At the heart of “Cut Poison Burn,” a compelling new documentary from director Wayne Chesler, is a premise that will make many cancer specialists uncomfortable: In the 40 years since Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, American medicine has fought the battle to a stalemate. Although progress has been made against some forms of the disease, such as testicular and cervical cancers, overall mortality in 2011 is basically unchanged from 1971.
More distressing, just as the Vietnam era gave us the Orwellian notion of destroying a village in order to save it, much of the armamentarium used to fight cancer takes a brutal—and, the filmmakers argue, largely unjustifiable—toll on the human body.
Based on a stage play by the same name, “Cut Poison Burn” mixes interviews with skeptical cancer researchers with often heartbreaking footage of patients and their families. All patient stories have the same essential narrative: People with cancer, whether they stick with conventional chemotherapy and radiation or seek alternative treatments that promise, if not cures, then at least less punishment, are stuck in a maze whose only exits are bad outcomes.
Standing in their way, according to the filmmakers, are arbitrary and intransigent bureaucrats at the FDA and a medical–industrial complex with no room for the unprofitable experimental treatment and the researchers who stray outside the umbrella of the status quo.
One such figure is Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, a Polish emigre whose eponymous clinic in Houston was the target of a costly government investigation. Dr. Burzynski claims to have produced cures for lethal tumors with what he calls antineoplastons, peptides in urine that, according to his theory, convert malignancies into normal cells.
Dr. Burzynski has been labeled a quack and worse (he’s also the subject of another recent documentary, “Burzynski, the Movie”). He has published extensively in reputable, peer-reviewed journals, yet whether his approach works is at best debatable. But the film is strongly sympathetic to him—or, at least, to two points regarding his work: Patients should be allowed to choose such controversial treatments without government interference, and money should be available to test experimental cancer remedies that don’t appeal to the drug industry. As the documentary makes clear (painfully so in the first instance), neither is true today.
Always provocative, Chesler’s film occasionally suffers oversteps. One of these involves the statement by a Vincent DeVita, MD, who directed the National Cancer Institute for most of the 1980s, that the FDA would reject an application for aspirin today because the drug causes tumors in lab animals. Perhaps that’s true—although it seems highly unlikely, given that all drugs have risks, including the potential to cause tumors in both animals and people—yet much of the narrative stresses the hazards of key cancer therapies, such as tamoxifen, precisely for their propensity to cause cancers in patients.
Similarly, although Dr. Burzynski may have successfully treated some patients with antineoplastons, we get no sense of the denominator here. How many others died who might have stood a better chance with conventional therapies? A quick search of the Internet turns up reports from people who condemn the Texas doctor.
Viewers may reject the film’s vision of good and evil, but some points will hit the mark. How, for example, can the American Cancer Society justify a $1 million salary for its top executive while the group spends barely 10% of its $1 billion annual budget on research efforts? Why did the medical establishment suppress the Pap test for so many years, condemning thousands of women to needless death from cervical cancer? And what kind of soulless legal system would threaten parents with prosecution for wanting to shield their dying child from the terrible effects of brain irradiation?
Richard Pazdur, MD, director of the FDA’s Office of Oncology Drug Products, comes across as particularly arrogant at a contentious congressional hearing during which he tries to defend the agency’s decision to deny care at Dr. Bursynski’s Houston clinic to a young boy dying from medulloblastoma. After giving his testimony, the film states, Dr. Pazdur walked out and refused to listen to other witnesses.
As one of the talking heads in the film argues, in time doctors and patients will look back on the current state of cancer treatment the way we now view blood-letting: primitive, barbaric and ineffective. That remains to be seen. But “Cut Poison Burn” raises questions that physicians, patients, regulators and the biomedical industry should not ignore.
“Cut Poison Burn” is available for downloading at cutpoisonburn.com.