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Faith Healer? Fraud!

October 4, 2003

The fraud in actionA local television current affairs program ran a story recently about a Brazilian faith healer named John of God. Actually, two competing programs ran stories about this charlatan on different channels. I was interviewed for one of the shows, at very short notice. I was first contacted at about 3:30 when I was with a client and the interview was recorded between 4:30 and 5:00 for a show going to air at 6:30, so I had no time to collect any relevant material to show the reporter. What I heard was enough, however, to tell me that we were looking at fraud, because all the signs were there. The one puzzling matter was that there was a woman claiming that this man had cured her lung cancer, and she had before and after x-rays to prove it.

I didn't get to see the x-rays until the show went to air, and the pictures here are taken from a tape of the show. (In order, from top to bottom - a "before" image of the "lung" cancer, a radiologist's report stating that no "skeletal metastases" can be seen, and the "after" scan showing no cancer. You can click on the images to see a larger view.)

A liver before someone is cured of lung cancer.I'm not a radiologist, but to my layman's eye these did not look like scans of the same part of the body, and the radiologist's letter included in the program as evidence of a cure was undated and talks about cancer in bones, not lungs. Without comparable images, nothing can be decided. An x-ray or CAT scan showing no cancer is no evidence that there was any cancer there before. I sent the following request to a mailing list populated by doctors, and pointed them to a web site where some images from the show could be found:

Last Monday I was dragged in at short notice by a TV current affairs show to make a comment about a faith healer. I didn't have any time to see the other material that was going to air. (The program was working on the story and they heard that a rival program was running the same story that night. Both shows go to air at 6:30 and they contacted me at 3:30.)

The "evidence" for the cure was the collection of before and after x-rays of the woman's cancer. What I saw on TV suggested that a) the x-rays were of different parts of the body and b) they were taken with different settings of the imaging equipment. The letter from the radiologist about the "after" shot talks about "skeletal metastases", but she is supposed to have had lung cancer.

No cancer in the bones.Comments from three doctors follow. It is obviously impossible to make a diagnosis based on what was available, but diagnosis was not what was required. What was wanted was opinion about whether these images provided any evidence at all of a cured lung cancer. The interesting part was that all the doctors agreed that the "before" scans were not of a lung at all, but showed a liver.

The xrays are uninterpretable. The first few are CT scans of liver containing a lesion of uncertain nature. The last is a single cut of a thoracic scan, and is meaningless without the original for comparison.

You are quite right, the before images are ct scans of a liver, the "after" is a chest.

Some lungs that might or might not have ever had cancerThe third doctor requested a second opinion from a friend.

X-ray 2,3,4 - fairly low-quality CT scan of liver showing a cystic, possibly multiloculated, lesion in the liver - there are many non-cancer causes of liver cysts (more than cancer-related causes) such as bacterial infection, congenital cyst, and amebic (or amoebic) cyst.

X-ray(?) 5 - A fragment of the radiologist's report on what appears to be a bone scan (based on fragment - "physiologic pattern of tr[acer uptake]", which is fairly standard "boilerplate" text on that sort of report). The absence of bony metastases does not equal freedom from cancer; some cancers do not metastasize to bone. Also, what kind of cancer was she diagnosed with? That would help a lot.

X-ray 6 - Fairly low-quality CT scan of chest below the heart - no gross abnormalities visible on web view.

Points to ponder:

1. Did she actually have "cancer" or was she suffering from some sort of non-malignant process (which might be expected to spontaneously resolve). Even experienced radiologists and oncologists can be fooled if they are only going on a CT scan. Did she have a biopsy?

2. Films 2, 3, and 4 appear to be from the same scan - the lesion does not change significantly between them. Film 6 appears to have the same quality as the others and may also be from the same scan.

3. No date is visible on the radiologist's report - it would be routine procedure (in the US) to get a bone scan at the time of initial diagnosis to see if the cancer has metastasized, so this may also be from about the same time as films 1 - 4.

4. The putative "after" film does not prove anything other than the cancer had not metastasized to that part of the lung (a slice about 1 - 2 cm thick). It is by no means a "proof of cure". I would be much more interested to see the parts of the scan which include the liver, since that was the site (presumably) of the original cancer. BTW, if it was an infectious process (bacteria, ameba or amoeba), there should be a residual scar visible on CT scan.

I ran this by a good friend of mine who is a radiologist of over 30 years experience - he thought the whole thing stank of fraud

Flim FlamThe old "knife in the eye" trickThis scam is not new. One thing the reporter mentioned to me was that the "healer" pushed a table knife into people's eyes. As soon as I heard this I knew we we looking at a retread of the story told by James Randi in his 1982 book .

The picture at the right is taken from the book and shows Randi pushing a knife into his eye in the manner employed by a conman named Arigo. The whole healing act performed by John of God is just what Randi was describing more than twenty years ago. The new version even boasts, as did Arigo, that he uses unsterilised instruments.

My initial impression when I was first approached was that the woman might have had cancer and was falsely attributing a miracle cure to the faith healer when it was really due to conventional treatment or even remission, although the probability of that is remote. I now think that she was simply lying and is part of the promotion for the scam. At least one of the Australians supposedly "healed" by John of God is openly promoting tours to Brazil. These people are just as disgusting as the charlatans who pretend to perform the miracles. They steal money from desperate people and dress it up as religion so that any criticism can be seen to be an attack on faith. The only thing these people have faith in is money.

You can see an article promoting this fraud here.

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