The top one looks at this stage there is nothing to worry about ... you can just apply zambuck ointment to that to draw out the last anger and puss ... do you have that, can I courier you some?"
The woman spent thousands on myriad pills, drops, powders and ointments the naturopath advised her to take.
"My treatments got more and more, I had to get up 15 minutes earlier to go through all my stuff."
The woman gradually grew more fatigued taking the supplements yet she felt she was receiving treatment: "I got the impression she's doing something".
By her last appointment, in June 2014, the woman says she felt "overwhelmed".
"I felt like my system collapsed, I gave the supplements back because I didn't believe in them any more".
Her body under pressure, the woman stopped being treated by the naturopath, they parted amicably the following month.
'NO EASY WAY TO TREAT CANCER'
"Cancer IS an exhausting disease," the naturopath tells Stuff. "There's no nice way to treat cancer, you show me a patient who is doing anything that is making them feel better.
"People think because [my treatment is natural] it should feel good. It's not, there's no easy way to treat cancer."
Tumours, cancer – at this point shouldn't the naturopath have stopped and suggested the woman go back to her oncologist?
"It's not my place to refer them to a specialist," she tells us. "I can't do that because I'm a naturopath."
Crucially, the naturopath's interpretation of the woman's response to the ointment came as mammograms and controversial thermograms the woman was using, as an early warning strategy, were coming back clean.
Oncologist and Cancer Society of New Zealand medical director Dr Chris Jackson says any claims that thermography can diagnose cancers, and ointments cure them, are "hocus pocus".
"They may help people feel better but there is no scientific evidence that they work to cure or treat cancer."
Cancer patients should consult oncologists and medical doctors over using alternative therapies, Jackson says.
New Zealand Society of Naturopaths vice-president Sharon Erdrich says the society wants tighter regulations.
"In Germany, naturopaths are very heavily regulated, there's regulation in the United States and Australia has some controls."
Even though there is "potential for harm, basically anyone in New Zealand can call themselves a naturopath," Erdich says.
Claire Austin, health workforce group manager at the Ministry of Health, says non-regulated health professions may apply to become regulated but the health ministry determines suitability by considering the profession's risk of harm to the public.
Regulation is not being considered as the ministry has not received an application from naturopaths to become regulated under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003.
Health practitioners including naturopaths remain subject to the Health and Disability Code of Rights, "whether they are regulated or not".
Consumers may complain to the Health and Disability Commissioner about care.
HOPE SLIPS AWAY
After the naturopath, the Auckland woman saw another naturopath but eventually went back to her doctors. She had a double mastectomy in January 2016.
Before dying, the woman confronted the naturopath by email about her treatment methods and unavailability.
And with days left to live, the Auckland woman asks one last time, "I don't understand why there are no regulations?"
It's late July. Pale, hunched, shuffling, months after her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, the woman holds on.
"If we could make a difference there with regulation, that would help everyone – that would help the naturopath," she says.
"I'm starting my chemotherapy, it's quite exciting, the hope is it will shrink the existing cancer but it has spread, I don't know how much hope there is.
"I don't want to lose hope."
It was not to be. This month, she passed away.
And the naturopath? We give her a final phone call.
She's closing her holistic health practice in September, she says.
"I've just had it. At the end of the day it's a thankless job, I've given my life to people to try and help them, I've had enough".
MARRIED UNDER A SENTENCE OF DEATH
Mike Malcolm's voice is gentle but the anger jabs out.
It's six months since his wife, Jane Norcross-Wilkins, 55, succumbed to a decades-long battle with breast cancer.
Desperate, the couple had sought last-ditch help from the naturopath, only to come away drained and betrayed by the "false hope" and dubious treatment she meted out.
Then, this month, Mike learned of the other Auckland woman who succumbed to cancer after being treated by her.
Mike, grieving, wants the naturopath held accountable. His response is human and understandable.
In 2011, Jane knew her cancer, back from a 10-year remission, would kill her.
She just wanted more time, a bargain with death. "OK, if I can't beat it, I can work with it and see how far I can go," Jane told her husband.
The couple had heard heartening things about the naturopath. "Jane had heard she was the next best thing since sliced bread," Mike recalls.
So in late December 2015 they travelled to a clinic she ran in the central North Island.
Upfront with the naturopath about Jane's terminal cancer diagnosis, they listened as the naturopath held court. "She's good at talking herself up, she highlighted how certain parts of the cancer process can be interrupted or changed with processes she used, stopped and reversed.
"You could listen to her all day, she's very knowledgeable, she explains things in layman's terms."
Jane was put on a gruelling regime of expensive natural remedies. She discovered homeopathic melatonin sold to her for $50, retailed elsewhere for $12; vitamin C caplets sold for $140 retailed for $87 over the counter.
Mike explains: "It was like a detox, a purge, I've never seen anything like it, the amount of things she had to take. But the naturopath said 'no, no Jane's got to keep on doing it, it's a little bit hard at the start but you're killing the cancer, you're giving the cancer an environment it can't live in'.
"But Jane couldn't live like that."
The naturopath, who had also promised Jane could call her anytime, was progressively harder to get hold of, voice messages went unreturned, emails took days for any answer.
In January 2016, Jane spent three weeks in hospital, yet the naturopath didn't inquire about her patient.
Angry emails sent to the naturopath ended with Jane and Mike dumping her late the following month.
A final March 2016 letter from Jane to the naturopath ended: "I strongly suggest you set up supervision for yourself and a highly experienced practitioner to ensure that you are working ethically ... I also suggest you look into registering with a body such as the NZ Natural Health Council or the NZ Society of Naturopaths Inc.
"I do not wish to continue as your client," Jane concluded.
The naturopath apologised profusely, and promised not to treat cancer sufferers any more. She refunded the cost of some of Jane's medicine's.
Despite the ravages of last-ditch radiotherapy, Jane Norcross-Wilkins married "soulmate" Mike Malcolm that December.
Jane died on February 8 this year at her Pt Chevalier home, surrounded by her husband, her daughter Mary and other family.
- Sunday Star Times