A RECENT report in The Lancet concluded that homeopathy was ineffective. Julia de Vaatt died a year ago from breast cancer after rejecting conventional medical treatment in favour of alternative remedies.
Here her husband Bob, 58, a former IT consultant turned novelist from West London, tells GILL SWAIN why he believes these are not merely useless, but dangerous in the way they encourage false hope.
BY THE time Julia told me she’d found a lump in her breast she’d already had a biopsy. The results had arrived that morning: it was malignant. Naturally, we were extremely upset. She was only 47 and still the girl with the wonderful smile who had bewitched me the instant we met in a London pub 12 years previously.
We married within five months, had two children and, the usual ups and downs, had been very happy.
At her next appointment, she was told she needed an immediate lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy, but she was already against it.
She had heard horror stories that once the knife goes in, cancer spreads.
It’s an old wives’ tale, but a commonly held view. I pleaded with her to have the operation for the sake of our son and daughter, then aged six and 11, and she could take complementary remedies later.
But she was adamant, so I thought I had to support her in whatever she wanted to do.
She told me that a homeopath, the wife of a business associate of mine, had had a lumpectomy two years before, but said if she could have her time again she would not have had surgery.
She believed homeopathy cured everything and, it seems to me, convinced Julia, too.
As I looked into homeopathy I developed a grudging acceptance that there might be something to it. It seemed to work on the same principle as a flu jab and the disagreement between homeopaths and the medical establishment lay in the degree of dilution of the active ingredient.
Julia could be obstinate and I never felt I could force her to do anything.
She didn’t even waver when her GP banged on our door after discovering she had refused surgery. The doctor was so exasperated that she told Julia she’d be dead in five years.
But Julia went ahead and consulted the homeopath, who had a practice in West London, once a week. After she died, I found drawers stuffed with packets and bottles of little white pills, all of which looked exactly the same but were marked liver, spleen, kidney, and so on.
There never seemed to be any tangible benefits from the homeopathy, which is probably why Julia started trying more extreme treatments.
Before long she was consulting a second homeopath, a follower of a famous Indian guru Sai Baba, who called herself Mrs Sai. She operated from a terraced house in West London.
Every Saturday I drove to the house to collect phials of pills, costing Pounds 7 each. After spending several thousand pounds over three years, I got so frustrated I asked the practitioner when we might expect a cure.
SHE replied: ‘Your wife is already cured. She doesn’t have cancer any more.’
When I told Julia this, she was so furious she threw out everything connected with Sai Baba.
By far the most useless, and most expensive, therapy was Vita Fons II water which she ordered from a company based in Taunton, Somerset, at a cost of Pounds 18 for 85ml, which I worked out as about Pounds 210 a litre.
She would order it once or twice a month with other products such as talcum powder, skin cream and even rooting powder and seed dressing for plants.
There was no list of ingredients and they all cleverly state they have no medical properties – the water even clearly states ‘this is water’.
The accompanying literature says the products have been ‘encoded with numinous development’, whatever that means, and that the preparations ‘achieve their effect by arousing awareness of an inherent perfection. Their use improves the interface between the spirit and the intrinsic divinity’.
The Vita Fons II company also offered a ‘backup service’ in which, after you send them a lock of hair so they can access your ‘unique vibrations’, they promise to ‘broadcast numinous energy’ 24 hours a day for Pounds 29.50 a month. They even charged Pounds 8 for personal letters.
This gobbledegook is supposed to be about God, but seems to me merely snake oil for the 21st century. You can neither prove nor disprove that they have any effect because it is all about the spiritual.
After she died in July 2004, I found a stash of letters which indicated to me that the woman behind Vita Fons II, Elizabeth Buckingham knew Julia had cancer. One, dated August 2003, said: ‘Have you thought of washing the wound with salty water, and quite obviously I would recommend that you add Vita Fons II to the water.’ Reading them made me ill as I realised they were telling her: splash this water over you and send another cheque please.
Using faith for commercial purposes in this way is immoral and obscene. If a parish priest tried to sell Holy Water for Pounds 210 a litre, he would be arrested.
But if you go down the alternathrough
tive route, almost anything is fair game.
Julia consulted a psychic surgeon and three or four ‘distance’ healers who talked to her on the phone without feeling the need to physically examine her; they ‘scanned’ her from their own homes at Pounds 60 per 90-minute session.
If you say you don’t feel better, they throw the blame on you for not being a good subject. For a willing patient, however, it is like a kind of club where everyone appears to pull together – though I think the patient is taken advantage of.
Once Julia had set off on the slippery slope, other practitioners swarmed in like parasites, I presume because they pass on details of customers. Some may be well intentioned, but they are making money out of vulnerable people.
By about four years after the diagnosis, in 1994, Julia was devoting her whole life to these therapies.
She shut herself in her bedroom meditating, reading or surfing the internet, while I did the shopping and cooking.
Meanwhile, the tumour was growing. It came to the surface in 2001 and there was bleeding – the Vita Fons II people said this could be a good thing or a bad thing and advised her to spray the water on her clothes so she wouldn’t have to suffer the pain of getting undressed.
She was in continuous pain in her joints and felt a stretching and tearing if she moved her arms. And the tumour started to smell – a smell of death.
It must have been hellish, yet she didn’t have a death wish. She very much wanted to be alive to be with our children, but she decided not to tell them about her illness.
People ask me why I didn’t drag her back to the doctor, but she would only have gone, literally, kickingand screaming. The more I suspected the treatments were rubbish and begged her to change her mind, the more defensive she became.
We were having financial problems as the cost of these items was getting out of control. Eventually, we were arguing so much that it was affecting our son.
I was incredibly angry with her while still trying to be supportive. I still loved her, but I decided I had to leave for my son’s sake and also to try to force her hand because we couldn’t continue the way we were.
Since she died I’ve asked myself if I feel guilty and I have to say no. I don’t know what more I could have done, but I was a lone voice against all these people she was talking to, several of whom were suggesting I was part of the problem.
I had been made redundant after 30 years in IT and went to live in a squalid bedsit, visiting the children, who stayed in the family home with her, every weekend.
I last saw Julia alive in May last year in the street with bags of shopping.
I had the feeling then that she had come to the end of her permutations.
Her final decline was swift. In July, our son left for a holiday with his friends and that same afternoon someone called the Macmillan nurses. Two days later they called me and told me to fetch our son to see his mother before she died.
HOWEVER, before I arrived I learned it was already too late and I had to tell him not only that she had cancer, but that she had gone. I don’t understand why she refused to tell the children.
Maybe she believed she would recover. I thought it was a mistake, but she was a strong-willed woman and I didn’t feel I could defy her wishes.
It was harrowing when our son burst into tears and said: ‘I knew something was wrong.’ Both he and my daughter were angry she hadn’t told them. She’d left it too late to say goodbye or even to leave them a letter to explain. I was devastated, even though we didn’t get on towards the end.
After the funeral I found dozens of boxes of the Vita Fons II water hidden in her wardrobe and also a small pill box with two white tablets and a piece of paper saying: Berlin Wall. Toxic. Do Not Touch.
This is a homeopathic remedy containing minute fragments of the actual Berlin Wall, which is supposed to help people with a lot of conflict in their lives. I have no idea how it is supposed to treat women with breast cancer. I also found credit card bills for more than Pounds 12,000 which was only a fraction of what she must have spent over the ten years of her illness.
I feel angry, but not with Julia. I’m angry with those I believe exploited her deepest fears. All these people are allowed to operate because there is no regulatory system, and their claims are so amorphous.
It is mumbo jumbo, but when you are terminally ill you can come to believe it. I think Trading Standards bodies should take a closer look. But I don’t know what they can do when someone is basically claiming to sell ‘God in a jar’. I think these people should be exposed for making a fortune out of something that is morally and ethically sick.
Homeopathy is different because it claims to be a physical treatment – and for anybody to be allowed to treat people without medical training makes no sense.
If homeopathy is legitimised, it should only be in addition to a conventional medical qualification.
Also, administering anything which purports to heal without a physical diagnosis is wrong.
I believe practitioners should acknowledge that there’s a point where alternative methods not only fail, but can become dangerous – and that point comes when they are being used by someone like Julia instead of conventional treatment.
They have a responsibility to people who may not be acting in their own best interests.
Statistics say that 85 per cent of lumpectomies are successful, so Julia had a good chance of being cured. Even if she hadn’t been, she could have lived those ten years without her terrible obsession with so-called treatments.
She would have suffered a lot less pain, family life would have been more normal, we wouldn’t have had financial pressures, and would probably not have split up. It was a terrible waste of her life.
ELIZABETH Buckingham, spokeswoman for Vita Fons II says: ‘I DON’T recognise the name of Julia de Vaatt so I am not sure if she was a customer or not.
‘What I can say is that we do not exploit people who are vulnerable and facing life and death situations. We do not promote this product as a cancer treatment or as a way to treat any physical complaint. It is recommended as a treatment for spiritual healing.’ THE British Homeopathy Association represents medically qualified homeopathic practitioners. A spokesman says: ‘THIS sounds like a tragic case and we in no way condone what has happened.
Mrs de Vaat should never have been advised that she should rely on homeopathy to cure her breast cancer.
‘We represent 1,400 homeopaths and they are all medically qualified.
None would ever suggest that a patient stops using conventional treatments after a cancer diagnosis. Homeopathy may be used alongside it.
‘Unfortunately, not all homeopaths are medically qualified and there is no statutory regulation.
This means anyone can set up as a homeopath without scrutiny.’ To check a practitioner is listed in the Faculty of Homeopaths, visit www.trusthomeopathy.org or phone the helpline: 0870 444 3950.
BOB de Vaatt is the author of Fake Honesty, published by SeaNeverDry Publishing, Pounds 7.99.