Back in October of last year, I wrote a review of the film Flipping the Script: Parents Fight Back by Jeff Witzeman. In the film, Witzeman argued that parents should have the right to refuse chemotherapy for their children, maintenance chemotherapy in particular. Witzeman argued that maintenance chemotherapy isn’t necessary because when the maintenance phase begins there are no cancer cells detectable on labs or scans. What he omits is that this is because our tests are not precise enough to detect any remaining cancer cells. Long-term maintenance chemotherapy has been proven to be very effective at preventing leukemia relapses, which are incredibly deadly, especially when they occur shortly after the cancer was put into remission.
Today, I want to talk about the tragic consequences that result when parents believe the dangerous ideas that Witzeman promotes in his films. I’ve been following a case in New York of a mother fighting for her right to refuse maintenance chemotherapy for her son for a few months now. On September 10th Candace Gundersen posted a fundraiser on GoFundMe titled “Help Nick Stay in Remission Safely”. According to her story on GoFundMe, Nick was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) on June 30th. However, she “challenged” the doctor on his diagnosis because she believed he had a different type of cancer called Mixed-Phenotype Acute Leukemia (MPAL). Gundersen has no medical training, nor any formal education that I can find. She works as a holistic wellness coach. I haven’t seen any evidence or statement from a reliable source that states Nick was diagnosed and treated by doctors for MPAL. It’s unlikely considering that MPAL is incredibly rare. MPAL only accounts for 2-3% of all acute leukemia cases, and it’s more common in adults.
Regardless, Gundersen wanted to delay treatment for her son’s leukemia because she believed Nick had MPAL and that they would be giving him the wrong treatment. She was told the first month of treatment would have been the same whether Nick had AML or MPAL. The hospital also told her that she could not delay treatment. If she refused to consent to letting them treat Nick, they would have to call Child Protective Services. She consented to treatment and claims that thirty days later, the doctors said that all signs pointed to Nick being in complete remission. He could leave the hospital. Unfortunately, on August 29th a test showed that the induction was a “complete failure” and that Nick would require further treatment.
Nick’s mother told the hospital that she wished to take Nick to a different hospital for treatment, and it was at this point the hospital contacted CPS stating that he was in imminent danger. On September 2nd, Nick was removed from his parents’ home and placed in the custody of Suffolk County Child Protective Services. Nick was taken to Cohen Children’s hospital again to be treated for his leukemia. Candace claims she tried for days to get Nick transferred to another hospital, and he was eventually transferred to Winthrop hospital. She claims that on October 9th, “Judge Whelan signed an order upon the agreement of all parties involved that we could move anywhere with Nick and treat him with doctors of our choosing.”. Nick’s leukemia was put into remission but he would need maintenance chemotherapy to keep the cancer in remission.
Candace Gundersen decided that she wanted to give Nick “natural, non-toxic cancer therapies” she had learned about from research online. She wanted to take him to a holistic clinic in Florida, so she secured housing and moved her son to Florida. Upon learning of this, CPS filed an emergency petition with the court to remove Nick from his parents’ custody. Nick was removed from his mother’s custody again, and has remained in the custody of Suffolk County CPS since. He was placed in the home of a family friend about a month later, following a hearing. Gundersen has been fighting Suffolk County CPS in court to regain custody of her son and the right to make medical decisions on his behalf since November.
Suffolk County CPS and Nick’s doctors did everything right
Candace Gundersen and her attorney claim that Nick’s doctors and CPS violated her and her son’s religious and constitutional rights. Parents have never had the right to refuse life-saving medical treatment for their children for religious reasons. This is well established in the 1944 Supreme Court Case, Sarah Prince v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts:
Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.
Parents don’t have the legal right to place their children at risk because of their beliefs. AML is a very treatable form of cancer with a 75% 5-year survival rate if treated properly. If Nick’s mother refused further treatments against the advice of his doctors to pursue fake cancer treatments, the chances of the cancer relapsing and killing Nick would go up significantly. Doctors are legally required to file a CPS report if they have a reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused or maltreated. Nick fits the legal definition of a maltreated child under New York law, as his mother was not providing him with adequate medical care despite having the means to do so.
By her own admission, getting custody of her son back would be easy if she would agree to take her son for proper cancer treatment. In her most recent GoFundMe update post she states:
The condition of CPS returning him to me is for me to agree and consent to give him chemo, which will hurt Nick and our case long term and they know it, which is why they are making it impossible. I requested they put language into the agreement to accommodate the fact I do not believe this is in his best interest. I explained if I am mandated by a court to do so, I will comply with a court order but will not agree to give chemo voluntarily.
CPS has no interest in keeping a scared kid with a life-threatening illness from his mother. They just want to ensure that he is getting proper medical treatment.
About that doctor in Florida
Gundersen has stated in multiple interviews with news outlets that she just wants Nick to be treated at a clinic in Florida. What was so bad about the clinic and doctor that she wanted to transfer Nick’s care to that would cause CPS to file an emergency petition with the court? I had my suspicions, which were ultimately confirmed when Jeff Witzeman stated on his blog that she wanted to treat Nick at Utopia Wellness, run by Carlos Garcia. My first-ever post on SBM was a review of Cancer Can Be Killed, and Carlos Garcia was one of the “experts” Witzeman promoted in the film.
Carlos Garcia is an anesthesiologist, not an oncologist, and has some truly bizarre and dangerous ideas about cancer. In Cancer Can Be Killed, Garcia states that he believes that cancer is caused by dental issues, or vague emotional issues. For example, Garcia believes that being publicly embarrassed causes liver cancer. His clinic was raided by the Florida OIG-HHS for suspected fraudulent billing of Medicaid for chelation therapy. Garcia offered to testify in court for free that Nick would not need long-term chemotherapy. Fortunately, his testimony was likely ruled inadmissible as he was not a board-certified pediatric oncologist.
Witzeman’s unscrupulous activities
Witzeman has been talking about this for months on his films’ Facebook pages. Witzeman encouraged his fans to sign a petition advocating the firing of CPS administrative staff and Nick’s oncologist from their jobs. Witzeman even encouraged that fans of his films protest outside of the Suffolk County CPS office. Which they did:
I’m just in awe; they held signs in front of a CPS building, accusing the people who work there of being criminal predators. CPS is an organization that exists to protect children from neglect and abuse, they don’t go around stealing children from parents who make decisions they disagree with. The judge didn’t order a death sentence, he’s mandating a child get medical treatment for a condition that will kill him if it doesn’t get treated properly. I don’t know how anyone with a brain in their head would think protesting in front of a CPS building is something that is going to make people want to join their cause.
Jeff Witzeman is more than happy to give medical advice to anyone who asks him in his comment section and promote any quack doctor or radio show that will give him the time of day. People take his advice seriously too; Gundersen is clearly getting her medical information and taking direction from Witzeman. Gundersen even promotes Flipping the Script: Parents Fight Back in one of her updates on GoFundMe. Witzeman was the first person to donate to Nick Gundersen’s GoFundMe page.
This case shows the tragic consequences of parents taking medical advice from random people on social media, as well as the impact of bad documentaries on Amazon. A child suffering from leukemia is tragic, but Nick has to deal with all this nonsense on top of it all. He had to go through the first stages of treatment without the emotional support of his parents. Children parrot the beliefs of their parents, and Nick’s mother believes his doctors are trying to kill him. Consequently, that didn’t exactly lead to a trusting relationship between Nick and his doctors. After Nick was taken from his home, his oncologist wanted to install a port to begin to administer chemotherapy. According to his mother on GoFundMe, Nick locked himself in the bathroom in the hospital for an hour, claiming that his doctor couldn’t make him do anything he didn’t want to.
None of this should have happened; it didn’t have to be this way. Nick was diagnosed with a very treatable form of leukemia with a very high survival rate when treated properly. He probably would have been fine with treatment if his mother had been on-board with it too. But because she took medical advice from a filmmaker with no medical qualifications who gets paid to promote fake cancer treatments, she wanted to forego legitimate cancer treatments in favor of treatments that have been proven not to work. Nick’s doctors and CPS had to choose between letting a parent give her child fake cancer treatments that would astronomically increase his chances of relapsing and dying, or removing him from his mother’s home and forcing him into real cancer treatment that would give him a fighting chance.
Conclusion: The internet was a mistake
This whole case is depressing, and perfectly illustrates so many of the problems we’ve been talking about on SBM. Gundersen clearly gets her health information from Witzeman’s films, films that are so scientifically inaccurate a random computer science major from a university nobody has ever heard of can rip them apart. The fact that you can these films at no charge with Amazon Prime would make them seem like there’s some amount of legitimacy to them to a normal person. These films make it seem like cancer can be treated with simple diet changes or vitamin infusions, despite all of the evidence showing that isn’t true.
Social media and search engines have features that can cause them to distort reality; they show you what you want to see. Many search engines have a personalized search feature that prioritizes results based on your browsing history and search patterns. This is a great feature the majority of the time, but it can callow people to create a filter bubble that isolates them from information that conflicts with their viewpoints. Filter bubbles can prioritize results so that fringe, dubious sources of information appear first, making those sources seem more legitimate and popular than they actually are. They can also direct users to fringe social media echo chambers.
Social media echo chambers are incredibly common, and as this case demonstrates, they can be dangerous. Facebook groups are perfect for creating your own personal echo chamber where users can reinforce their beliefs with other people who think the exact same way as them without fear of dissent. When you search “chronic Lyme” on Facebook you will be presented with dozens of support groups that will tell you how to treat an illness that doesn’t exist. If you only get information from social media echo chambers that spread false information and fake news, your perception of reality can become very distorted, very quickly.
Candace Gundersen believes that her son’s doctors are trying to kill him because she has been presented fake information from a social media echo chamber. One month ago, she posted an update on her GoFundMe page stating she was absolutely outraged that Nick’s doctors were planning to give him the flu vaccine. The reason why she was upset was because of a news article that said that the First Lady banned the flu vaccine in the White House because she thought it was ineffective and dangerous. Here’s the scary part: I actually believed the First Lady banned the flu shot in the White House. It isn’t true, but I didn’t fact check it at first because I was biased toward believing that the Trump administration would do that. The entire article came from a fake news site. Similarly, Gundersen bought into it because it confirmed her existing belief that her son’s doctors were putting her son at risk. The flu shot is perfectly safe for cancer patients because the flu vaccine doesn’t contain a live virus. In fact, the flu shot is recommended for cancer patients because their immune systems are weakened and they are much more likely to be hospitalized or die if they catch the flu. PSA: Get the flu shot.
Social media also helps bankroll quackery, as Dr. Gorski has discussed in-detail in his posts over the past few months. Quack treatments are ludicrously expensive and aren’t covered by insurance, but through crowdfunding they’re financially accessible for just about anyone. Gundersen has raised over $35,000 on her GoFundMe page to pay for legal expenses and fake cancer treatments when she gets custody of her son again. Even if you don’t hide in an alternative medicine echo chamber, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to a mother who had their son taken away by CPS to be given chemotherapy involuntarily. That’s why it’s important to verify what your money is going towards when you donate to a crowdfunding campaign. If the campaign doesn’t specify where the person is being treated, and by whom; don’t donate to the campaign. This is a story of how social media and irresponsible documentaries drove a mother, who was already a hardcore alternative medicine believer, to pursue alternative treatments instead of real medicine. This was never a case of medical kidnapping; CPS and Nick’s doctors did everything in their legal power to act in his best interest.
All this talk of social media and crowdfunding encouraging people to seek out ineffective and potentially dangerous treatments for life-threatening illnesses can be a bit of a downer. In Dr. Gorski’s second article about GoFundMe fueling cancer quackery, his conclusion got me thinking a bit:
That’s where skeptics, either as part of skeptical organizations or on their own, could be most helpful. Steve Novella has frequently pointed out that one role of the skeptic is consumer protection, to educate consumers to avoid the fraud of psychics, pseudoscience, and, yes, quackery. Here’s a perfect example where we could help.
Quacks have a strong social media presence and once they get someone into their echo chamber, it’s very hard to pull them out. They need to look like they’re legitimate and popular. They seem to worry about how they’re perceived online more than any other type of business. Flipping the Script: Parents Fight Back and Cancer Can Be Killed currently sit at a 4.5/5 average star rating on Amazon. Just to put things in perspective, I looked up every popular film I could think of that was released in 2018. The only one I could find with ratings that high was Avengers: Infinity War. I don’t think a 4.5/5 average rating befits documentaries that claim you can regulate your body’s pH through diet.
People deserve to know that these films are not worth the bandwidth, and if you have an Amazon Prime membership, you can help. Let’s not stop there though, these films peddle dangerous advice to desperate people, and promote child neglect. The Amazon customer policy states “Amazon has the right to determine the appropriateness of listings on its site and remove any listing at any time”. I’m going to start a petition asking Amazon to remove both of these films from their video service because of the dangerous advice they give. I hope you all will sign it. Cancer quacks use social media to practice oncology without a license, and I think it’s about time we fight fire with fire for once. Let’s give Amazon’s video service some chemo.
Title image from imgur.