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Beware of clinics selling ‘pioneering’ cancer treatments, writes David Robert Grimes

Cancer is a frightening word, laden with dark implications. While survival with conventional medicine has never been better, a proliferation of clinics worldwide promise panaceas – at a price. Vaunted as nigh-on miraculous, these alternative outfits have exploded in popularity, promulgating across social media with sleek aesthetics and inspiring stories.

Even the eye-watering costs these centres demand has proved no impediment, thanks to generously funded crowd-funding campaigns. Irish media has been effusive in praising these clinics, with one newspaper even lauding a “pioneering treatment in a specialised hospital”. But the reality behind their Instagram-ready facades and inspirational marketing is somewhat less edifying.

Mexico’s Hope4cancer is a grim exemplar. It boasts a rogue’s gallery of alternative medicine, all with conspicuously absent evidence of efficacy: coffee enemas, spiritual healing, juice-fasting, and vitamin C infusions. Other therapies offered have technical-sounding names, but the veneer of medical legitimacy is illusory, garbing treatments which at heart are profoundly pseudoscientific in borrowed robes of respectability. Magnetic-field therapy, Oxygen therapy, and ultraviolet blood irradiation may sound distinctly clinical to the unwary, but there is zero evidence they have any cancer efficacy, or even plausible biophysical rationale.

Central to their advertising is immunotherapy treatments, marketed as bespoke trade secrets. But effective therapies are by design tested openly to ensure effectiveness. Such advertising blurbs betray treatments commercialised before they’re verified – an alarming breach of medical ethics.


Far from being ground-breaking, their therapies lack even originality. "Sunivera", for example, is a repacking of the protein GcMAF, a debunked cancer intervention. This treatment is unlicensed in Europe and America for good reason – it can and has killed patients. Such cynical rebranding is apparent in all their "immunotherapies", consisting of things such as shark cartilage and curcumin. These are essentially long-discredited folk remedies, peddled in expensive new packaging. Despite confusion from Irish media, they offer no actual proven immunotherapies like Pembrolizumab, which is available in Ireland for responding patients.

Nor should hype over these ostensibly custom treatments inspire confidence.

In 2020, the supplier of one of the centre's most popular treatments was arrested in Alabama for illegally crafting contaminated homemade suppositories. Despite these concoctions being utterly useless and unsanitary, that supplier alone netted $3.5 million from Hope4cancer.

In a response to a query from The Irish Times, Hope4Cancer said their “integrative cancer treatment protocols are priced at a fraction of the actual cost of most mainstream oncology-based therapies”. It went on to say that “protocols consist of integrative cancer therapies that combine evidence-based, non-toxic cancer treatments alongside time-tested natural therapies that help the body restore optimal bioregulation”.

While immunotherapy is a real class of cancer treatment, nothing offered by this centre fits the definition used by physicians and scientists, or meets the regulatory and evidence-burden to even be considered viable cancer treatments. Far from being in any way innovative, Hope4cancer and many similar outfits in loosely-regulated Mexico have peddled the same dangerous nonsense to patients for over 30 years, with a resurgence buoyed by online crowd-funding.

Similar dubious clinics exist the world over.

Slick testimonials

Chemothermia in Istanbul promises patients cutting-edge cancer treatment in slick testimonials. Yet, these treatments, including hyperthermia and ketogenic diets, are similarly devoid of supporting evidence.

She was enthusiastically declared disease-free by the clinic. Scans by Irish radiologists only weeks later revealed a darker assessment: multiple metastasis

A Prime Time investigation in 2018 followed several Irish women who travelled there for cancer treatment. Among them was Dublin woman Jocelyn Blake, who at 37 had been diagnosed with a primary ovarian cancer. Subjected to a whirlwind of alternative therapies, she was enthusiastically declared disease-free by the clinic in September.

Scans by Irish radiologists only weeks later revealed a darker assessment: multiple metastasis. Whether the scans in Istanbul were fabricated or dangerously inept, Jocelyn passed away in November, having given more than €130,000 to Chemothermia. The same investigation found her story was sadly not unique; several women given all-clears by the clinic were subsequently shown to be fatally ill upon their return home.

In a statement about the cost of treatment, Chemothermia said they “endeavour to keep these as low as possible”. The company also claimed that their treatments do not lack scientific evidence and added that they do “not currently have any patients from Ireland and indeed have not had any for the last three years”.

The United States, too, is home to some infamously dubious clinics, most notoriously the Burzynski clinic in Texas. For over two decades, its hawking of ineffectual treatments and flagrant ethical breaches have seen it condemned by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and professional bodies. Treatments cost north of $10,000 a month, requiring deposits of more than $100,000. Despite its long history of exploitation, it remains popular with vulnerable patients, and currently at least three Irish patients are crowdfunding for the venture.

The Burzynski clinic did not respond to a request for comment.

Even inside the European Union, patients can still be preyed upon by unethical clinics, with spa-like alternative centres offering false hope at prices in excess of €100,000.

Long after patients have died, their testimonials are still used to lure unsuspecting new customers

These clinics benefit from a vicious cycle of desperate patients and overly credulous media coverage, which they exploit parasitically. Many offer discounts on their exorbitant fees if patients evangelise for the clinic in press or in testimonials.

In a cruel twist, even in death these clinics can exploit their victims. Long after patients have died, their testimonials are still used to lure unsuspecting new customers. In recent months, Irish publications all gave these outfits uncritical, positive coverage, failing completely to check whether their treatments were even efficacious. In the unregulated world of social media, influencers frequently present these clinics as bastions of hope.

While undoubtedly well-intended, this harms patients and enriches charlatans.


Worse again, coverage of these crowd-funding efforts inevitably mention that the treatment is not available in Ireland, but consistently fail to enquire why this might be. For effective therapies unavailable here, such as proton-therapy, the HSE can and often does arrange treatment abroad, covering all costs. But these treatments must understandably have proven efficacy and safety, rendering scam clinics ineligible on both counts.

This poor framing by media outlets is more than a failure of diligence, as it carries with it a hugely damaging implication that Irish treatment isn’t good enough. This is not true, and does huge disservice to the objectively high standard of Irish oncology. Patients pushed to pursue snake-oil often suffer because of it, losing valuable time with loved ones and vast amounts of money for useless interventions, far from home. Despite the benign perceptions and grand promises of alternative medicine, patients who rely on it run approximately twice the risk of dying than those on conventional therapies.

Stripped of empty hype, these clinics ruthlessly exploit human compassion in the most cynical way imaginable. They profiteer off the vulnerability of patients and the kindness of people, without a modicum of concern for harms they cause. While the drive to help is laudable, our default position must be healthy scepticism. In an age of medical disinformation, we would be better served by a conscientious media who check facts to avoid inadvertently amplifying snake-oil.

The painful truth is there are always those audacious enough to exploit the sick – we must realise when the emperor has no clothes.