New Traffic in 'Cures' for Cancer

An Undercover Investigation by
Ralph Lee Smith


This chilling article describes how several Tijuana cancer clinics exploited people who sought their care. At one clinic, the author was diagnosed with a deadly melanoma when he asked about a lump that he knew was a lipoma (benign fatty cyst). The investigation took place more than 50 years ago but reflects what still happens today.


Anton Schenk was smiling—a balding man with a mustache and a pleasant face that invited trust. He said, "We can cure your son's leukemia."

Mrs. Bernice Wallin felt a great, lifting wave of hope. American doctors had told her that her son's leukemia, a form of cancer affecting the blood cells, was essentially incurable. All they could do, they'd said gently, was to make the boy's remaining time as comfortable as possible. His name was Gary: a pale, quiet little boy with a winsome smile. He was seven, Bernice Wallin had not been able to accept this verdict—had rejected it, denied it. Desperate, she had shopped for hope elsewhere.

They lived in Culver City, Calif. Not far away, in Los Angeles, she had found a store called Organic-Ville that specialized in "health foods." The proprietor, a plump, engaging, dark-haired woman named Betty Morales, told Mrs. Wallin that improper diet was a cause of cancer. She recommended that Gary be fed soybeans, rose hips, sesame-seed oil. She was sympathetic when she heard Mrs. Wallin's tragic story. It was a shame, she agreed, that cancer cures could not be obtained in the United States. But didn't Mrs. Wallin know that such cures could be had in more enlightened places-for example, Tijuana, Mexico? There were many excellent clinics in Tijuana. The Barbosa Clinic, for one. . .

And now Bernice Wallin sat in the Barbosa Clinic, 210 Fifth Street, Tijuana, as Dr. Schenk explained how cancer could be cured. He said he believed leukemia to be caused by poisons in the blood. Gary's treatments would include "blood-cleansing" and "antitoxin" shots. There would also be "cellular therapy"—injections of dried cells from freshly slaughtered lambs. This therapy had been invented by a Dr. Paul Niehans, at whose clinic in Switzerland Dr. Schenk said he had worked.

Bernice Wallin left Dr. Schenk's office nearly crying with joy. That was in February, 1965. Over the next several months she took Gary to Tijuana at least once a week, often twice or three times. Each visit at the Barbosa Clinic cost $10; each "blood-cleansing" and "antitoxin" shot $10; each "cellular therapy" shot $50. It was staggeringly expensive, but Bernice Wallin didn't mind. She had hope.

Gary's "treatments" continued until early August, when Bernice took him for one of his regular visits. He had a headache and a fever and could barely walk. Dr. Schenk looked him over. "Put him in a U.S. hospital," he said. "We can't help him here." Stunned, Bernice begged Dr. Schenk to put Gary into a Tijuana hospital and to continue to treat him. Dr. Schenk refused.

On August 23, 1965, two weeks short of his eighth birthday, Gary Wallin died of leukemia.

Tijuana is a slum-ridden, grimy, small city just across the border from the southern end of California. Thousands of Americans visit it each year to patronize its cheap bars, to obtain quickie marriages and divorces, dope and sex. Since the early 1960's many others, like Bernice Wallin and her son, have visited it to buy unproven cancer "cures" that cannot be dispensed legally in the United States. There are many enterprises like the Barbosa Clinic and unknown numbers of independent practitioners, all openly offering cancer medicines and therapeutic techniques that the U.S. has banned.

Tijuana attracts a pathetic pilgrimage of the frightened. Many of them are pursuing a last—and cruelly false—hope. And many, even more tragically, are lured away, until it is too late, from increasingly effective real treatment that could prolong or save their lives. They are led by the hundreds into this shabby city via a network of propaganda-and-referral stations that is spreading rapidly through the U.S and Canada—a network that I've come to call the Cancer Underground Railroad.

I had been aware for many years that unproven cancer remedies were being banned in the United States. There is the Hoxsey Treatment, for example, invented by a Texan named Harry Hoxsey. The treatment consists of liquid medicines and pills, made from assorted herbs and extracts. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration determined in the 1960's that neither the liquids nor the pills had any value for treating cancer. After a long fight through the courts, Hoxsey's clinics were closed, and federal authorities banned the remedy from the U.S. market by 1960.

There is Krebiozen, made from creatine, a common laboratory chemical. in a solution of mineral oil. The FDA tested it, found that some samples contained mineral oil alone, judged the medicine to be worthless as a cancer cure in any case. Krebiozen was banned from interstate commerce in 1963.

There is Laetrile, whose main ingredient is a glucose obtained from apricot pits. It purportedly works by causing a chemical reaction that liberates nascent hydrogen cyanide; this, in tum, supposedly prevents cancer cells from "breathing" and thus kills them. No evidence has ever been found that any such reaction takes place, and in 1965 a federal court issued a permanent injunction against distribution of Laetrile in the U.S.

There is the Koch Treatment, originated around 1914 by Dr. William F. Koch, then at the University of Michigan. The treatment consists of enemas, a strict diet and injections of a substance that Koch called "glyoxylide." The FDA tested glyoxylide and found it to be sterile distilled water. It, too, was banned from the U.S. market.

Thus, one by one, the purveyors of these and other worthless cancer "cures" lost the biggest, richest market in the world. Lost it—and then found a way to regain it. They saw that they could stay in business by moving to Mexico-preferably to a town next to the American border, served by convenient transportation, friendly to Americans and their money, and reluctant to spoil this friendship with to-zealous law enforcement—Tijuana.

Some time in 1966 I became curious to know where all the cancer "curers" were going. I asked the American Medical Association and the American Cancer Society, both of which keep a close watch on "cures" and spend a lot of money trying to stamp them out. I also began writing to health-faddists' clubs for literature and talked to faddists at "health-food" stores. The Mexican city was mentioned prominently and consistently whenever there was talk of cancer "cures." I found that, sooner or later, a cancer victim in quest of an unorthodox cure would almost inevitably be led to Mexico. Many Tijuana practitioners have taken pains to make their new address widely known.

Advertising has apparently been one of their major problems. Few U.S. newspapers or magazines will accept ads for unendorsed cancer treatments, but the Tijuana doctors have found other media of communication that serve their purposes.

There are hundreds of thousands of health faddists in America—people who are more than normally concerned about their health. They shop in health-food stores, adopt strange diets, buy unorthodox medicines and therapeutic gadgets. Many belong to clubs and other organizations that send out newsletters, hold meetings and conventions. Here was an ideal setup through which to spread the word about Tijuana. I found that two organizations in particular were promoting the Mexican "cures" energetically.

One of them, the National Health Federation, has some 10,000 members, publishes a monthly bulletin and conducts an extensive program of meetings and public lectures throughout the United States. It was founded in 1955 with headquarters at Monrovia, Calif.

One founder, Fred J. Hart, was fined $500 in 1962 for distributing electrical gadgets that he claimed could treat cancer and other diseases. Today he is N.H.F.'s board chairman. Another founder was a Milwaukee man, the late Royal Lee. In 1962 Lee's Vitamin Products Co. was fined $7,000 for shipping dietary products with false claims for treatment of cancer and 500 other conditions. A former board chairman is V. Earl Irons of Boston, who went to prison in 1957 for selling a vitamin mixture with claims that it could prevent or cure cancer. Still another former board member is an Illinois man named Roy F. Paxton, who was convicted twice for promoting a worthless cancer remedy called Millrue.

This organization has been happy to tell its members about Tijuana. Its bulletin for February, 1966, for instance, carried an item headed "Food News." It said: "After many years absence. the original Koch Treatment is again available on the North American Continent. . . " Readers were invited to write to N.H.F. headquarters for more information. One reader who did received a postcard reply saying that the Koch Treatment could be had at the Bio-Medical Center in Tijuana.

Federated with N.H.F. is a younger outfit called the International Association of Cancer Victims and Friends (l.A.C.V.F.), with some 3,000 members. It was founded in 1963 by a former San Diego schoolteacher, Cecile Pollock Hoffman. Mrs. Hoffman is an evangelist of unorthodox cancer "cures."

Cecile Hoffman underwent cancer surgery in 1959 and again in 1962. Apparently afraid that malignancies might still be lurking in her body, she looked about for other treatments. In 1963 her husband saw a book at a Los Angeles airport newsstand: Laetrile—Control for Cancer, by a journalist named Glenn D. Kittler. The cover blurb touted Laetrile (the apricot-pit medicine) as the "first major breakthrough in the cancer mystery" and promised that it would be to cancer "what insulin is to diabetes." Cecile Hoffman read the book, got in touch with practitioners mentioned in it, and ended in Tijuana buying Laetrile treatments from a Dr. Ernesto Contreras. Mrs. Hoffman became convinced that the Laetrile treatments were keeping her cancer-free. "Riding to Tijuana daily," she wrote, later, "my mind said: organize, organize . . . " She organized I.A.C.V.F.,' which is now busily setting up chapters all over the country.

I.A.C.V.F. also appears to be busy with direct solicitation of cancer patients. Dr. John T. P. Cudmore, a San Diego cancer specialist, showed me an I.A.C.V.F. mailing received by a patient shortly after undergoing surgery."

"A number of our patients have been, approached by this association soon after they have been diagnosed as having cancer, or soon after operations," Dr. Cudmore said. "Some get literature in the mail, and some even get phone calls. The callers say, 'Don't go to your doctor, don't let them cut you up, don't let them bum you with the X ray, don't let them give you things that will make you sick.' They try to get patients away from useful treatment and onto worthless remedies.''

How do they get the names? "Perhaps they have contacts in the hospitals who pass them on," Dr. Cudmore said. "Perhaps they are installing their people in hospital! as nurses' aides. We simply don't know."

The more I learned, the more curious I became. I decided to take a trip on the Cancer Underground Railroad, posing as a typical victim.

I began by attending I.A.C.V.F.'s Fourth Annual Lay and Professional Cancer Convention, at Los Angeles's Ambassador Hotel in July, 1967. More than 1,000 people turned up at this convention. The majority were middle-aged. and well over half were women. Almost all were victims of cancer. believed they had cancer. or had relatives with real or imagined cancer. Scattered through the crowd were people on crutches, in walkers, in wheelchairs.

The first day's ceremonies were opened by Betty Morales-the owner of Organic-Ville. who had pointed the way to Tijuana for Bernice Wallin and her little boy. Betty Morales introduced I.A.C.V.F.'s leader. Cecile Hoffman. "She was a cancer victim." said Belly Morales. "Note the past tense."

Cecile Hoffman stepped to the rostrum: a thin. warm. energetic woman with a strong. confident voice. She wore a pink dress and a wide-brimmed. cream-colored hat with a pink ribbon. She began to talk on a topic that is perhaps the favorite at all such meetings: the "sinister conspiracy" by which organized medicine keeps unorthodox cancer cures off the market. This conspiracy is supposedly engineered by doctors who. making money off cancer victims. don't want a sure cure to become available. "If progress were truly the goal of the American Medical Association and the American Cancer Society," said Mrs. Hoffman in her compelling, dramatic voice. "do you not believe that the millions of dollars of public moneys pumped into the research empire reigned over by these two groups would find an answer at once? The conclusion is inescapable: The cancer statistics get ever worse because of the conspiracy on the part of the powers to maintain the status quo."

Mrs. Hoffman went on to talk o I.A.C.V.F.'s grand design for the future. The organization, she said, plant to work for "less governmental interference" and "a free, unbiased press.' It plans to establish reading rooms bookstores and telephone listings in every major American city; a research clinic; an I.A.C.V.F.-owned newspaper and a radio or TV station. "So I say—together, united—we will achieve our needs and march on to victory, victory, victory!"

The audience cheered.

Another scheduled speaker was Dr. Wendell G. Hendricks. a former California osteopath who had recently been offering both the Koch Treatment and "cellular therapy" from a Tijuana of· lice. Hendricks's speech was canceled. No reason was given. I learned- later that he had been arrested three weeks before in a San Francisco hotel room. He had been about to inject a 12-year-old girl with a "serum" that he said would cure her of mental retardation. The girl was a decoy; her father was an investigator for the California State Board of Medical Examiners.

When the convention was over, I went to see Betty Morales at Organic-Ville. Her store is a modernistic one, fully as big as an average supermarket. On the first floor are grocery shelves. a bakery. restaurant. snack bar and book section; on a balcony are offices from which a thriving mail-order business is conducted. The store's name comes from its announced belief in "organically grown" foods-that is, foods grown without chemical fertilizers.

Customers of such stores believe that "natural" foods contain nature's medicines for disease.

On one wall was posted a letter from a Salt Lake City customer: "Here is a small donation for the Cancer Cause. also our subscription [to Organic-Ville's newsletter]. Also. please send me 1.000 Master Minerals for my hair. it's the only thing that saves it."

When I found Belly Morales we chatted about the convention. Then I brought up my personal problem; l said I had several lumps on various parts of my body. was worried. and didn't have complete faith in the standard methods of diagnosis and treatment. She nodded grimly. "They don't want people cured," she said.

l asked about Tijuana. She told me about certain boardinghouses near the California-Mexico border. The flow of cancer patients into Tijuana is apparently so large and steady that some r boardinghouses have been able to make o a business of catering to these people. The houses offer daily station-wagon trips to and from Tijuana.

Next I asked Betty Morales about a flyer that I'd picked up at the convention. It described a place called the ·Bio-Medical Center, which offered Koch and Hoxsey treatments. "Who runs this Bio-Medical Center?" I asked.

"A woman named Mildred Cates." This was a familiar name. When Harry Hoxsey's cancer clinic in Texas was closed, the clinic's head nurse had been Mildred Cates.

On Friday, July 14, I drove into Tijuana. The Bio-Medical Center turned out to be a small, attractive building. l entered, waited, and finally was ushered into Mildred Cates's office.

Mrs. Cates is a striking woman in her late 40's or early 50's, tall. trim, with light-red hair and hazel eyes. Her manner is pleasant, coolly poised. She smiled as we sat down. "Now," she said, "what can I do for you?"

I showed her a lump on my leg. This lump, like several others on my body, is a sebaceous (fatty) cyst. It's harmless. Doctors have told me they'll remove it if it bothers me. but there's no real need to do so.

Mildred Cates felt it.

It appears to be a lymph sarcoma." she said after a while.

What's that?"

"A lymph cancer. In our view, cancer is a systemic disorder, and growths or lumps are local manifestations of the systemic disease. One thing is sure: something is growing there, and you ought to come in for a full examination establish the diagnosis."

I asked about cost. She said. "Your lab work would be forty dollars, and the X rays twenty to thirty dollars. If you have cancer and take the treatment, the cost is five hundred dollars."

On the following Tuesday I was back the at the Bio-Medical Center at 9 A.M. or a day of tests. Mrs. Cates and other staff members took X-ray pictures of me and studied my various cysts.

During the day I listened to patients talking to one another and talked to a number of them. They all believed in the conspiracy theory; each told own horror story about the folly and greed of U.S. cancer therapy. "Forty percent of all surgery is for cancer," one of them told me. "The doctors aren't about to permit anything that will eliminate all that."

One little group formed a close, confiding unit—one had followed another until there were four of them huddled together under a portrait of Harry Hoxsey in this small room in Tijuana. The man had been first—a Californian in his late 40's with an enlarged prostate that had never been examined by an American doctor. He had come directly to the Bio-Medical Center, where it was diagnosed as cancerous. He had been under treatment for 18 months. Second was his sister-in-law. who had undergone breast surgery. He persuaded her to come to the center. where she was told she still had a cancerous condition and was under treatment. She had met two other cancer victims at her church in Illinois and persuaded both to discontinue conventional treatment and come to the center. One had had a hysterectomy. the other had abdominal cancer.

There were also children in the waiting room. One. a 10-year-old boy, told me he had a lump in his throat. He had been to two American doctors.

"Do you know what it is?" I asked.

"I don't know what they said it was," he replied.

Another patient was a beautiful nine-year-old girl from Lancaster, Calif., whose parents brought her in in a wheelchair. She was frail and weak, in constant pain. Her parents told me she had a form of bone cancer called Ewing's tumor. In April doctors had removed part of her anklebone where the tumor was centered, and told the parents she had about a year to live. The parents then brought her to the Bio-Medical Center, where she was being treated with Hoxsey's medicine. vitamins and brewers' yeast. On this visit Mildred Cates gave her a vitamin B-12 shot.

As I was sitting in a corridor talking to the girl and her parents in the afternoon. Mildred Cates passed by and handed me an instruction sheet for my treatment. It was the Hoxsey Treatment-"kidney tablets." calcium tablets. vitamin C and a diet that excluded salt, sugar. "bleached flour products," pork, tomatoes, and pickles.

Orthodox medicine doesn't recognize any of these remedies as having the slightest value in treating cancer-or in treating sebaceous cysts.

At about 4 :30 in the afternoon Mildred Cates summoned me to her office. On her desk were a bottle of brownish-black liquid and a pile of brown-paper envelopes run of pills.

"I gather that I have some facts to face," I said.

Mildred Cates lit a Mexican cigarette. "There are several possibilities," she said. "The diagnosis of malignancy is not definite, but the growth on the back of your left leg appears to be melanoma. black cancer."

I asked. "How serious is melanoma?" "When most doctors diagnose it." she said quietly, "they simply throw up their hands. They lose melanoma patients in a year. Fortunately, we have had a high degree of success in treating it." She pointed at the bottle and pill envelopes.

"That's your medicine. Take it for four weeks, then come back."

"Is that the Hoxsey Treatment?"

"That's it."

I gave her a $65 down payment. gathered my medicines and left. I passed over the border to the United States. wondering how long the Tijuana practitioners will stay in business. So far the Mexican Government has made no public moves against them. though there may have been some private confrontations. It's possible that the Tijuana cancer treaters. when confronted. will dodge behind Mexico's medical experimentation laws. U.S. laws are strict: Before a medicine may be offered to the public. it must go through stringent laboratory testing. animal experimentation and controlled trials on humans. Mexico allows more leeway for experimenting on humans. and the Tijuana treaters may be able to claim that they are only experimenting-albeit profitably. After all. the medicines that they dispense contain no -powerful chemicals and do no direct harm.

But they do a great deal of harm indirectly. "The thing that concerns us," says Dr. H.P. Groesbeck, a San Diego cancer specialist and former president of the San Diego chapter of the American Cancer Society, "is that people are lured into this thing who have cancer ... people who can be saved if they get the right treatment and get it in time." Thousands of eminent scientists are working on cancer. with chemicals. radiation and surgery. And although their progress must seem hopelessly slow for human beings confronted with the here and now of this dread disease, there is progress. Even leukemia, one of the most terrible of cancers, appears to be yielding; chemicals have prolonged the lives of leukemia victims for several years. and there are indications that some of these may in fact be cured of leukemia. The chances seem good that many such cures will eventually be discovered. But it seems unlikely that. in the meantime. anyone will discover a cure—or an easy answer-for the despair that drives the hopeless to Tijuana.


Ralph Lee Smith investigated and wrote about many quackery-related topics during the 196ri0s and 1970s. After that, he taught communications at Howard University and operated a writing and editing service. He also became interested in folk music and became a leading promoter and player of the Appalachian dulcimer.

This article was posted on July 21, 2018.