Four days after getting out of prison on $10,000 bail, Vincent Gammill seems bored.
The 69-year-old founder of The Natural Oncology Institute has just shut down his Richmond, California, office following the seizure of 25,000 prescription pills and allegations that he’s practicing medicine without a license. It’s a charge he still can’t wrap his head around. “The [Ventura County] Sheriff’s Department raided my house and office and threw me in jail,” he says incredulously over on the phone. “Like it was a big drug raid or something.”
Gammill, who’s been dubbed a “fake oncologist” by the New York Post for allegedly scamming thousands of cancer patients with fake treatments, has yet to talk to the media. He’s eager, albeit a bit nervous, to share his side of the story. In the eyes of this medicine man—who self-identifies as a chemist—it’s all one big mix-up. “I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for 35 years,” he tells me. “There are thousands of people we’re helping.”
According to his company’s website, the mission behind the $2,000, two-day consultation program he’s been offering since 2001 is to “find, generate, and evaluate objective information on alternative and complementary care for those with cancer.” Using this knowledge, he helps patients (which he insists we call “clients”) “organize their thoughts” and learn to “attack [cancer] dispassionately.”
His natural oncology manifesto seems best summed up by this statement: “There is so much BS in both conventional and alternative medicine. I teach people how to address the BS.”
When he helps people “address the BS” online, the session is free. It’s the in-person consultation that comes with a $2,000 bill. “Many people want to walk in my footsteps, and I encourage it,” he says. “I don’t have a hostile attitude to conventional medicine; when I see people being ripped off I get angry. I don’t really charge,” he says, then corrects himself. “I charge for consultation, but I don’t live high on the hog—no new cars or anything. I just try to make my mortgage and put food on the table.”
It was an in-person session in June of this year that led Fern, a 49-year-old with late-stage cancer, to contact the police. Her phone call prompted a joint-investigation between the Ventura County Interagency Pharmaceutical Crimes Unit (PCU) and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office. Their digging led to his ultimate arrest.
An official report from the Ventura Police provides an inside look at the sessions that Gammill has been performing since 2001. In Fern’s session, which she detailed to police, Gammill “examined” her, offered to “treat” her cancer, and suggested she “alter” the dosage of medicine prescribed by her doctor. Afterwards he “demanded $2,000” before handing her Ziplocs full of various substances—ranging from “vials of liquid” to “baggies[s] of dirt.”
It’s then that, according to the police report, he demonstrated how to mix one of the substances over a frying pan and place it into a capsule. According to Fern, when she felt a burning sensation in her stomach after ingesting the capsule, he insisted it was “good thing,” telling her it was a sign that the “ingredients were still active.”
When I reiterate the allegations to Gammill, he seems less angry than shocked. I ask about the baggie of dirt. “That is so insane, I don’t even know what to say,” he says. “I don’t even know how she came up with that stuff.” The 69-year-old remembers vividly his consultation with Fern, which he thought went well. She seemed “happy” at the end of the session, even giving him garlic salts from South Africa, which he excitedly tells me he collects.
He was shocked, a week later, to receive an email from Fern calling him a “scam artist” and asking for her money back. “I said you could have money back but I want an apology [for insulting me],” he says. The apology never came. Weeks later, after no response, the police arrived.
Gammill doesn’t deny that there were 25,000 pills in his possession. “I would go once a week to Mexico to get the medicines. And Border Patrol would say, ‘You bring anything back?’ And I’d say, ‘My cancer medicines,’ and they’d say ‘Go ahead!’” he says energetically. For him, it’s not about the pills, liquids, or powders—but how his clients are presented them that matters. “I don’t write any prescriptions,” he says. “I never tell them what to do; I tell them here are some options that you probably don’t know about. I teach them science.”
While he charges for the consultation, he asserts that he isn’t selling any medicines. “I have an educational program…I’m not a doctor; I don’t pretend to be. I have all the usual disclaimers, we’re just working together—much like AIDS patients did when they formed their own groups.”
Gammill says his feelings aren’t isolated—that he’s one of 4,800 in a “cancer group” of individuals who work together and share knowledge of treatment options. “I wouldn’t say [I’m] a kingpin, but I’m one of the main information sources,” he adds.
Gammill’s education is a question that never quite gets answered, despite significant prodding.
“I’ve gone to four different colleges,” he tells me. He rattles the four off at a volume so low it’s difficult to hear: “University of Arkansas, Colorado, and Arkansas Tech and [inaudible].” He cites chemistry, physics, and journalism as majors, but won’t confirm whether or not he graduated. At one point he mentions that he has “doctorates,” but fails to elaborate.
The police report is similarly perplexing. “He initially stated he had no formal education beyond high school, but then ‘remembered’ he had obtained a doctor of science degree sometime in the 1990’s,” the report reads.
He refers to himself as a “chemist” four times during our conversation, but then says he gleaned the knowledge he has from personal experience. “My family has the genes, we have cancer genes,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the Jewish gene or what. My mother died of cancer, my stepmother, who was her sister, too. I have a sister with breast cancer and a brother who has leukemia.”
It’s this strong family history of cancer, he says, that inspired him to start his organization, which he again likens to a grassroots AIDS organization. “I knew from early on that it was only a matter of time until the boot came down on me,” he says. “This is all I’ve ever done in my life.” The boot, by which he means cancer, came down on Gammill in 2010, when he was diagnosed with terminal colorectal cancer and given 18 months to live.
Rather than opt for surgery, Gammill says he used “off-label” medicines and other natural treatments that he had seen work on his clients to heal himself. “I was rid of cancer by September and in five years there’s been no chemo.” He says he felt confident in his abilities in part because of his earlier work making himself a vaccine. Exactly what this vaccine is or does, he wouldn’t say.
While he doesn’t consider himself “cured,” he does say he is “healed”—something he assured me that “thousands of other” clients have found through his education. Immediately after our phone call, three of them email me. The first is a “senior executive at a software company” who is “not gullible.” “My mum has been diagnosed with terminal cancer which is very aggressive. It was Vincent’s knowledge that helped us keep her organs still safe,” he writes. The man says his mom, who lives in India, has yet to be charged for Gammill’s services.
A second writes to say she’s been a “client” for a number of years, also for free. “I have had great results. But I took the information Vincent Gammill gave me and chose my path,” she writes. “My breast tumor completely dissipated. While I’m still working on cancer mine has not spread in years. I have DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ).” She says the “dirt” mentioned in the report is a tea called Pau D that you combine with almond butter oil. As for the “conning,” she says it “simply isn’t true.”
Fern, who’s been battling cancer for seven years, has a different story. “I was very upset that there was someone that was preying on cancer victims who are desperate to live,” she told ABC7 Los Angeles. “I believed he had an answer to my problems.” Instead, Fern wasted three days away from her husband and two kids to get expired prescriptions and substances so toxic he told her they’d “burn a hole through” a desk. Fern’s still looking for a solution: “There is always hope. I never give up and I’m a fighter,” she says.
As for Gammill, he’s confident the Natural Oncology Institute will be open again soon. “This will be resolved and I have every reason to believe this will be resolved in my favor,” he says. Set to appear in court August 31, he’ll be taking a break from his consultations to continue writing his book. In this, he’s found a silver lining: “At least now, with my newfound infamy, I will probably have an easier time getting the word out.”