MONTREAL — There has been a bowl-a-thon in Rimouski, a community dinner in Jonquière, Tupperware sales in Quebec City and a benefit comedy show in Acton Vale.
All across Quebec, funds are being raised with one goal in mind — keeping hope alive for dozens of people with incurable cancers.
Some 500 Canadians who’ve exhausted their options here have sent their medical records to a clinic in Frankfurt, Germany, hoping that Dr. Thomas Vogl’s advanced, experimental and — at $20,000 per trip — pricey treatments can keep them alive. Only about 70 have been accepted. The vast majority are francophones from Quebec.
“After each treatment I was taken to a recovery room. There’s room for about 10 people and all 10 of us were Quebecers,” said Manon Latouche, who travelled to the clinic seven times between July and November 2015 — a $140,000 undertaking.
The 49-year-old said she had a grapefruit-sized tumour around her diaphragm that was not responding to chemotherapy in Quebec. Doctors told her she could try another round of treatment or stop and prepare for the end, she said.
“I decided to stop. In the same week I heard about Dr. Vogl. We sent my (medical charts) and a week later he responded saying, ‘I’d like you to come. I think there’s something we can do for you.’ ”
At the end of the treatments, Latouche said the tumour was gone. But she is still being treated today for cancer cells that have spread to her intestines, liver and lungs.
Sophie Bouchard, of Rimouski, said she was given about six months to live by her doctors here, but told by Vogl she has between an 80 per cent and 85 per cent chance of improvement. She is scheduled to receive her first treatment March 11.
“There are those who talk about miracles ...,” she said of the German doctor’s growing reputation in Quebec.
Vogl himself is more cautious. About one in every 10 patients who contact the clinic is accepted for treatment. Most have had cancers in the lung, colon, pancreas or liver. About 20 Quebecers are being treated at the moment.
“ ‘Healing’ is a word we try not to use ... I think what we try to provide is an increased survival rate,” he said in a telephone interview.
The vast majority of those who inquire about receiving the treatments are turned away because they are in poor physical condition, have cancers that are too advanced, or because they already have access to the best treatment — in Canada.
“For us, it’s important to note that we don’t do any miracles,” Vogl said.
Those who are invited to take the treatment in Frankfurt typically receive it in two stages. The first is chemoembolization, which involves delivering chemotherapy directly into a tumour along with a chemical that starves the cancer cells of blood. The targeted delivery reduces the brutal side effects from chemotherapy.
The second stage uses a laser to heat and destroy the cancerous tissue at a temperature of up to 95 C.
In Quebec, chemoembolization is used only on specific and limited types of cancers, said Candice Gingras, a spokesperson for the province’s health ministry.
Quebec and other jurisdictions have said there is insufficient evidence to prove that Vogl’s treatment increases patients’ lives. Vogl admitted it has been difficult convincing prospective patients to participate in randomized trials that would allow him to compare results from surgeries with those from his less-invasive treatments.
The laser used by Vogl to destroy the cancerous cells is not approved for use by Health Canada.
“We expect it might be approved in one or two years,” said Vogl.
A spokesperson for Health Canada said it has not received an application for the device to be cleared for use in Canada.
Lothar Lilge, a senior scientist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, said the approvals process in Canada makes it more difficult to obtain authorization for the type of procedures Vogl is conducting.
To conduct drug studies, doctors require a clinical trial application. To try out a medical device, like the laser, an instrument trial application is required.
“In this situation you would need both and sometimes those two committees looking at those applications don’t talk to one another,” Lilge said.
Regulators in Canada are “slowly coming around, but it takes time,” he said.
But the people most in need of the regulatory changes have little hope and even less time. Their energies are too focused on staying alive.
A number of patients contacted by the Star said they want to put pressure on health authorities so that the treatments they receive in Frankfurt, at a cost of $20,000 per trip, are available here.
But organizing such a campaign isn’t easy while juggling surgeries, chemotherapies and impromptu health scares that patients must also deal with.
Marc-André Michaud, another of Vogl’s Quebec patients, was a symbol and inspiration for many others in the province. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he was one of the first to bring attention to the Frankfurt clinic last summer and shared his advice and experience with dozens of others. He died on Nov. 26, 2015.
Quebec’s health ministry urges “prudence” for those seeking treatment abroad that is not covered by provincial health insurance, said Gingras. But Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette, a radiologist before entering politics, went further last August, questioning Vogl’s methods and accusing him of “selling hope.”
“We live for this hope. That’s all we have left,” said Brigitte Beaudoin, who has been treated three times in Frankfurt and is waiting now to see if she can undergo an operation to remove the cancerous cells.
“When we’re told we have three months to live we need to have this hope and I have no regrets at all about having gone.”
Other Quebec cancer patients have banded together on a Facebook page that shares the latest news reports on patient updates, advice on how to get the cheapest flights (avoid flying on a Saturday) and even the preferred hotel of the Quebecers in town for treatment.
Among the latest causes for celebration is Céline Tanguay, a 59-year-old retiree from Lac-Etchemin, Que. Last summer, doctors told her there was nothing they could do for the metastatic cancer cells on her liver, leading her to Vogl’s clinic. She said Vogl told her recently that any trace of the cancer has disappeared.
“I had my three-month checkup last week. I sent him the scan and he sent me the response in English saying he was happy for me ... and that it had worked,” Tanguay said.
“Today I’m good. It’s going well but I will never know what’s around the corner ... I have energy and strength to do work around the house that I thought I’d never be able to do again.”