Cancer is a disease which affects not just the body, but the mind as well. The seeming finality of such a diagnosis can cause a person to undertake therapies and lifestyle changes towards which they had previously shown disinterest if not disdain. When my father found out he had pancreatic cancer, he learned everything he could about natural and homeopathic treatments. This was a man who, as an employee of the Department of Health, was instructed to routinely deny insurance claims for such expenditures on the grounds of “quack” medicine. They didn’t save him, but he did live for three years following a diagnosis that typically claims 75% of its victims within the first year. Was it the alternative medicine? Sheer force of will? Or just plain luck?
Steve McQueen was another who embraced the unorthodox once his days became numbered. Following a terminal diagnosis in 1978, the actor went to Mexico to receive cancer treatment under the guidance of Dr. William Donald Kelly, an orthodontist who believed cancer was caused by an imbalance of enzymes and could thus be treated and cured through prayer, proper eating, and other exercise and detoxification techniques. Among the treatments which Kelly imposed upon McQueen was laetrile, a substance derived from apricot seeds which was believed to be able to stop, if not reverse, the growth of cancer cells. Laetrile had no such success for McQueen, who died in 1979 of cardiac arrest following surgery to remove tumors from his neck and abdomen.
Though there are still proponents of laetrile, McQueen’s highly publicized treatment and subsequent death largely doused the embers of the controversial medication, which had garnered a level of notoriety throughout the 1970s following the passage of the National Cancer Act of 1971. Kicking off America’s so-called War on Cancer, the act increased funding to the National Cancer Institute which then enlisted various other organizations to conduct research and trials to better understand and combat the disease. One of the most prominent of those organizations is Sloan-Kettering, which had assigned Kanematsu Sugiura, one of their oldest and most respected research scientists, to study the effects of laetrile on cancer cells.
Concurrently, Ralph Moss, a former literature professor, was hired as a PR writer for Sloan-Kettering in 1974. While working on a biography of Sugiura, Moss discovered his research into laetrile and was shocked to learn that the drug — which was widely regarded as nothing more than a quack remedy — had actually shown positive results. The further up the bureaucratic ladder he went, however, the more resistance he encountered from members of both Sloan-Kettering and the National Cancer Institute, who wanted nothing to do with laetrile. Frustrated with his employer’s unwillingness to publicize Sugiura’s findings, Moss teamed with Dr. Alec Pruchnicki to produce and distribute the anonymous mimeographed newsletter Second Opinion, which critiqued practices at Sloan-Kettering and actively promoted the further study of laetrile.
Eric Merola’s documentary Second Opinion takes its name from Moss’s whistle-blowing amateur publication, and while it is similarly eager to point fingers at presidents and vice presidents and department chairs who allow personal interests to jaundice their professional opinion, the film largely steers clear of proselytizing for laetrile. Instead, it wisely views the events leading up to the laetrile press conferences of 1977 almost exclusively through Moss’s eyes, painting him as a modest crusader for patients’ rights in the form of knowledge and choice. Merola’s previous films, Burzynski and its sequel, also dealt with the struggle to gain acceptance for fringe cancer treatments, so his interest in the subject is clear. But Second Opinion is at its best when it avoids platitudes like “the real culprit is the profit system” and focuses instead on Moss and his double life as both an employee and an opponent of Sloan-Kettering and, by extension, Big Pharma.
One of the film’s most memorable moments is Moss’s recollection of Sloan-Kettering VP Lloyd Old. As Moss tells it, Old asked him, “Do you want to know where we get our new ideas” for potential cancer treatments before handing him a copy of Unproven Methods of Cancer Management, a reference publication from the American Cancer Society colloquially known as “the quack list.” This dichotomous relationship to alternative medicine, simultaneously skeptical and hopeful, mirrors that of the general public; anything that hasn’t been scientifically proven will always carry with it a whiff of quackery. Still, an estimated 70,000 people didn’t cross the border into Mexico for laetrile in 1977 for nothing.
Merola doesn’t eke as much out of this duality as he probably should, nor does he take the obvious bait of establishing Moss’s treasonous publications as a corollary to and extension of the revolutionary campus leaflets and subversive zines which came to prominence a decade earlier; the finer shadings of those philosophical and historical contextualizations would have made Second Opinion a stronger film. What he does, however, is clearly and concisely present an interesting and often overlooked chapter of recent American history that is more important than ever as Big Pharma gets bigger and our government continues to farm itself out to the highest bidders. Laetrile may not be the answer, but it — and other treatments like it — deserves to be part of the conversation.