A friend of mine who has remained a cloistered academic most of his working life buys into the narrative that economic growth is imperative regardless of what is needed to sustain it. He was trying to mock those who highlight the devastation that follows unchecked growth.

Like all kinds of growth, economic growth can be healthy and it can also be toxic – like cancers. As Singapore heads towards a recession (after many years of impressive GDP), many asset-rich folks will worry and hope that those at the helm can do something about it. A few mavericks who have their feet on the ground may see this downturn as something positive. Yes, it’s time to hit the reset button.

But in the meantime, quite a number of my friends who have been trained as engineers or who are in IT are now doing a whole variety of unrelated jobs from driving Grab to directing funerals. Growth has brought about a massive influx of cheap foreign professionals to replace our expensive technicians and engineers. Yes, the industries have been growing, but at whose expense? The effect of foreign talent on the medical or dental profession may be a little less pronounced (we’re not driving Grab yet), but new onerous regulations are also forcing some clinicians to “moonlight”. One of the most popular jobs out there is selling MLM products. You’ll be surprised by the number of doctors and dentists quietly doing it.

While most MLM products are harmless or even pretty good (albeit overpriced), there are products and treatments which are not only ineffective but even harmful. I’ve written about clinicians who have gone over “the other side” to condemn and turn against everything they have been trained to do (and make a fortune out of it). COC or no COC, it’s the money that talks. Let me bring up an interesting item which has been abused and exploited for monetary gains for decades. Repeated actions from the US courts and the FDA have failed to kill it. What is this tenacious substance?

Google search for the word Laetrile yields descriptions like “clinically ineffective,” “dangerously toxic” and “quackery”. What is Laetrile? Well, simply put, it’s a synthetic form of the compound amygdalin found naturally in apricot seeds, bitter almonds, peaches and plums.

What Doctors Will NEVER Tell You: Apricot Seeds Kill Cancer Cells Without Side Effects!

And that’s the shocking thing (not truth) about Laetrile. I thought it’s dead and buried after countless lawsuits and aggressive actions from the FDA, until it reared its ugly head in the form of a relatively new book by Ralph Moss PhD I found at the library. It’s entitled Doctored Results and it supposedly reveals how mainstream medicine suppresses valuable research data on the efficacy of Laetrile against cancer. Like other conspiracy theorists, Moss believes that mainstream medicine is colluding with big pharma and government to protect the chemotherapeutic industry by hiding the “truth” about Laeterile. Note that Doctored Results was published in 2014. Note also that Dr Moss’ PhD is in the Classics (like Greek literature).

Before we go further, there’s an important piece of history that we need to look at to appreciate how absurd that such a dangerous substance can still be believed.

In 1977, a little boy by the name of Joey Hofbauer was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. He was warded in hospital, scheduled for radiation and chemotherapy. The oncologist who presided over the case was Dr Arthur Cohn. Cohn was optimistic, giving Joey a 95% chance of survival.

Before any treatment was done, the Hofbauers got frightened due to the invasive and destructive nature of radiation and chemotherapy. They checked him out of the hospital and flew Joey to Jamaica where Laetrile was touted as the latest cure for cancer. Their family doctor threatened to report them to the Children’s Protection Agency. When they returned, the police had to be called in to get Joey back into hospital. His father was so convinced that the hospital was killing him and Laetrile could save him that he secretly smuggled the substance into Joey’s ward and gave him a few doses.

The matter was heard in court. The judge allowed the Hofbauers to try Laetrile for 6 months under Dr Michael Schachter from New York. Michael Schachter’s “treatment” was a witch doctor’s recipe which included not just Laetrile but also raw liver juice, megadoses of vitamin A, pancreatic enzymes and coffee enemas. The patient was also given an injection of bacteria obtained from his own urine. Six months later, the patient’s swollen lymph nodes grew from one to 17! He also showed signs of liver damage due to megadoses of vitamin A and suffered from abdominal cramps and nausea. Laetrile gives off cyanide in the gut and apricot seeds have long been recognised in TCM as toxic.

Miraculously, Dr Schachter was able to convince the judge that his treatment was working. Meanwhile, court cases in several states challenged the FDA’s authority to restrict access to what they claimed are potentially lifesaving drugs. More than twenty states passed laws making the use of Laetrile legal. Joey’s Laetrile treatment was allowed to go on. When actor Steve McQueen checked into a clinic in Mexico run by one Dr William D. Kelly to have alternative treatment for his stomach cancer and the actor went on TV to promote Laetrile, judges were even more convinced that this could be the Holy Grail for cancer. That pretty much sealed Joey Hofbauer’s fate.

Thanks to all the hype and celebrity endorsement, Laetrile developed a significant following due to its wide promotion as a “pain-free”, “non-invasive” treatment of cancer. More audaciously, the previously obscure substance was even deemed an alternative to surgery and chemotherapy which were already known have significant and unpleasant side effects.

Two years later in 1980, Steve McQueen died a very painful death, followed by poor Joey Hofbauer. Dr Michael Schachter was never held accountable even though Joey’s body was riddled with metastatic tumours, contrary to Schachter’s claim that he was improving. For the record, Schachter was a psychiatrist who had neither training nor expertise in treating cancer. His methods were “discovered”. Even more unbelievably, he is still in practice.

Steve McQueen had also died under Dr William D. Kelly. Just a little more surprisingly, Kelly was actually a dentist or orthodontist to be exact. From straightening people’s teeth, Dr Kelly went on to diagnose cancer from blood samples and treat them with supplements. After he was struck off, he moved to Mexico to continue practising his “alternative cancer cures”. Because there is nothing to stop these doctors from practising alternative medicine, they could pretty much go wherever they wanted. Incidentally, Dr Kelly also suffered from cancer and died in 2005, not long after he wrote a book on his victory over cancer.

In spite of the number of deaths and failures, Laetrile continues to be popular. The US Food and Drug Administration went out on a limb to seek jail sentences for vendors marketing Laetrile for cancer treatment, calling it a “highly toxic product that has not shown any effect on treating cancer.” However, the FDA and AMA (American Medical Association) crackdown which begun as early as the 1970s, only managed to push prices up on the black market. Some vendors tried to pass Laetrile off as “vitamin B7”. Many desperate cancer patients bought the conspiracy narrative and had ironically enabled scammers and unscrupulous profiteers to foster multimillion-dollar smuggling empires; not to mention Mexico’s lucrative medical tourism for treatments and procedures banned in the US.

Yes, it’s hard to believe, but Laetrile is still alive and well. Just look at Ralph Moss’ 2014 book. It has an average review of 5 stars on Amazon and the book is available in our libraries. However, there is obvious copping out in the introductory disclaimer. The author bears no responsibility and cancer patients are advised to consult a board-certified cancer specialist. Moss must be hoping that readers will miss this part of the book – which is enough for it to lose all credibility.

Moss’ book The Cancer Industry (published 1996) has been negatively reviewed by Quackwatch, which noted that “the book is dangerous because it may induce desperate cancer patients to abandon sound, scientifically based medical care for a bizarre, ineffective “alternatives”.

Interestingly, many recent advocates of Laetrile have changed the rationale for its use. It was originally an alternative treatment of cancer. Later, some alternative medicine practitioners claim that it’s only a vitamin (which it isn’t). And most recently, most of these practitioners have taken a step back and use the substance only as part of a “holistic” nutritional regimen and pain management in cancer. In other words, they are no longer fighting to replace conventional medicine but trying to play a supportive role.

I’m not sure what Quakwatch will say about Moss’ 2014 book Doctored Results, but going back to doctors and dentists who are struggling to make ends meet, some of my jaded colleagues out there may get some funny ideas of cooking up conspiracy theories and starting a crusade against the “conspiracy”. While this may be a little far-fetched in Singapore, insane competition, financial stress and the availability of claimable treatments are the ingredients for undesirable outcomes – not the lack of competence.

Dental Phobia by Chan Joon Yee