Nine years of medical training taught Dr. Ben Saling to be skeptical of unproven treatments and loathe shysters peddling miracle cures.
But no medical instruction prepared the 32-year-old father of two for the decision he faced last month.
Fingers of cancer were spreading through his brain despite radiation treatment. His doctor told him radical chemotherapy could extend his life a few years, but even then he wouldn’t likely see his youngest son, 5-month-old Jacob, make it through kindergarten.
Saling the doctor stuffed his skepticism aside and became Saling the patient, betting his life on an unproven treatment administered by a controversial doctor many physicians regard as a quack.
“This is the first time anyone has mentioned ‘cure,”’ said Saling. “With a wife and two kids, long-term remission is much more palatable.”
Without a cure, Saling knows he will likely die within five years.
“He’s not even going to be in kindergarten yet,” said Saling, bouncing Jacob on his lap. “That’s incomprehensible to me. I don’t even like to think about it because I don’t want to think about leaving them.”
“When we think about it, we start to break down,” said Tami Saling, his wife of six years. “It’s best not to deal with the ifs.”
A year ago, Saling appeared to be living an American success story. In a home off Audubon Park, he and Tami had a chirpy toddler and another child on the way.
After eight years of school and five years of internships, Saling was 11 months from finishing a radiology residency at Sacred Heart Medical Center. A $150,000-a-year radiology job waited in Oregon.
His life crumbled July 23 when he had a grand mal seizure at work. He was given an immediate brain scan that showed a hazy shadow that later proved to be inoperable brain cancer.
“I was five minutes from going home at the end of the day, and I wake up and I have a brain tumor,” said Saling. “That was a pretty sobering experience.”
Saling, a “conventional guy,” got traditional radiation treatment. For a while he was able to work. Energetic and optimistic, he felt he could function with the illness.
“We thought the worst was behind us,” said Tami, 30.
But he started having regular seizures at work. Tami Saling, then eight months pregnant, dreaded hearing the telephone ring.
“Your husband has collapsed, could you come pick him up?” she heard too many times.
Saling learned last month the tumor in his left frontal lobe had grown.
“It was a white blob the size of a quarter,” he said. “It was just so stark. That’s what I do for a living, so I knew that was something that I didn’t want to look at.”
After consulting with Spokane neurosurgeon Dean Martz, Saling found his options were chemotherapy, which would leave him bedridden and unable to “even pick up my kids,” or radical surgery that could possibly lobotomize him.
Desperate and frustrated, the Salings saw a newspaper article in Portland about a man whose brain cancer was miraculously cured. The man had visited Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, a controversial Texas doctor, who claims to have the cure for some types of cancer. A week later, the Salings were on a plane to Houston.
Burzynski’s treatment involves high doses of antineoplastons, a type of a protein found in human urine that supposedly kills cancer cells.
The expensive treatment is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Disagreements with the FDA have resulted in a 75-count indictment in a Texas court accusing Burzynski of illegally selling drugs across state lines.
“We have no documented evidence that the drug works,” said Kyle Harris, an American Cancer Society spokesman.
One medical watchdog group mentioned Burzynski in its “Quackwatch.”
Spokane oncologist Robert Gersh studied Burzynski’s work and finds it lacking scientific proof.
“At this point, I think we have to consider this quackery,” said Gersh, with Spokane Oncology Hematology Associates. “In my mind, these are unsubstantiated claims.”
Burzynski has some remarkable testimonials. Several miracle cases were documented by CBS television, including Portland man Douglas Wagner, whose walnut-sized tumor allegedly disappeared after he was treated by Burzynski.
Saling visited Dr. Gerald Warnock, Wagner’s Portland radiologist, to confirm the miraculous recovery.
“I’ve never seen a tumor respond in that nature,” said Warnock, who, like other doctors, is skeptical of unproven treatments. “One swallow doesn’t make a spring. Most (unproven treatments) just separate you from your money.”
He added, “If Dr. Saling is cured, I’ll be convinced.”
Saling’s colleagues, also skeptical of Burzynski, empathize with his situation.
“When dealing with a fatal tumor, you really have nothing to lose, because the tumor is going to progress no matter what,” said Hal Holte, a Sacred Heart radiologist who mentored Saling. “Ben is every bit a scientific person as I am, and for him to turn around and do this makes you think.”
Saling understands the skepticism. “I have terminal brain cancer. When you’re not in the situation I’m in, testimonials don’t have much sway,” he said. “Your response as a doctor is, ‘Has it been written up in journals?’ When you are in the situation I am in, they have a little different sway.”
He now receives daily intravenous antineoplaston doses through a tube attached to a black plastic box the size of a loaf of bread.
The $6,000 per month treatment is not covered by insurance because it is not FDA approved, so other Sacred Heart residents and interns helped the Salings pay for the first three months.
Ben Saling’s request for disability was rejected. After his Sacred Heart contract runs out in June, he and Tami will be broke.
Saling said Burzynski’s treatment is merely an alternative and he doesn’t consider it a miracle cure. If it doesn’t work, chemotherapy is still an option, he said.
He will have to wait about three months to know if Burzynski’s treatment is successful. He feels good, although he had a seizure Easter morning.
“All you can do is hope and do lots of praying,” said Saling.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CONTROVERSIAL METHOD Ben Saling is taking high doses of antineoplastons, a type of a protein found in human urine. Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski of Texas pioneered the treatment, which many mainstream physicians term “quackery” and has not been approved by the FDA.