The next morning we were picked up a 7.15am outside the Dali Suites by the clinic mini-bus, with Más Calidad de Vida emblazoned on its side. Better quality of life – the motto of the San Diego Clinic, confusingly, since it’s in Tijuana, near enough but a world apart.
This was the beginning of what would become routine, meeting new and regular patients, sharing how we found Dr Muñoz, what sort of a night we might have spent, bad or good, the cancer each of us had, gloomy prognoses and the sheer relief of all being on the same page. We all knew what it was to receive a cancer diagnosis, with its emotional toll that turns life upside down. We were all people who wanted a new sort of medicine. After feeling pretty isolated by our choices, suddenly, we had a gang, solidarity.
The journey takes about half an hour, first on a fast road past eucalyptus trees and oleander, over the eroded, rocky and dust-dry hills from Playas de Tijuana with their sparse shrubs and proliferation of white boxy hillside new builds, along the grim scar of the border fence with its patrolling US helicopters, past the shanty town hotchpotch houses teetering on the hillsides, cascades of debris showing the fallen, the distant Californian hills shrouded in morning haze. On into TJ, stray dogs scratching on the pavements under the bright bougainvillaea of this burgeoning border town, bustling with entrepreneurial life, stalls selling jugos, tamales, tacos, elotes and burritos.
There’s visible poverty – Tijuana bears the brunt of the busiest border crossing in the world, the homeless migrants seeking new life in the States, those unable to cross or deported eking out a living, queuing in the morning at the soup kitchens set up to help them, the unlucky ones who found themselves on the wrong side of the global market’s economic fence, living under graffiti-covered bridges at the concrete-banked Rio.
Like the sprawling cities of any less financially rich land, modern life is not the tidier wireless machine of centuries of riches, where environmental stress and damage can be neatly hidden away, but an almost apocalyptic controlled chaos that it is very hard to pretend could ever be sustainable. We’re used to the whitewash of wealth. In the vibrant street art, the dusty palm trees, the overhead wiring, poor infrastructure and congested rush hour streets of Tijuana, with its blaring horns, painted donkeys and Mexican music, there are problems for sure – but also an exuberant vibrancy, a huge heart and a whole lot of soul.
As Steve and I took all this in for the first time, the irony of people from the world’s richest economies jetting in to take advantage of healthcare denied by the governments and medical authorities of their own countries wasn’t lost on us. How absolutely crazy this whole thing was. Once again, here was Tijuana sheltering refugees, this time medical ones, seeking intravenous vitamins and low dose chemotherapy outlawed in their homelands in the hope of saving their own lives.
On the bus we shared our stories, knowing that before we could really move forward with our healing if indeed we could, remediation was needed for our irradiated tissues and bloodstreams toxic with heavy metals, our minds stressed by mortal fear and often reeling from trauma, which so many people had endured.
We, the ‘medical tourists’ got ourselves out to Mexico, in pain, our irradiated tissues inflamed and sore, our extremities tingling with peripheral neuropathy, our veins turned to vermicelli, toxic with chemo, sore from surgeries, often with tubes, bags and dressings attached, sometimes in nappies, some in wheelchairs, usually having been told we were as good as dead, having heard that there were doctors out here who had a different approach. Brave us. The walking wounded, the characters out of a chapter in what will one day be medical history, but not soon enough.
We ignored the ‘this site is unsafe’ messages that try their best to discredit alternative cancer sites and the ubiquitous ‘quackwatch’ and ‘bad science’ articles whose authors seem to have made it their business to stamp out any hope that the ‘terminal’ patient may have, with their insistence that any form of integrative or holistic therapy is the product of a fairy-tale, woven with the sole intent to rip off the vulnerable.
Have the authors of these articles never witnessed someone sick with chemo? Or had a family member with a terminal diagnosis but the will to live? With a course of chemo sometimes costing tens of thousands of pounds a month and this usually being given in combination with other very pricey drugs, not to mention those to stop the body’s rejection of them, those to help with their ‘side’-effects, the many hospital admissions, blood transfusions, neutropenia injections, blood tests, scans and the rest of it, conventional cancer treatment could never be called cheap.
We somehow got the cash together and packed for a leap in the dark, when most of us were weak, ill, and running on very low reserve tanks. Too much of our precious energy had been wasted on trying to convince friends and family, not to mention our oncologists (though I didn’t, there had been no contact at all since his surgical colleague had delivered the bad news) that what we had chosen to do was valid and in fact the most responsible thing that we could do under the circumstances – to try to save ourselves, heal and take responsibility for that healing.
Like some sort of cancer Trip Advisor, we had nothing to go on but personal testimonial. We rang around, we all knew each other, or of each other. We’d all heard of each other’s cases, our cancers, our prognoses, the successes, the not so successful, the often shocking tales of medical blunders and downright fuck-ups. Of course, we love our health service, but when it hurts you, in more ways than one, many uncomfortable questions arise. Increasing numbers of cancer patients are asking these questions and not getting the answers they need and deserve.
Same story after same story – the insensitivity of some, not all, consultants; the kneejerk responses to our hours of research and choices, the horrible side-effects of treatment. I’m yet to meet a patient who doesn’t regret coming here first. Those that do have usually been told from the day of diagnosis that nothing could be done for them. Sometimes, sadly, this is true. But not always. On top of trying to get their heads around that, they haven’t had the strange benefit of being a cancer patient for some time already, therefore knowing all too well about needles, the paraphernalia of patienthood, the experience of standard treatment which put this into some sort of perspective and the cancerspeak of the old hands.
A few lucky, wealthy or courageous souls do come here first and often they do incredibly well. But everyone brings baggage that can affect outcome – their current state of health, the spread of disease, fitness, beliefs, fears, age and commitment, will to live and, not least, how much money they can scrape together. It’s as individual as individual can be. This is a different, less toxic, holistic approach to cancer treatment but it’s not infallible nor miraculous. We all knew that. But it was a chance, and without doubt, one worth taking.
There’s an enormous amount of misinformation on the internet about Mexican Cancer Clinics. One video, comments disallowed, shows one breast cancer patient, successfully treated in the UK, heading out to Tijuana to reveal the great sham for what it is. How we giggled about her shaving her head (her hair only just having grown back after full dose chemo) because this was going to make her look convincing. The joke being that hair loss is not inevitable with the low-dose chemo used out here. We see her visiting some dodgy-looking places and talking to a group of Americans who were, as she insisted on calling it ‘seeking salvation’ in Mexico. Salvation no, medical treatment, yes. I’m sure there are charlatans and bad practice here like everywhere, but doctors in Mexico are doing what it is legal in their country to do, however this is perceived by mainstream medicine.
As we came close to the border, we could see the lanes of stationary vehicles queuing to get into the US, the majority of which contain Mexicans going to work in San Diego. Like so many of the poorer peoples of the world, propping up economies who are very happy to exploit that poverty, which will do the menial work that the rich like to think they could, but know they would rather not, do without. As Mexicans queue to cross for work, an influx of US citizens seeking medical care enters, and on their way out again, after reaping the benefits, carry medical passes issued by the clinics they attend so that they can use the medical lane, a fast lane. Money talks. The injustice of this shocked us and yet it quickly becomes accepted as the norm.
The border is hellish, even with a fast pass. US border patrol with fierce-looking dogs who spend their lives at exhaust-pipe height weave their way between the unbelievable numbers of cars, as lane-side vendors try to hawk stuff to those waiting in the lines – puppies, hammocks, churros, garish religious icons, rosary beads, Xolos T-shirts (Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente, Club Tijuana, the football team), sombreros, blankets, dolls, tortilla chips. Children doing gymnastics or juggling in the toxic heat stretch out their hands towards the closed car windows, as those inside, cooled by aircon, look away as they inch towards passport control, removing sunglasses before being quizzed by inscrutable armed guards about what’s being brought into the States. Somehow more than a border, La Linea seems to cut the Americas in two, a straining dyke holding back the flood of Americanisation.
On entry there are large signs telling you that guns are illegal in Mexico, surprising to the newcomer, having heard about the very real dangers of the parts of Mexico blighted by the cartels – the thousands of disappearances, homicides and corruption, all feeling a very long way from the positive experiences of so many medical tourists.
I never expected my cancer diagnosis would bring me here; I knew nothing of this land that gave me the gift of hope, other than the cultural stereotypes: the doll in Mexican costume in an oval plastic tube; the South London restaurant I used to frequent in the early 90s selling fajitas; waitresses in Sombreros with shots of Tequila in bullet belts. I wanted and needed to learn more.
I’m an idealist, but somehow here you can feel revolution, like the music, it’s in the air, if only in the one revolutionary stance that I can pretend to understand, that which my cancer comrades take when it comes to medicine, a small but determined fist raised against the multi-billion dollar might of the pharmaceutical machine.
The van pulled into a carpark and the driver, ushered us all out. We were in front of a large non-descript building, which once housed a casino, now shared with a local government department and a gym. The ex-casino thing made us laugh. It’s just the sort of thing the quackwatch would love. We followed the gang up the ramp and were ushered through to the front desk and waiting area, cool and spacious, containing a small café. We were given some forms for me to fill in. I think Steve was feeling slightly nervous – I must have been too, but I just wanted to get on with it, whatever ‘it’ was going to be.
Before long we were shown into Dr M’s office. He greeted us warmly and put us both at our ease. In front of him on his desk was the account of my illness, which he had asked for and I had emailed. I could see that certain parts of it were picked out in highlighter. Someone, if not he himself, had actually read it! Wow! That was the first indication of how I was about to be treated – as a whole person with a story.
Straight after that, Dr M took me into an examination room. Where was the attendant nurse? There wasn’t one. This was different. There was no question of this being a potentially abusive situation. He examined me with a thoroughness that really impressed, all the while asking me if I was in any discomfort and I trusted him straight away. After he’d finished, he told me exactly what sort of state I was in, but that he was going to send me for a scan to confirm it. A scan to confirm what he had learnt from his hands alone? Wow again.
I was then shown into to the main IV treatment room, where all the patients were sitting in large comfy recliners, a nurses’ station looking on. Steve was curious to hear what Dr Muñoz had said. As I told him, a nurse came to insert a cannula and take blood. As well as the usual tests that show tumour markers and blood count, I was to have a complete blood profile, and a large sample was for the ‘Greek test’, a chemo-sensitivity test performed by a Greek oncologist, accessible privately in the UK, which shows not only which chemo drugs will be most effective in an individual cancer, but also which other substances, pharmaceutical and natural, will be effective in killing your cancer cells. An expensive test, but one which could surely save a fortune.
I’m not sure if it was then, but if not it was very soon afterwards that I had blood taken for dendritic cell therapy, a relatively new and potent immune therapy, which ‘wakes up’ a part of the immune system, enabling it to recognise the cancer as ‘other’. We then saw Dr S, and went through the diet sheets with her, and Steve said, ‘This is exactly what we eat at home.’ ‘You’re doing a very good job,’ she said. No bullshit about diet not mattering here then. We exchanged glances.
Treatment started, straight away, first off, EDTA chelation, to bind up and carry heavy metals and toxins from the bloodstream, used by the British in WW2 after gas attacks and also to undo lead poisoning suffered in industry, while also dissolving arterial plaque. I sat back and relaxed for the first time in what seemed like ages, again feeling tears of relief and gratitude coming to my eyes. My first impression had been entirely positive. Steve went to the café and got me organic buckwheat pancakes with strawberries and a green juice. I sent a photo of the food to Mum saying, ‘I’m in my medical paradise.’ And that’s exactly how it felt.
© Amanda Nicol 2015