The charter bus leaves Los Angeles for Tijuana at the height of morning rush hour. Frank Cousineau does his best to keep his three dozen or so passengers entertained as they inch down the I-110. “On your left is the Staples Center,” he says over the scratchy P.A. system, “and all of downtown Los Angeles.” A few miles later, Cousineau, a 68-year-old grandfather with a light drawl and a thick mustache, hands out bran muffins and tucks into a topic closer to his audience’s interests: the supposed cancer-curing powers of hydrazine sulfate, a semitoxic chemical compound used to prevent corrosion in industrial processes.
For $100 a person, Cousineau, who runs a nonprofit advocacy group called the Cancer Control Society (CCS), is leading a tour of four alternative cancer clinics in Tijuana. My seatmate, a friendly and devout dentist named Nate Liu, has been on the tour before, after his wife developed breast cancer five years ago. She’s currently taking an herbal regimen she obtained domestically, but Liu is curious about new treatments in Mexico. “Half the people on this bus are here for research, to bring help back to the U.S.,” Liu tells me. “The other half are looking for a miracle cure.”
“I just can’t tell you how many people have recovered using hydrazine sulfate,” Cousineau says as we hit cruising speed in Orange County. Since American distributors have been “persecuted by the FDA,” he adds, the treatment is now only available outside of the U.S.
There is no hard data on the number of Americans who seek alternative cancer treatment at Tijuana’s 20-some-odd clinics (though there is data showing that most of that treatment doesn’t work), but it’s high enough to support a cottage industry of entrepreneurs who offer consultation, transportation, housing, and even funding to desperate patients. Cousineau first learned about this world in the 1970s, when his mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. After she finished several punishing bouts of chemotherapy, Cousineau took her to a clinic known today as Oasis of Hope, in the Playas neighborhood of Tijuana. During one of their stays, he met Rosario de los Ríos, nicknamed “Chayo,” a secretary at the clinic whom he eventually married. His mother succumbed to the cancer, but Cousineau believes her death was more comfortable because of her time in Tijuana.
He dropped out of his teacher-training program and began working with the CCS, which was founded in 1973 by a lab technician and a health-food-store owner to promote alternative cancer treatments. In addition to the bus tours, the CCS hosts annual three-day conventions in Los Angeles, at a Sheraton next door to Universal Studios. Cousineau became president of the organization in 2006, and today, he and Chayo also run an herbal-supplement business from their home in Modesto and, for $150 an hour, offer consulting services to patients interested in alternative care.
At a quarter to noon, the bus passes Dairy Mart Road, one of the last exits before I-5 terminates at the busiest border crossing in the world. Just off the freeway is the Best Western Americana Inn, a Spanish-style motel set between a dirt lot and a Carl’s Jr. Half a dozen hotels and short-term rentals on both sides of the border cater to cancer patients, but the Americana is an especially popular choice. On any given warm afternoon, its pool is ringed with guests, mostly older and fully dressed, reclining in plastic deck chairs. Each morning at 7 and 9, a stream of people make their way to the lobby, where large white vans wait to ferry them to clinics across the border. (The shuttles are included in the hotel’s “clinic rate.”)
By early afternoon, the bus has crossed la línea and is wending its way down dusty streets to its first stop, the International Bio Care Hospital & Wellness Center. Cousineau herds his group into a sweltering conference room where the clinic’s founder, Dr. Rodrigo Rodriguez, greets them with enthusiasm and a pitch he’s made before.
“We have sophisticated medical techniques, like whole-body hyperthermia,” Dr. Rodriguez says, explaining how he raises patients’ body temperatures to 105 degrees for several hours at a time in order to kill cancer cells. To a woman who asks about survival rates, he answers, “I think we have a very good record. Statistical studies are good for groups but lousy for individuals. Statistically, I’m going to tell you something I am 100 percent certain of: In a hundred years, none of you in this room will be alive!”
Back on the bus, I speak with a Russian immigrant and mother named Anna Judd, who tells me that she’s already had breast cancer twice and underwent conventional treatment at the behest of her family. Her tests have been clear for more than four years now, she says, but she wants to see what options are available if the disease comes back.
One challenge many clinic patients face is that alternative treatment is rarely covered by American insurance. So consultants offer advice on this front, too, directing patients to crowdfunding websites and to funding mechanisms called “viatical settlements,” wherein a patient purchases life insurance and then sells it for cash, through a broker, to the highest bidder.
Cousineau saves Oasis of Hope, where his mother was treated, for the second-to-last stop. With 25 patient rooms, four operating rooms, an ICU, and a lush private garden, “the only reason you’d need to leave the hospital is to go to the beach,” says Gaston Tessada, the clinic’s director of business development. While his audience sips cucumber water and eats organic salad greens, Dr. Francisco Ceceña, the chief of oncology, gives a presentation on low-dose chemotherapy, high-dose vitamin C, oxygen treatments, coffee enemas, and Laetrile, a drug that was popular in the U.S. in the 1970s, before the FDA banned its shipment across state lines.
Though Dr. Ceceña claims success rates with these treatments are “pretty high,” virtually no rigorous medical studies agree with him. “For the most part, the methods promoted in Mexican border clinics are not consistent with scientific understanding of how cancer and its treatment work,” the American Cancer Society warns on a dedicated page on its website.
Around sundown, the bus reaches the border, where a customs officer laughs when I tell him the purpose of our visit. Somewhere north of San Diego, Cousineau puts on a movie called Hoxsey: The Quack Who Cured Cancer? It tells the story of Harry Hoxsey, a man who discovered a tonic that could “positively cure cancer,” which the FDA eventually outlawed. For those willing to venture south to one of Tijuana’s oldest cancer clinics, his miracle cure is still available for around $2,000.