11.09.09 1:12 AM ET
Does Suzanne Somers Cause Cancer?
The former actress has one of the nation’s top books, touting secret cancer cures. But these methods, reports Gerald Posner, may actually increase the disease risk. Specifically, Posner reveals how:
- Her book promotes a regimen that many doctors believe causes cancer rather than cures it.
- This regimen might have contributed to her own bout with cancer.
- Several doctors and experts she uses as the basis for her book have medically checkered backgrounds.
- Cancer is a recurring thread and marketing tool for her wide-ranging business interests.
- One outside expert, based on his examination of 30 years of photographs, believes she had plastic surgery, which would undercut her reputation for health through alternative medicine.
Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this article, a quotation was copied from a Houston Press report without attribution. The Daily Beast has attributed the quotation and regrets the error.
Suzanne Somers, who came to fame in the 1970s as the ditzy Chrissy Snow on the iconic Three’s Company, yesterday pulled off the kind of feat generally reserved for the likes of John Grisham and Malcolm Gladwell. She scored her second New York Times bestseller in three years, Knockout: Interviews With Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer and How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place. Knockout further established the 63-year-old Somers as the high priestess of alternative health remedies.
More than that, Somers has positioned herself, with Knockout, as a messenger with the solution to a top killer in human history. “There are doctors out there who are curing cancer,” the book declares, citing interviews with 13 doctors, nutritionists, and Ph.Ds.
“We will eventually see a dramatic increase in uterine cancer,” says one doctor, “because of bioidentical regimens like the one promoted by Somers.”
Somers is no stranger to boastful medical discoveries. Her last bestseller, 2006’s Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bioidentical Hormones, claimed to have discovered “the fountain of youth we've all been looking for,” through her daily regimen, which involves injecting human growth hormone and two vitamin B solutions, shooting an estrogen hormone into her vagina, rubbing estrogen cream into her arm and taking 60 supplements. (“She just might be a pioneer,” said Oprah, who hosted Somers on her show in January and then began Somers’ bioidentical hormone program.)
Ageless, however, was mostly about quality of life. Knockout tackles life-and-death, painting a picture of traditional cancer care as “a debilitating, often deadly fraud,” and suggests a vast conspiracy involving the FDA, Big Pharma, a compliant mainstream media, and most oncologists, who all have an “incentive to keep cancer alive and well” since it’s “big business.”
Somers Defends Herself: 'My War on Cancer'
To many cancer experts interviewed by The Daily Beast, this now makes Somers extremely dangerous. A flawed decision won’t lead to a lower sex drive or body aches. It will lead to death.
Specifically, these doctors told me, not only are some of the methods Somers espouses not proven to cure cancer, they are in fact more likely to cause cancer. Doctors who have followed her medical history even suggest that she may have helped bring on her own breast cancer.
I’m not someone who would naturally be skeptical of Somers’ 19 tomes. I’ve long used alternative medicine and take almost 20 supplements daily. In 2000, I helped research my wife Trisha’s book, No Hormones, No Fear, in which she used natural supplements and herbs to pass through menopause without resorting to Big Pharma’s hormone-replacement drugs. But a look at Somers’ background and motivations—and those of the experts on which she bases Knockout, raises some serious concerns.
The Suzanne Somers Wonder Drug
Somers’ core message revolves around the use of bioidentical hormones as wonder drugs. In Knockout, she writes that they fix “sex drive, inability to sleep, weight gain, bloating, body itches, mood swings, hot flashes, and memory loss… [and] also restores quality of life.” Bioidenticals, she writes, are “a good idea if you want to stay alive for twice as long as your body intended.”
So what makes bioidenticals different from hormones packaged and sold by major pharmaceutical firms?
According to doctors I spoke with, nothing.
“Bioidentical is a pseudo-scientific term used by Somers and others only as a marketing gimmick,” says Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor in complementary and alternative medicine at Georgetown’s School of Medicine. “Bioidentical hormones are not natural products; they are synthesized in a laboratory. Bioidentical preparations use exactly the same pharmaceutical hormones that are used in branded hormone preparations.” (Fugh-Berman co-wrote an article last May on why Somers is wrong about hormones.)
That differentiation—or lack thereof—is critical. In 2002, one of the largest-ever medical studies, The Women’s Health Initiative, concluded that estrogen and progesterone, the hormones used by Somers and millions of menopausal aged women, increased the risks of cancer and death rates. In other words, Somers' “cure” might in fact be a cause.
The former actress addresses this issue preemptively in Knockout. “The report was speaking of synthetic hormones,” writes Somers. She therefore concludes that bioidenticals are safe and natural, noting that they aren’t made by pharmaceutical companies but instead in non-FDA regulated compounding pharmacies as part of customized preparations.
“I’m no friend of the drug companies Somers criticizes,” says Fugh-Berman, who has been a paid expert witness against hormone giant Wyeth, testifying for plaintiffs who had breast cancer. But her own extensive research on bioidenticals found no evidence that they act any differently or are any safer than the conventional hormones tested in the Women’s Health Initiative. “This is critical to understand,” Fugh-Berman told me. “There’s actually every reason to believe that bioidentical hormones will have the same risks when it comes to heart disease, blood clots, and breast cancer.”
Somers cites “over 40 studies showing that bioidentical hormones are safe” but they are all observational studies, not a single one meets the standards for a clinical determination of a drug’s safety profile. Many of the hormones, she says, have been used with great results in Europe for years. She omits, says Fugh-Berman, “that European studies have shown increased cancer risks. Somers is simply far more dangerous in her pop and inaccurate descriptions of hormones than most any doctor.”
“It’s pretty scary,” says Dr. Rahul Parikh, a California physician who writes Salon’s popular Vital Signs column. “Bioidentical hormones are a multi-billion dollar business and there’s no science to back them up.”
What infuriates physicians even more than Somers’ unproven claims of safety and health benefits is that in Knockout she proclaims that bioidentical hormone replacement is protective against cancer. She writes that “[they] offer protection against breast cancer, but no one has connected the dots,” and that using testosterone “can protect and prevent cancer, especially prostate cancer.”
“It’s exactly the opposite,” says Fugh-Berman. “Estrogen alone can cause uterine cancer. That risk can be reduced by adding a progestagen, but that increases the risk of breast cancer. Somers thinks they are safe despite the fact that she developed breast cancer while on them, and later developed endometrial hyperplasia (abnormal uterine cell growth), which led to a hysterectomy. Both are known side effects of hormone therapy.” Parikh adds that human growth hormone, which Somers injects daily, has also been linked to increased cancer risks.
“That she possibly aided and abetted her own cancer should have destroyed her credibility,” says Dr. Nanette Santoro, the Director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “The real miracle is her ability to continue to pitch her theories.”
Somers blames her breast cancer on other medications, including birth control pills she took for many years. But she admits that her hysterectomy was likely due to an incorrect dosage of bioidenticals.
“Imagine, that with all her money, and with access to the best bio-identical doctors and compounding pharmacies, she can’t get it right.” asks Dr. Steven Petak, President of the American College of Endocrinology. “How can an average person hope not to have problems?”
Dr. Wulf Utian, who founded the North American Menopause Society, has a grim prediction: “We will eventually see a dramatic increase in uterine cancer because of bioidentical regimens like the one promoted by Somers.”
“If Somers were a doctor,” adds Parikh “she’d be sued for malpractice.”
Knockout consists mostly of her interviews of 13 people, eight of them doctors. In her last book, Ageless, Somers had been embarrassed when ABC News discovered that of the 16 “cutting edge” experts she interviewed, most had never published any original hormone research, three had been accused of serious professional disciplinary problems, and one had his doctor’s license on probation for illegally selling drugs over the Internet. One of Somers' most important interviews, T.S. Wiley—the proponent for high doses of bioidenticals to menopausal women—was a former actress turned self-proclaimed nutritional expert who it turned out did not even have the university degree about which she bragged.
A review of the doctors and experts in Knockout by The Daily Beast reveals that many do not fare better.
Two of the most important are Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez. Somers appeared with them last week on Larry King. In Knockout, Somers writes that the 66-year-old Burzynski is “an internationally recognized physician and scientist… [who] is to be celebrated for his accomplishments as a brave and courageous pioneer.” She claims he’s had “consistent successes with cancers of the brain, breast, head and neck, prostrate, colon, lungs, ovaries, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
Burzynski has a medical degree from Lublin, Poland. Without any clinical cancer research experience, he announced in 1976 he had discovered a cure for cancer based on an assumption that he could use amino acids—which he called antineoplastons—to cause spontaneous regression of cancer. He set up a clinic in Houston and began dispensing his “cure” to cancer patients. The FDA tried stopping him, even seeking a federal injunction.
In 1995, Burzynski was charged with a multi-count indictment, mostly for mail fraud and shipping unapproved drugs across state lines. The jury deadlocked, and the judge dismissed most of the government’s counts before acquitting Burzynski of one remaining charge and ordering the FDA to allow Burzynski to conduct limited clinical trials. A review of the 60 trials connected to antineoplastons completed since then reveals no substantive results for their patients. “And those patients are desperate [so] it’s an ethical issue,” says Dr. Otis Brawley, a practicing oncologist who is the American Cancer Society’s Chief Medical Officer. “Most doctors don’t believe it’s proper to charge a patient for experimental treatments where there is no evidence of benefits.”
Burzynski ‘s clinic doesn’t charge for the medication—as it's experimental – but does for everything else, averaging $9,000 weekly. Dr. Keith Black, chairman of Cedar Sinai’s Department of Neurosurgery, estimates that since the clinic opened 33 years ago, Burzynski has treated 8,000 patients for an average of $60,000 each—a whopping $480 million.
But what about those patients interviewed by Somers and others who claim they were cured by Burzynski? Dr. Tim Gorski, a gynecologist and president of the Dallas/Fort Worth Council Against Health Fraud, told The Houston Press that it is not much different than when somebody is “cured” by a televangelist or a faith healer. Burzynski is “selling hope at a high price” and “people who are dead do not get up and say, 'Burzynski did nothing for me.' [That’s why it’s] a problem for cancer in particular, because as soon as you get cancer, you've got a big target on your back [for] quacks to come and get you," he told the paper.
Back in 1988, Burzynski showcased four “miracle” cases on the television show Sally Jesse Raphael. All were “cancer free” he declared. Four years later, two were dead of their cancer, one was battling a recurrence, and the other had developed a different type of cancer.
Burzynski did not return calls left at his office for comment.
Somers also touts New York City’s Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, whose “results are impressive.” Gonzalez has refined a natural cancer treatment originally created in the 1960s by an offbeat Grapevine, Texas dentist. Gonzalez, who has no oncology training, insists that cancer can be eliminated if major organs are detoxified. His therapy involves everything from twice-a-day coffee enemas, yogurt, dried beans, and megavitamin supplements (up to 175 pills daily). He believes that pancreatic enzymes seek out and kill cancer cells. In August 2009, the Journal of Clinical Oncology published the results of an eight-year controlled study of 55 pancreatic cancer patients. Those who chose chemo lived more than three times as long and had better quality of life than those who used Gonzalez’s protocol.
In 2001, Dr. Gorski specifically cited Gonzalez while testifying to a Senate committee, “Hearing on Swindlers, Hucksters and Snake Oil Salesmen,” relaying a description of Gonzalez’ methods by a top doctor at the country’s top cancer hospital, Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: “voodoo magic, silly not scientific. Worse than not scientific. This is pure ridiculousness.”
Some of the other doctors or experts cited by Somers in Knockout also raise sometimes unsettling questions upon closer examination. One has been investigated by the Nevada medical board two dozen times and a medical board investigator dubbed him “one of the five most serious offenders in the state;” he pleaded guilty once to excessive billing for tests and services, but was acquitted in 2006 of illegally importing human growth hormone from Israel. Another was fired from Sloan-Kettering after the hospital cited his failure "to properly discharge his most basic job responsibilities," although he claims it was because he “had broken ranks with the party line” about traditional cancer therapies." A third was accused of lying about being a doctor on a patent office application. He did get the patent but has not responded in two years to the charge about the doctor’s degree, a title he no longer uses. Another suggests that “an epidemic of hepatitis, AIDS, venereal diseases and highly resistant tuberculosis” was part of a “nefarious” Soviet program about which the U.S. government and media knew, and did nothing.
Other Somers interviewees seem to have quirky elements to some aspect of their practice, but don’t seem dangerous and aren’t claiming, like Burzynski, to have cured cancer. Cardiologist Stephen Sinatra includes a psycho-spiritual component of healing, and tells Somers that “I don’t care what the illness is… [w]hen I see a patient in the office, I look them in the eye and tell them they are going to get well. I touch them physically and try to transfer my positive energy to them.”
"Follow the Money"
Suzanne Somers has morphed into her own business brand. Fitness and aging are at the center of it. But cancer has been a consistent thread.
“Follow the money, this is all about money,” Dr. Utian tells me.
Doctors to whom I spoke said that many of those interviewed in Knockout, while not promoting a cancer cure, were selling unproven anti-aging remedies or products. David Schmidt, for instance, owns LifeWave and produces “nanotechnology energy patches” that Somers swears give her energy, help her sleep, and eliminate pain. “I love these patches” ($100 for a month’s supply). Michael Galitzer, who was also featured in Ageless, is Somers’ “personal anti-aging endocrinologist” as well as the president of the American Health Institute on Anti-Aging Medicine. Cristiana Paul is a former software engineer turned personal nutritionist to Somers and now offers her own line of supplements. David Goldberg, a former hotelier, seems a harmless enough cheerleader for anything natural and alternative.
At the end of Knockout, there are 40 pages of recommendations for anti-aging doctors and clinics, compounding pharmacies, places that test for hormone levels or nutritional deficiencies. Readers who want to mimic Somers’s lifestyle can find the spots to rejuvenate their livers with a vitamin C intravenous drip after drinking wine. Or how to have one’s blood chemically cleaned with chelation therapy if exposed to cigarette smoke. She recommends NeoStem for stem-cell collection (she banked her own there last year) and vitamin giant Life Extension for blood testing. There are also two pages in the book promoting her Suzanne line of “natural beauty products,” from simple moisturizing creams to SomerSmile teeth whitening.
Knockout also plugs Thigh Master, which Somers widely advertised in infomercials during the 1990s. She also pushes EZ Gym, an $80 pulley system that attaches to a doorframe and promises a full body workout. One of the most interesting products is the FaceMaster, a $228 device that uses micro-currents of electrical stimulation to supposedly firm eyelid muscles, plump cheeks, soften furrows between the eyebrows, lift smiles lines, and minimize forehead wrinkles.
Mostly women have made her the most popular pitch woman in Home Shopping Network’s 30-year history. They buy her products and follow her anti-aging regimen thinking that they too can look as good at 63, without any cosmetic surgery. Somers has denied any facial surgery and admits only to Botox injections.
When a tabloid ran pictures of her coming out of a Beverly Hills liposuction clinic in 2001, Somers stopped the uproar with a favorite topic: cancer. Specifically, she went on Larry King, disclosing she had had breast cancer the year before. She said that whatever she had done “had to do with my breast cancer.” Although she was almost a year past her cancer treatment by the time she had the lipo, she claimed that the six weeks of radiation had “blown out all my hormones” and she had been left bloated.
By refocusing the discussion on her own personal health crisis, she was able to embark on a multi-city tour for a new diet book the following month and face few questions about the propriety of a weight loss author having liposuction.
Some cosmetic surgeons, including well-known doctors like Paul Nassif, Jennifer Walden and David Shafer, have publicly said they believe Somers has had more than Botox. I had one of the country’s leading cosmetic surgeons, Park Avenue’s Dr. Sherrell Aston, review pictures of Somers over a thirty year period.
After studying as many photos as he could find, he called with his conclusions, as best determined without a physical exam. “I am fairly certain that she has had a face lift, some fillers, and eyelid surgery. She wears bangs in most pictures, so I can’t be certain about whether she had a brow lift.” He explained in great detail how he judged and measured the position of the mid-facial tissue, the lack of sagging skin around the jaw line, the contour of the face’s soft tissue, and the absence of laxity of skin and muscle in the neck.
“It’s a hundred-year-old phenomenon,” says Dr. Parikh. “She’s selling hope in a jar, the idea that you can control all your destinies and stay healthy and young. Snake-oil salesmen did it all the time, but this time we have a celebrity hawking it. And there is a risk that it could be potentially dangerous. In the modern media, people like Somers thrive.”
The difference now: with Knockout, many of Somers’ readers will die sooner if they make the wrong treatment choices.
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's Chief Investigative Reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.