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TB or not TB? A second opinion on Ian Gawler’s cancer

Late last year, two oncologists went public with a theory that cancer survivor Ian Gawler’s secondary cancer may not have been cancer at all but tuberculosis instead. At the time, the story made front…

Ian Gawler recovered from secondary cancer after conventional and unconventional treatments, including meditation. Sebastien Wiertz

Late last year, two oncologists went public with a theory that cancer survivor Ian Gawler’s secondary cancer may not have been cancer at all but tuberculosis instead. At the time, the story made front page news but expert testimony recently reported in The Age strongly disputes the claim.

Gawler lost a leg to cancer in 1975. He was diagnosed with secondary cancer in his pelvis and chest at the end of that year and it was treated with an experimental course of powerful chemotherapy for a few months in 1976. Following conventional and less conventional treatments – including meditation and a strict diet – he fully recovered.

In 1984, Gawler wrote the bestselling book You Can Conquer Cancer. Gawler’s approach has found increasing support over the years, but he also has his critics. The TB hypothesis put forward by Ray Lowenthal and Ian Haines was based on information taken from the public record. While there’s no dispute that Gawler did in fact suffer from TB, it appears he caught it later than Drs Haines and Lowenthal supposed.

Retired thoracic surgeon, Professor Peter Clarke, told Guy Allenby the chemotherapy Gawler was treated with would have caused him to die “because it would have rubbed out all his defences against the TB.” Chemo disrupts the body’s immune system. That Gawler somehow managed to shrug off TB during this treatment is an exceptional claim.

But let’s suppose he did - what other pointers are there to show that TB wasn’t present at the time? Dr Jonathan Streeton has re-assessed records and X-rays taken of Gawler’s secondary tumours specifically for evidence of TB. Streeton is a highly-respected chest physician based in Melbourne, was advisor to the Victorian government on tuberculosis and treated Gawler for over 30 years.

Together with some of his radiology colleagues at Melbourne’s Mercy Private Hospital, Streeton examined an X-ray of Gawler’s pelvis from the time when Gawler was diagnosed with metastatic disease (secondary cancer). In a letter to Ian and Ruth Gawler, Streeton said the general consensus was that the X-rays showed what was typical of an evolving osteogenic sarcoma metastasis.

Streeton also scrutinised a later X-ray showing damage to Gawler’s lower spine, which Haines and Lowenthal also hypothesised was TB. Significantly, the disc spaces between the verterbrae were well preserved. Streeton writes that this “would tend to be a specific excluder of a tuberculous process involving the lumbar verterbrae” and a TB infection of the spine would also typically evolve into an abscess inside the back wall of the abdomen. Gawler had no such abscess.

Streeton also notes that when Gawler later contracted TB and was finally treated in 1978, he was found to be resistant to Isoniazid – a drug used to treat the local strain of the disease. Such a resistance was usual in the Philippines and other parts of Asia but almost unheard of in Australia at the time. Gawler had never been out of Australia when he developed secondary cancer late in 1975. He visited the Philippines in March 1976 and January 1977 and India in March 1977 and March 1978 and likely contracted TB on one of the trips.

Gawler’s website lists ten pieces of evidence that throw doubt on the TB theory put forward by Haines and Lowenthal.

So, a fit young veterinarian is told by medical specialists that his cancer has returned after the amputation of his leg, and that he will shortly die. He survives against overwhelming odds, writes a book about it to give people in the same situation hope that it is possible, and starts a program of providing holistic care and support for these people.

Over 30 years later, two specialists - without referring to him, his medical records, or his doctors - say that his recovery wasn’t from cancer at all. Then, to top it off, the media frame this as the patient “claiming” he had cancer. Indeed, the suggestion that Ian Gawler was claiming he had secondary cancer implies some deceit on his part.

And the controversy isn’t over. A few days ago, The Age reported Dr Ian Haines saying Dr Streeton’s new assessments are incorrect and should be tested in a peer-reviewed journal.

In the bigger picture, there’s no such controversy – large-scale integrative cancer support centres are opening up in Australia and the rest of the world, driven by enormous consumer demand.

Ian Gawler has always been respectful of conventional cancer treatments and he’s the first to acknowledge that his retreats are not just about surviving, they’re about living and dying well. He has now retired from The Gawler Foundation, which works according to his principle of offering optimal lifestyle-based approaches to complement conventional medical therapy. Tens of thousands of people have lived better and died better as a result of its work.