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A reply to skeptic’s smear attack

rssaIn February 1999, the New York journal "Skeptic" published an article under quite a designing name "Another Alt Med Tragedy". The author of the article is a Michael Shermer. His article and Barbara G. Koopman's answer are below. 

Another Alt Med Tragedy
From: Skeptic Mag Hotline
Date: Mon, 01 Feb 1999 12:03:07 –0800
Subject: Strange Science/Alt Med Tragedy
Another Alt Med Tragedy
 

In the next couple of months CBS's Unsolved Mysteries will be airing a program on a "Russian Psychic Healer" named Nicolai Levashov, who claims he has created medical miracles and that "the results have mystified the very doctors who had written their patients off as incurable," according to the pre- production report given to me by the producers of this segment.

I was consulted by the segment producer, Janet Jones, and was asked to comment on film about this healer. I was not going to comment on this until the show aired, but recent events compel me to finally say something.

Nicolai Levashov says he heals people by going inside their body psychically and tweaking with the damaged cells and tissues. The story segment focuses on two cases:

(1) Isabelle Pritchard, who was born with a brain tumor and had four surgeries and numerous chemo and radiation treatments;

(2) Susan Strasberg, the actress, diagnosed with breast cancer, was allegedly healed by Levashov. The second case is now another tragedy of Alternative Medicine, since Strasberg recently died of cancer.

Here is the Unsolved Mysteries script that was going to be used for the show (they sent me a copy), but will be changed, no doubt, before it airs, since Strasberg was filmed extensively for the program. The script:

"Actress Susan Strasberg, the daughter of famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, calls her involvement with Nicolai's psychic healing "the great adventure of my life." At age 57, she had felt a tiny lump in her breast. A biopsy confirmed her worst fears. She had malignant cancer and needed a double mastectomy.

"My mother had died of cancer at 58. I didn't want that to happen to me. I'm 60 now and feeling better than I ever have in my life. I owe it all to Nicolai."

Susan refused surgery. A longtime believer in alternative healing methods, she sought help from Nicolai in San Francisco. By the time she went there, her tumor had grown quickly and was considered in a terminal stage.

For nearly ten months, she went to Nicolai's office every day for 15 minutes. When she had to go to Europe, he continued the sessions via telephone twice a week. [Psychic healing can allegedly be done over the phone.]

Susan had a mammogram a year after the initial diagnosis of cancer. It showed no signs of the tumor. Her New York doctors had no interest in hearing about the Russian healer Susan described to them. She gratefully acknowledges Nicolai's skill by saying, "This must be the medicine for the future. He knows anatomy, biology, chemistry and can diagnose sickness so well. My essence knew this was the right thing to do, to put my life in Nicolai's hands"."

Strasberg died of cancer. Her final statement sums up the problem succinctly and tragically. The future of medicine is not in the so-called "alternative" or "complementary" medicine fields. The reason is that almost every claim made in these fields are based on the types of "essences" Strasberg felt as the "right thing to do."

As pattern-seeking animals we all tend toward subjective feelings about what "feels" or "seems" right. Sometimes we are right, sometimes we are wrong. The only way to find out is to test the claim with science.

Modern medicine has developed a reasonably reliable method to test such claims (not perfect, of course, but the best method we have). Strasberg chose to ignore science and she paid with her life. (Of course, we will never know how the experiment would have come out with traditional methods of treatment, since people still die of cancer, but we DO know how this one came out.)

Nicolai Levashov came to the attention of Unsolved Mysteries through a woman named Barbara Koopman, M.D., Ph.D., a close friend of Susan Strasberg. She wrote Unsolved Mysteries a letter recommending that they do a story on him. (I have copies of the letter, all medical reports for Strasberg and the other patients, the Unsolved Mysteries script, etc.)

I called Koopman to get a statement about this affair. At first she was very reluctant to speak to me, but since I was friendly and genuinely inquisitive she warmed up and then opened up.

She still completely believes in Levashov. Strasberg, she says, lived four years longer than she should of thanks to the psychic's healings of her. Strasberg had the happiest final four years of her life. She should have been dead within months but instead lived years.

Her death came suddenly and was a complete surprise to Dr. Koopman and, she says, to others as well. Koopman feels that regardless of the cause of death (the Los Angeles Times obit said it was from cancer), her final years were still a miracle.

Levashov is still, in her eyes, a miracle worker. I asked Koopman if she knows how Levashov works his miracles. She explained that it has to do with the interchange of matter and energy, but that this explanation probably makes no sense. Correct there Dr. Koopman. She continued to stress over and over that this outcome should not be considered a tragedy, because Strasberg was so happy at the end.

Will Nicolai Levashov be held accountable for Strasberg's death? Of course not. Will such alternative modalities of healing be questioned because of this? Of course not. Will Unsolved Mysteries run the piece and then end it explaining that she died anyway? I seriously doubt it (my guess is that it will be eliminated from the segment so as not to dampen the enthusiasm for the psychic healer's amazing skills - disconfirming evidence is rarely presented on such programs).

Unfortunately, countless people are taken in by such hucksters as Levashov, and pay with their lives, but because they are not celebrities we do not hear about them. And the alternative medicine gurus like Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil are not about to pen a statement saying that perhaps they are wrong about the nonsense they peddle.

Tragedies like Strasberg are either ignored, or tallied up to negative thoughts on her part, or by healing methods on the part of this ONE psychic (but the other methods are still acceptable), or, in Koopman's case, that she WAS healed, temporarily anyway. This whole mess sickens me. You are going to see more on alternative medicine in the pages of Skeptic in coming issues. This is a problem of grave concern.

Michael Shermer

A reply to skeptic’s smear attack

of Feb, 1999 against Russian scientist Nicolai Levashov

Barbara G. Koopman, M.D., Ph.D.
Fellow and former attending staff member,
Mount Sinai Hospital, NYC

The big lie: "Strasberg chose to ignore science and she paid with her life."

The above refers to the alleged "Alternative Medicine Tragedy" ("Alt Med", for short) of renowned actress, Susan Strasberg.

This is a total fabrication, born of the rigid bias and mindset of Skeptic chief Michael Shermer, who chose to ignore or suppress data from the impeccable medical records made available to him.

Susan was already near death on March ’95 when the Grade IIIB breast cancer was discovered. The only option offered her was a survival of three or four months of a very poor quality of life if she underwent mastectomy and radiation. That is all that the science she allegedly "ignored" could do for her.

Susan did not "ignore science" — she thoroughly investigated the situation and knew her options clearly. Four years later, without traditional medicine, she was alive and thriving — with no demonstrable tumor mass.

There is no way for Shermer’s audience to know the falseness of his allegation because he acts as if the evidence given him doesn’t exist. Apparently, if there is something that does not fit into his conventional model of reality, he omits it — no matter how legitimate, authentic and peer reviewed it is.

Aiding and abetting him is his "expert" consultant, Dr. Steve Harris, incidentally, a cryogenics specialist — not an oncologist or surgeon — though any well-trained medical student who reads the records would know immediately that there was no "Alt Med Tragedy" unfolding here.

Michael Shermer, a history of science Ph.D., from Claremont Graduate School, is on a religious jihad against alternative medicine in general and Nicolai Levashov in particular. He is not interested in any authentic documentation or long-range favorable outcomes of Levashov’s work published in reputable journals and made available to him through hospital records.

We are well aware that there are abuses in alternative medicine that need to be addressed, from outright fraud to the overuse of suggestion. To get at the truth, alternative modalities must be judged on a case by case basis and not all lumped together under the rubric of quackery. This requires the kind of rigorous documentation that was available in Susan’s case.

Michael Shermer, how can you, in clear conscience, serve the cause of truth by ignoring or suppressing such evidence?

Nicolai Levashov is a highly accomplished, honored scientist, whose track record in alternative medicine includes many remarkable outcomes — outside the reach of traditional medicine — fastidiously documented by hospital records, MRI’s, CAT scans, pathology reports, frozen sections, etc., before, during and after he has worked on a subject. (See Published Articles).

His work has been subjected to rigorous peer review by panels of experts in the field. In the winter of 2000, the case of a child with GBM, (the deadliest brain tumor on record), was aired in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, a journal edited and run entirely by doctors — a serious periodical without "attitude" or snideness — just dealing in the facts. No one in their medical audience of panelists or readers could fault this well documented presentation in any way.

By contrast, here is what Michael Shermer’s "expert" did with this same case: he implied that the child recovered due to "numerous chemo and radiation treatments" — a bald-faced lie. He had all the records in his hands, which clearly stated that such measures were offered many times to the parents and consistently refused.

Why, Michael Shermer? What is your point, other than discrediting honest and remarkable work because you don’t understand it or cannot tolerate the idea that serious, empirically based outcomes can be achieved outside mainstream medicine?

Instead of looking at the evidence, you impugn the integrity of those whose work you don’t understand or because someone dares to come up with a new paradigm. The history of science, your chosen field, is full of examples of the liquidation of thinkers that were ahead of their time. No one should know that better than you!

You and your consultant had the actual documents in your hands. They clearly showed that Susan was well and free of tumor growths when — by all conventional wisdom — she should have succumbed four years earlier to one of the most virulent forms of breast cancer on record.

But you and your expert dismissed her survival as merely a form of «denial». How nonsensical — almost laughable — this is.

It is reminiscent of an incident we came across in the history of 20th century science in America when our own country saw a similar response to an irrefutable scientific achievement of the Wright brothers.

During the 1900’s, there were four historic flights, each accomplishing longer and longer periods of time that their aircraft was aloft. At one of the early trials, a conscientious journalist witnessed and accurately reported the remarkable feat that he and other observers had seen at the site.

The very next day, a major national news chain reported that the most reputable experts in the country had pronounced such a feat impossible — that objects heavier than air could not fly. Therefore, they emblazoned across their headlines that what the observers had experienced was "a mass hallucination." They also fired the hapless reporter, who hopefully was later reinstated.

So who is doing the hallucinating, Michael Shermer? All you and your consultants have to do is dump the empirical evidence in your hands and publicly tar everyone else as delusional or deceitful.

Or, is there something more sinister afoot? Who is supporting your extensive global network of skeptic organizations if none other than those whose vested interests lie in keeping the public chronically medicated and in need of all manner of costly health interventions?

Now let us look at the facts of Susan’s case:

We have these on record (videotaped) in Susan’s own words. In February of 1995 Susan discovered a lump on her right breast, for which she immediately sought traditional help, including a thorough diagnostic workup.

Ironically, Susan was the same age as when her mother had succumbed to breast cancer.

The surgeon’s prognosis was grim: she had a high Grade III cancer rapidly on its way to becoming a full-blown lethal Grade IV. He warned her that it would double in size every month that she delayed and that immediate removal of the breast was imperative.

Even so, with mastectomy, plus follow-up radiation, she would, at best, survive only about three months. (Cytoimmunological tests showed that she was not a candidate for chemotherapy because her tumor was poor in receptor sites for hormones).

Survival is gauged largely on prognostic markers. Susan‘s picture featured several of the worst (see below under "Appendix"). For diagnostic purposes, two small pieces of tumor were removed. This is not a lumpectomy (as your commentator alleges) which cuts out the whole mass, leaving no tumor on the breast. So his idea that this explains the subsequent disappearance of tumor is absurd.

Actually the two biopsies measured, respectively, 2.5 x 1.4 x 1 cm and 3.6 x 2.8 x 1 cm, and the tumor cells extended to the cut margins of the pieces, which means they did not get all of the tumor in this procedure. There were also needle aspirations of cells from other uncut sites, which also read positive for cancer.

With such poor options — mastectomy and radiation — which would grant her about three months of a marginal existence, she decided to research alternatives. In the two month interval of her research, the tumors had indeed increased in size and become Grade IV, as predicted by her surgeon.

Levashov never sought her out as a client. Susan came to him after thoroughly researching all her options. This was a conscious decision based on that research and on the information from her surgeon. She was not a misguided "innocent" bilked by a charlatan, as Skeptic and company would have you believe, but, in fact, an extremely intelligent, widely read and well-informed person with two near best-selling books to her credit.

Levashov began work with her in April of ‘95 and recommended her getting another mammogram, which again confirmed the presence of advanced breast cancer.

Six months later, without any traditional treatment, Susan should have been dead, given the surgeon’s predictions and the extremely dire prognostic markers of her case... Instead, she was thriving and another mammogram taken at this time, indicated there were "no identifiable tumor masses."

This is in sharp contrast to the initial diagnostic finding of three separate tumor sites on the breast. The doctors expressed surprise at the six-month follow-up x-rays, but when Susan tried to explain what had happened, they were, in her words, "not interested." Ironically, had she submitted to the best these very doctors had to offer, she would have been moribund or dead by then. Skeptic’s distinguished commentator, however, opined that this was just another case of patient "denial."

The intervening years 1995-1999 During the almost four years preceding her death, Susan, Ruth Scott (a trainee of Nicolai), and I, were an inseparable trio, whenever I was in San Francisco, which at that time was about two or three months a year.

Ruth and I watched her thrive. She looked beautiful, glowed with happiness and was very productive. The three of us shared endless discussions, ranging from "girl talk" to the deepest spiritual, scientific and philosophical matters. Susan and I often shopped together, lent each other clothes and undressed in fitting rooms; I can report that up to the end of her life, her bosom was flawless.

This is a far cry from the usual clinical picture of an emaciated, disease-ravaged terminal breast cancer patient.

Late in 1998, Susan’s weak lymphatic system began to break down. This was a genetic weakness, unrelated to her breast condition and occurring at a time when the breasts were perfectly normal. Nicolai had told her that this would happen and informed her that he was working on it.

This can happen, especially in a genetically susceptible person, since the work with cancer involves the moving out of heavy toxins from the system, which puts a significant load on the lymphatic system and on the organism in general.

At this stage a patient may develop ascites (accumulation of fluid in the belly) along with the accompanying symptoms of discomfort and pressure. Therefore, if this occurs, Nicolai recommends periodic paracentesis (draining of the fluid) by a qualified surgeon, while he continues to work on clearing out the toxins.

Susan began to develop discomfort, heaviness and difficulty in holding her food down. She was never cachectic or emaciated and always looked very well. Her traveling abroad around this time also exacerbated her symptoms since she did not take the time off to have the paracentesis.

On her return from Europe, Nicolai urged her to come straight back to San Francisco, but she insisted on stopping in NYC first. This was a matter of great concern to him, as he wanted to work on her in person where he could monitor her more closely. Against his advice, she decided to stay in NY long enough to transact some important business.

Final events

On her arrival in NY, Susan stayed with her friend, Tanya, who has a large apartment on Central Park South. She made arrangements to finish her transactions and meanwhile socialized with friends, including myself and Ruth who was also in town. Susan and I had recently also signed a lease to share an apartment in San Francisco since we both spent so much time there.

On New Year’s Eve, Susan, Ruth and I, along with several guests including a physician friend of mine, celebrated the occasion at my Manhattan condo. Susan thoroughly enjoyed the company and the gourmet fish dinner and, as usual, was the life of the party. Shortly after midnight, she left to attend another gathering.

How Susan died

Around this time, Susan was now experiencing increasing discomfort and started to make plans to return to San Francisco once her business was finished. Nicolai recommended she have a paracentesis before attempting plane travel and Tanya took her to a woman doctor she knew.

On seeing Susan, the doctor exclaimed in surprise how beautiful she was and could not believe she was a cancer patient. She did agree that a paracentesis should be done and arranged to have it performed the following day by a surgeon at a topflight hospital.

When Susan came next day for the procedure, the surgeon did not show up and she was sent home. The following day, she returned to the hospital where two young doctors (residents or interns) took over. They told her the procedure would take about six hours and not to have her accompanying friend wait around for her.

The procedure began without any discomfort on Susan’s part, but after two hours, she felt a sudden sharp stabbing pain in her midsection and screamed. This was consistent with a piercing of tissue, most likely in the diaphragm).

The young doctors became very flustered and discharged her precipitously with only about 1/3 of the work done. Susan said they couldn’t wait to get her out fast enough — as if they feared she would die on the premises. The friend, summoned early to take her home, confirmed this. She returned to Tanya’s apartment, ate a good meal and retired, sleeping in a supine position. She was expecting to finish the business transaction the next morning and fly back to San Francisco. She awoke in high spirits ready to pack. Only the maid was present.

A courier arrived and gave her the item she was expecting. Shortly thereafter (about 10 am), she began gasping for breath and called Nicolai, who quickly recognized that she was experiencing mechanical blockage in her lung and needed immediate emergency help. He told her to call 911. The maid did so, but for some unaccountable reason, the EMS took 45 minutes to arrive.

In the meantime, Susan expired…her face turned purplish blue, consistent with sudden asphyxiation. This was not a cancer death. Her healing was still a work in progress and though not complete, was going well. She died of a pulmonary embolus before help could arrive.

Apparently, while sleeping on her back, she had leakage of fluid into the chest cavity, which had been punctured during the recent procedure. It appears that a piece of the torn tissue got lodged in the pulmonary artery.

The typical purplish picture of asphyxiation on Susan’s face was clearly visible to the maid and the EMS workers. We learned later that the autopsy report listed the official cause of death as a pulmonary embolism. This, indeed, dovetails with the witnesses’ description of Susan’s face observed within minutes of her death.

When Susan died of an embolism in 1999, Levashov’s work on her extremely virulent form of cancer was nearing completion. The problem of the genetically weak lymphatic system had begun to be addressed through paracentesis.

The woman doctor who saw her a few days before her death could not, despite her history, characterize her as a terminal case. Further, Susan was planning to appear on television at the celebrity wedding of a close friend.

Susan’s life and Levashov’s work came to an end because of a surgical accident. To ignore the records and use this as an example of an "alt med tragedy" is an unconscionable lie.

Your rush to judgment and your vilification of an honored, trail-blazing scientist suggest an utter indifference to ethics and truth. There can never be fair evaluations where bias and contempt take the place of responsible objectivity.

BGK, MD, PhD


Appendix

From the outset, Susan's tumor tests and history showed several poor prognostic markers:

genetic predisposition (mother died of breast cancer at age 57);
cell types-highly undifferentiated (that means the most lethal and aggressive);
pleomorphism (a variety of different shapes, also ominous);
a variety of several different kinds of cancer, including adeno, mucinous and comedo carcinoma;
Tumor grade: High Grade (Grade III), Modified Scharff-Bloom-Richardson grading system.
Grade IV, which in the 2-month interim she was rapidly approaching, is terminal, and denotes an extensive spread of disease to bodily parts and organs).

Cytoimmunology:

ER-poor,
PR-poor
Her-2/neu overexpressor,
P53 negative, and Aneuploid
which indicates, respectively, the inability to receive hormone therapy, an associated lower survival rate, and abnormal DNA of the worst kind (patients do poorly with this).

Published