People Die in Slovakia as They Fight Cancer With Marijuana and Other Plants

March 26, 2020

Slovak media outlet Denník N published an investigative article on how hoaxes can cause the death of cancer patients in Slovakia. The story is based on the findings of the report on Slovakia in our Business of Misinformation project. This English translation is published with the outlet’s permission. You may read the original article (published on January 30, 2020) in Slovak here.

Hoaxes can kill. This has also happened in Slovakia, as misinformed patients refused oncological treatment. And the state does nothing.

Author: Vladimír Šnídl
Translation: Zuzana Habsudová

Jana’s aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. She thought, she would fight it with the recipes she found on the Internet. She tried to treat it with herbs and so-called Fénixové slzy (Phoenix Tears) – a very strong extract from marijuana.

“I called her husband, my uncle. I urged him to make sure that my aunt didn’t take this lightly and followed the instructions of the oncologists. Unfortunately, they thought they could do this themselves, without doctors,” Jana said.

There are many, largely anonymous websites on the Internet, which tell people that marijuana or cannabis oils can cure a person from cancer. According to doctors, they may help ease the sickness that comes after chemotherapy, but in no way can they replace the standard treatment.

Jana’s aunt died in January 2019.

Another story: 60-year-old Marta was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Her son forwarded her a cluster email that came to his mailbox. It contained an article with the headline: “Cancer is not an illness, but business. This is how to get rid of it.”

It was one of the most popular hoaxes on Slovak social networks. The anonymous website Domáca liečba (Home Therapy) that published it, was linked to the supplier of nutritional supplements, Jozef Buzgo. The article advised people not to believe oncologists.

Marta read it but did not follow it. She continues to fight cancer in collaboration with the doctors.

Aloe vera and herbs from Korea

Eva Bacigalová runs the Amazons civic association, which groups women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. She, also heard of a similar story recently.

It was about a young mother, who had successfully completed the first phase of chemotherapy. But then the disease returned, and she decided to treat herself with aloe vera.

“She strongly believed this method, she offered it to all of us, she wouldn’t listen to anything else. Unfortunately, she is no longer among us,” said Bacigalová.

The number of patients, who refused to work with doctors is not available. The institutions do not do statistics like that. There is only the personal experience of individual oncologists.

“Cases like these are on the increase thanks to social networks and irresponsible websites that flood the Internet with their articles,” says long-time oncologist Štefan Korec.

The daily newspaper Denník N heard a story of a thirty-year-old, who suffered from stomach cancer. The doctors told him that the only way to survive was to remove his stomach.

“This is a very radical surgery, with permanent consequences. One can live without a stomach, but must fundamentally change the lifestyle,” said Korec.

According to him, the prognosis that the man would get rid of his cancer was good. In the end, he refused the surgery and turned to a herbalist.

“He thought, he could heal himself with herbs they use in South Korea. When he found out it wasn’t working, it was too late and he died,” Korec recalled.

Why do these hoaxes work?

Korec, the oncologist, is not the only one who blames social networks for the boom in medical hoaxes. The daily newspapers Denník SME and Denník N mapped the most shared hoaxes of 2017. Surprisingly, the most popular did not spread the rumours on migrants or US convoys, but charlatan advice on cancer.

The aforementioned article, which stated that cancer is not an illness but business, had been shared thousands of times. Other popular articles recommended frozen lemons and cucumbers for curing cancer. All came from the anonymous Domáca liečba website.

These types of articles abuse the people’s tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. They convince readers that the doctors, the state, or pharmaceutical companies keep miraculous cancer-treating medicine secret from the patients, as they are part of a conspiracy.

As an example, here are few headlines from the Bádateľ (Researcher) website, which has 60,000 followers on Facebook: “Cannabis treats cancer and the state institutions have always known this”, “Pharm [Pharmaceutical – ed. note] companies hide this – Everyone should know of the fruit that treats cancer”, “Do you know trees can heal? Your oncologist won’t tell you this.”

“Dirty business”

Denník N first wrote about this phenomenon in January 2018. We pointed out that major producers of medical hoaxes are the Domáca liečba (Home Therapy) and the Bádateľ (Researcher) websites, which often translate these articles from similar sites in the USA.

These articles also include online advertising. Until recently, the Bádateľ website had been promoting various nutritional supplements for tens of euros. They could be purchased through Dr. Buzgi’s online shop, run by businessman Buzgo.

His main product was the Spirulina Vulcanica (granules of blue-green algae), which he sold for a standard cost of 50 euros, with the suggestion that they can treat cancer. “It’s a dirty business with human tragedy,” said oncologist Korec.

The Bádateľ website continued to promote this in 2019. Its February article on Facebook tried to convince people that chemotherapy treatment kills.

“The scientists confirmed that chemotherapy helps to spread cancer,” was the headline of the article that has received more than 10,000 “likes”, comments and shares.

Charlatan has time

People who may find these articles most helpful are those for whom standard treatments do not work and who suffer from painful side effects. These are the instances used by various fraudsters, who take advantage of the difficult life situations the oncological patients are going through.

Oncologist Korec illustrates this on an example of a patient, who is sick during chemotherapy and unsure if it will definitely cure him.

“And then in comes the herbalist, who tells him that he will cure him because he has already cured a hundred other patients. What would you choose in such a situation, if you knew nothing of this?” asks Korec.

However, sometimes it is the doctors themselves, who might instigate the patients to seek the so-called charlatans, as they may lack the time and willingness to adequately attend to them. Eva Bacigalová of the Amazons association experienced such a situation herself, when she was insensitively notified of her cancer.

“The doctor, who was explaining the treatment procedure, summed it all up in five sentences. When I started asking my first questions, he stopped me and referred me to a nurse,” she said.

On the other side, the self-appointed healers, have time for their patients. “By showing their concern, asking about the feelings, fears and anxieties, they build up more confidence in the patient than the oncologist who communicates with him very impersonally," she added.

What does the state say?

In December, when the Health Ministry was led by Andrea Kalavská (nominated by Smer-SD), Denník N asked for her response on the health hoax phenomenon.

The spokeswoman Zuzana Eliášová did not give a clear answer. She merely emphasized that the so-called alternative treatment can only be regarded as supplementary, but not as a substitute for the standard treatment.

“In places, where they practice the methods of alternative medicine, they don’t provide health care. An exception is the specialised field of acupuncture, as the acupuncture clinics are run by doctors,” the spokeswoman said.

Based on the law, a healer cannot even be perceived as a healthcare worker. “We always emphasize that patients need to consult everything with their attending physician,” the ministry added.

State fails

Everyone, who talked to Denník N agreed that the state is minimally interested in the phenomenon of medical hoaxes. Its role is instead carried out by various patients’ associations, academics and activities run by the doctors themselves.

For example, doctor Maroš Rudnay, who refutes the medical nonsense on the Lovci Šarlatánov (Charlatan Hunters) website, has not seen any significant activity from the state.

“Occasionally, the Public Health Authority issued some warnings. If we talk of more complex projects, these were carried out either by individuals or professional associations,” he said.

Oncologist Korec also points out the state’s lack of care. “The state should take part and start something serious. I hope that when new people [politicians – ed. note] come, they will take better care of this,” he said.

Partly because of this laxity from the state, Korec initiated the creation of portal, which provides quality information on cancer treatment and refutes medical nonsense.

Unequal battle on Facebook

The state also runs similar pages – for example, the Národný portál zdravia (National Health Portal), but the problem is that the state administrators cannot create content that can be shared by masses on social networks, which are the main ground of misinformation.

The only exception was the parliament speech of ex-minister Kalavská this autumn, who very clearly explained the purpose of vaccination to the parliament members of the Kotleba party (far-right People’s Party – Our Slovakia [ĽSNS] led by Marián Kotleba). Tens of thousands of people saw the video on social network.

From the state institutions, only police can get onto Facebook, where it runs the specialized site Hoaxy a podvody – Polícia SR (Hoaxes and Frauds – Police of the Slovak Republic), which occasionally discusses the medical nonsense.

Two weeks ago, it was refuting one of the articles of the anonymous Bádateľ website, which was scaring readers that vaccination causes measles.

Spreading the alarming message

In the Czech Republic, the state took a much more radical approach. The Interior Ministry made a criminal complaint against former teacher Miroslava Matoušová, who posted a video on the Internet, in which she claimed that mammogram is harmful to health.

The ministry thinks she could have spread the alarming message. In the video, Matoušová talks real nonsense that horrified the doctors we spoke to.

“In practice, the efficiency and safety of mammogram has been assessed on hundreds of thousands of women around the world. Currently, there is no other reliable examination of the early stage of breast malignancy,” Jana Prausová, chairman of the Czech Society for Oncology, told the Czech daily newspaper Deník N.

The Slovak website Bádateľ regularly produces similar rumours about mammogram. In February 2018, it published an article that stated that mammograms have no positive effect.

A few months later, it added another article about the Swiss allegedly refusing mammogram screenings. It was a distorted and many times refuted rumour that has been spreading over the Internet for over five years.

Denník N asked the Slovak police if they have ever prosecuted anyone for spreading similar nonsense. “We don’t do statistics corresponding with your criteria,” said Michal Slivka, the spokesman for the Police Corps Presidium.

“Patient in his own right”

Denník N asked the administrator of Bádateľ website about how he copes with the fact that thanks to his articles patients can refuse oncological treatment.

“Our site aims to promote awareness. It is up to each person to decide on their treatment. At the end of each article is a statement, which says that the article doesn’t replace a consultation or examination by a doctor. We assume that each patient has the right to make the best decision based on the information obtained from various sources,” the administrator replied.

He refused to reveal his name. Nor did he say whether there is any connection to businessman Jozef Buzgo, who had been linked to the site for several years.

It is possible that Buzgo might be currently worried about police investigation. News server reported in early January that Buzgo was accused on suspicion of tax fraud. According to the police, he was part of a group around Milan Chovanec, who recovered more than €75 million from the state on VAT refunds.

At the same time, the website erased links connecting it to this businessman, including advertising banners for his Dr. Buzgi e-shop. This online store is currently unavailable.

The article is part of the Business of Misinformation project, run by the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University. The project was supported by the Independent Journalism Program from Open Society Foundations.

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