ST. LOUIS —As a vegetarian and daily yoga practitioner, Amy Johnson thought she was healthy before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last August. Now she consumes 50 pounds of carrots, 25 pounds of Granny Smith apples and 14 heads of romaine lettuce each week in an effort to keep it from coming back.
The 43-year-old fashion designer has embraced an unconventional and controversial cancer treatment called Gerson therapy, named for the doctor who developed the vegetarian diet to treat his migraine headaches in the 1940s. Eventually, his practice grew to include numerous other maladies, including cancer.
After surgery to remove the right ovary, doctors discovered Johnson's cancer was a rare and aggressive form of clear cell carcinoma that may not respond well to drugs. Johnson had more surgery, including a hysterectomy, and then decided against chemotherapy. She has raised $24,000 from friends and family, and she and her mother traveled to Mexico in October to learn about the therapy that requires a drastic lifestyle change.
"I know chemo works for many people. It didn't make sense to me. I wanted to pump nutrients into my body, not toxins," Johnson said.
Doctors, friends, family members and her design clients tried to talk Johnson into going the traditional route with chemotherapy. Her mother, a nurse, was initially fearful of the decision.
"I was just very leery about it all, but Amy seems to adjust to things so well," said Carolyn Johnson of Highland, Mo. "She's gained back most of her energy and emotionally, she's so much better. Her father and I are just amazed at how well she's handling all this."
Gerson therapy teaches that the body needs to be cleansed of toxins to allow the immune system to heal itself. Participants eat and drink 15 to 20 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables daily. They drink one fresh-squeezed glass of juice every hour, up to 13 a day. They also take up to 60 vitamins and enzyme pills each day. Five times a day, they complete a liquid coffee enema to help the liver "in eliminating toxic residues from the body for good," according to Gerson's website. Castor oil, a laxative, is also taken by mouth regularly.
Johnson still sees a doctor at Barnes-Jewish Hospital for follow-up blood work and scans, but she doesn't want to identify him out of concern for maintaining their relationship. Her last scan in December showed no signs of cancer, and her blood work is normal.
The National Cancer Institute disavows any evidence of the effectiveness of Gerson therapy absent a peer-reviewed clinical trial. The idea of diet as cancer treatment is not widely accepted in the medical community. Fruits and vegetables are thought to play some role in preventing cancer, but not treating it, according to the American Cancer Society. Coffee enemas can lead to infections and dehydration.
Critics take an even harsher stance, calling the Gerson method quackery that preys on the hopes of people with cancer.
"I can't figure out why anyone thinks it's natural," said Dr. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist in Detroit and editor of the blog Science-Based Medicine. "What's natural about all these supplements? It's not natural to put coffee up your behind. The surgery is what cures the cancer if the cancer's going to be cured. The chemotherapy decreases the chances of its recurring."
Gorski said Gerson patients probably would have the same results with a typical, healthy diet after cancer surgery.
"The thing about cancer, its course can be really variable," Gorski said. "Patients can live a lot longer than expected, they can live a lot shorter."
Gerson's website says the program is "remarkably effective at treating a wide range of chronic degenerative diseases" including melanoma, lymphoma, ovarian cancer and lupus. The clinic does not accept patients with acute leukemia, brain tumors, organ transplants or kidney failure and says the therapy doesn't work for Parkinson's disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). Staff members from the Gerson Institute in San Diego did not respond to a request for comment.
Tracey Cain, a St. Louis chiropractor, plans to travel to San Diego in May to train to be a Gerson practitioner. She learned about the program after researching alternative diets to treat her gall bladder problems without surgery. She said she sees patients who are frustrated with doctors who offer them little time and few answers for their health concerns.
"I really think that people are looking for something alternative," Cain said. "Not everybody has to go down the traditional route of Western medicine if that's what they want to do. Traditional medicine has its missing links. If it worked perfectly, we would have a cure for cancer."
About seven years ago, Johnson left a career as an environmental engineer to pursue her dream in fashion, creating KayOss Designs with a studio in the Central West End. Her work has been featured in high-end boutiques, on runways and on national television. Because her new lifestyle keeps her essentially home-bound, she has temporarily given up social events, fashion shows and photo shoots. But she has started to take a few appointments in her studio again. And she recently walked to a nearby cafe to meet some friends, bringing her own tea.
"That's what cancer is telling you something needs to change in your life," Johnson said. "I'm not saying this is for everybody. You have to do what you feel is best for you."
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