A classic puzzle that cognitive psychologists use to test thinking skills is the Tumor Problem, which poses the following hypothetical dilemma. A patient has a malignant tumor in his abdomen. If the doctors direct a strong dose of radiation through the surrounding healthy tissue, it will destroy both the tumor and the healthy tissue. On the other hand, the dosage that can pass through healthy tissue without harming it is too weak to destroy the tumor, and the patient will die. What can the doctors do to destroy the tumor without damaging surrounding tissue?
In January 1976 my mother faced a similar dilemma in real life. Her cancer had metastasized from her chest to her back, but chemo and radiation treatments of the previous six months had failed. I picture the cancer as invisible troops marching in a starburst formation from her lower back, indivisible in their mission to conquer distant regions of her body. The doctors had nothing left in their arsenal of conventional medical treatment to stop it.
My brother Bill recalls this as a desperate time for our father. The dawning prospect of losing his wife and taking sole charge of five children must have been terrifying. My own memory confirms this. Coincidentally or not, the proximity of the children’s bedrooms to our parent’s room on the second floor of our home was positively correlated with our ages, which meant that the room my younger sister and I shared was closest to my parents’. Because my bed was near the bedroom door, I could sometimes hear the soft, indistinct and reassuring sounds of my parents’ nighttime conversations coming from behind their closed door. One night these murmurs were pierced by my father’s words, which suddenly broke through, tight with panic. I heard, “Mollie don’t leave me; I don’t know how to do this without you!” The tone of his voice was so different from his usual even-keeled demeanor that, under the covers, a shudder ran through me. The murmurs quickly resumed, albeit with a more urgent cadence. I awoke the next morning hoping the experience had been a bad dream, and I never asked either parent what it meant or told my siblings what I had overheard.
My mother was more circumspect about her declining health. Decades later my Aunt Irene revealed that she and my mother —indeed many of the adults in their family—had clung blinkeredly to notions of her recovery far longer than they should have. My brother Bill’s diary of the time, in which he recorded contemporaneous notes of his conversations with our mother during his extended holiday break from college, confirms this. Despite the failed chemo and radiation treatments, despite the fact that she was now too feeble to get out of bed for any length of time, my mother hadn’t quite given up hope. According to Bill’s diary, in January 1976 she described her window of long-term survival as “not completely gone, but narrowed down by quite a bit.”
Like many families facing serious illness, my father began researching alternative medical cures. The impetus for the search was his own, he recently confirmed to me, rather than under-the-table suggestions of the doctors. From online research I have learned that in the 1970s, the latter was not uncommon when conventional medical treatment had run its course. At that time alternative cancer treatment was in its infancy and did not include today’s offerings of relaxation techniques, yoga, and guided meditation. The focus then was on diet and food supplements. My father sought information from our local newspaper and our monthly subscription to Prevention magazine, self-described as the “medical journal for the people.” One alternative cancer treatment that our family tried in 1976 may have appeared in an article in Prevention several years earlier. I found an updated version of it online—reportedly circulating on the internet since 20081—that contains some of the original elements of the article. With the intriguing title, “Asparagus for Cancer” it was sure to draw in readers like those in my family’s situation. The author is an unnamed biochemist who claims to have studied diet and health connections for half a century. He describes the work of a dentist who had “discovered” that asparagus cured cancer. The article then offers evidence through four case studies detailing the miraculous effect of asparagus on an array of cancers. For example:
“Case No. 2, a successful businessman, 68 years old, who suffered from cancer of the bladder for 16 years. After years of medical treatments, including radiation without improvement, he went on asparagus. Within three months, examinations revealed that his bladder tumor had disappeared and that his kidneys were normal.”2
My mother battled a different type of cancer, but her failed radiation paralleled the medical impasse described in Case No. 2. Reading through the article late at night when the rest of the household was asleep, this testimonial would have leapt off the page for my father.
The article mentions specific brands of canned asparagus to use—Green Giant and Stokely—and provides the recipe for the cure:
“Place the cooked asparagus in a blender and liquefy to make a puree, and store in the refrigerator. Give the patient four full tablespoons twice daily, morning and evening.”3
It also states that patients’ health should show improvement in as little as 2-4 weeks.
In addition to these tantalizing facts, the article adds a curious conspiratorial twist: “The FDA cannot prevent you from using [the asparagus cure,] and it may do you much good.” It isn’t hard to imagine the reader’s reaction to these pronouncements: They were being let in on a huge secret.
In any case, my father was convinced. After reading the article, he organized an asparagus-dispensing schedule among us siblings, and we each took turns with the preparation. I vividly remember retrieving a can from the cabinet over our oven when it was my turn, by my memory goes blank after that. I recently purchased a new can of Green Giant asparagus to see if I could remember the experience, Proustian style. I noticed that it cost 25 percent more than the generic brand at my supermarket, an extravagance my mother would have disapproved of.
After opening the tall can, I beheld the sickly yellow-green shade of the upright-standing spears. My senses were overpowered by a metallic, sulphury smell mixed with a mere trace of what fresh asparagus smells like. Thecooked-to-oblivion texture of the spears was so yielding that I didn’t need a blender; it took me all of 30 seconds to puree them by hand with a potato masher. I tentatively tasted about one-quarter of a teaspoon full. To my surprise, the taste of the mushy substance was much less unpleasant than the look and smell of it. None of us remembers how long my mother followed the asparagus cure; it couldn’t have been more than a few months. I don’t remember my mother ever complaining about it. However, those of us who prepared the concoction on a regular basis would for years afterward avoid the vile stuff.
Research shows that people’s chances of finding the correct solution to the Tumor Problem is less than 10 percent. Performance improves only when the Experimenter offers guidance, in the form of a story about the plight of a general who wants to capture a city reached by a series of converging roads. If the general sends his army down one road, the collective weight of the soldiers’ boots will trip lethal mines planted by the enemy. On the other hand, a smaller number of soldiers can traverse over the mined road safely but will not be sufficient to take the city once it is reached. The wise general decides to divide the troops into even units and send them into the city from each road. The units converge at the city walls at the same time and capture it without incident. When given hints about the connection between stories, about 75 percent of people can successfully map the army general’s dilemma to the doctors’ dilemma. This mapping of one comparable solution to another is called reasoning by analogy in the literature.
I don’t remember the second remedy that our family tried, but Bill does, and my father confirmed it recently. The remedy involved apricot kernels, the soft, almond-shaped seeds inside the pits of the yellow-orange fruit. This treatment has a more clear-cut provenance than the asparagus one, traceable to a doctor named Ernst T. Krebs, Sr., who began experimenting with it in the 1920s. Apricot kernels contain a chemical compound known as amygdalin, which Krebs erroneously dubbed vitamin B17; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recognize this label. According to Krebs’s theory, B17 releases cyanide into the human body, but the “miracle of nature” is that this release occurs only in the presence of a certain enzyme group, which in turn is only found in cancer cells. According to Krebs and later supporters, ingestion of B17 results in destruction of cancer cells while healthy cells are spared. I hasten to add that there is no current medical evidence to support this claim.
Krebs’s son created a purified version of the substance, known as Laetrile, banned by the FDA in the 1960s, but still sought out to this day by people who travel to Laetrile clinics in Mexico for injections. My father contemplated such a trip for my mother, but decided against it in the end.
Articles about the apricot kernel cure appeared regularly in the Bergen Record in the years leading up to and after my mother’s illness. My father followed them closely. The year after my mother’s death, a doctor named John Richardson wrote a book called Laetrile Case Histories. It detailed 62 case histories of people whose cancer had been cured by taking B17, and included the conspiratorially alluring claim that the government doesn’t want citizens to know about it because the government can’t profit off a natural substance. An identical claim was made in a later version of the online asparagus-cure article. Needless to say, interest skyrocketed.
No one in my family can remember the exact dosage my mother took, but based on Richardson’s case histories, I estimate it be 8-10 kernels per day. Bill remembers that my mother found her daily dosage bitter to the taste and difficult to chew. More recently journalist Stephanie M. Lee of BuzzFeed conducted her own taste-test of the kernels and found them to be “chewy and tongue-curlingly bitter, with a long and unpleasant aftertaste.”4
Several large-scale clinical trials of B17 treatments in cancer patients have yielded negative results. In addition, current medical thinking is that amygdalin is an “unambiguously negative” treatment for cancer. Contrary to what Krebs and later supporters believed, the conversion to cyanide that occurs within the human body is general: it impacts all cells, not just cancer ones. Ingestion of B17 actually poses a serious risk of cyanide poisoning, especially in children and the medically vulnerable. Side effects of cyanide poisoning include general weakness, confusion, and bizarre behavior. In the early months of 1976, my mother would show all three symptoms. We assumed these symptoms were a result of the cancer metastasizing to her brain. Given the current medical understanding, we can’t rule out that her daily dose of apricot seeds didn’t create, or at least exacerbate, these symptoms.
According to the American Cancer society’s department of Epidemiology and Statistics, about 375,000 men and women in the U.S. died from some form of cancer in 1976. One of those statistics was my mother. If even a fraction of these patients had tried alternative cures, the resulting failed cases would far outweigh the sixty-two successful cases described in Richardson’s book of the same era—assuming the latter were even true. 5 Patients and their families put what faith they had left in these testimonials, forging connections between their own circumstances and those of the hopeful case studies, spending unknown amounts of money on bogus substances, reasoning by analogy that success would map onto their health, too.
“But neither of them worked,” my father recounted recently, referring to the asparagus and apricot-kernel cures my mother had tried in vain. He said it without irony, the bitterness of decades tightening his voice once again.
1 Emery, David. Can Asparagus Cure Cancer? Liveaboutdotcom (Netlore Archive), updated 3/23/2019.
4 Lee, Stephanie M. This Bogus Cancer Cure from the 1970s Is Finding New Life Online. BuzzFeed, updated 7/30/2017.
5 Wilson, Benjamin. The Rise and Fall of Laetrile. Quackwatch, https://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/Cancer/laetrile.html