Ilona Wojdylo has endured a slew of traditional treatments for breast and spinal cancer over the years, with limited success.
After shedding 50 of her 150 pounds and suffering worsening posture, now with Stage 4 spinal cancer and little hope for treatment in Canada, the 47-year-old Windsor woman will soon try a controversial route that more and more people believe in: alternative medicine.
She will head for three weeks to a health facility in Mexico that offers a long list of treatments allowed in Canada only as complementary, not as replacement, for traditional chemotherapy and radiation. Still, many people swear by the less-intrusive-but-less-proven approach.
“I’m very excited,” Wojdylo said. “I’m sick and tired of being sick. I cannot wait to leave.”
She will spend three weeks at the CHIPSA Hospital in Tijuana, from May 15 to June 6, thanks to a GoFundMe campaign that raised $26,000-plus in three weeks, suggesting that a lot of people support alternative medicine.
But the treatment is expensive: $38,000, not including travel costs. So she still has a ways to go to cover the tab. Nevertheless, it costs less than it might in Canada and the U.S. — and she’s encouraged by the support so far.
“I’m so emotional,” Wojdylo said. “I was a basket case for a week. I was bawling. I couldn’t believe how nice people are.”
Besides friends and family, Wojdylo has received support from complete strangers, including from across North America and as far away as Australia.
She has heard from seven people around the world who say CHIPSA helped saved their lives.
So after undergoing traditional treatment here that included chemotherapy, radiation and tamoxifen — all of which made her sick, lose her hair, and feel tired — she will try a smorgasbord of treatment in Mexico.
Some are more accepted than others, such as immunotherapy.
“In the last few decades immunotherapy has become an important part of treating some types of cancer,” reads the American Cancer Society website. “Newer types of immune treatments are now being studied, and they’ll impact how we treat cancer in the future.”
She will also receive insulin potentiation therapy, where insulin helps target cancer cells in what some call low-dose chemotherapy. Invented in 1932, it’s still considered experimental, though a number of facilities claim positive results.
Wojdylo will also undergo vitamin C and K3 treatment. She’ll also try hyperbaric oxygen treatment, and thermotherapy (high-temperature treatment), both of which reportedly kill cancer cells, and even coffee enemas, which are said to remove toxins from the system. Plus, she will experience a lifestyle change, including with a daily mixture of raw juices, and will learn to cook healthy foods.
Finally, the facility offers relaxation techniques, such as yoga and art therapy, and a pool — not to mention Mexican sun.
From an established Canadian perspective, however, these therapies remain largely unproven.
“The big problem is the evidence,” said Dr. Caroline Hamm, an oncologist at Windsor Regional Hospital. “We have evidence around everything we say at the hospital. But if you go down to Mexico, there’s no one overseeing this, saying, ‘What are the trials? What are the benefits? What is the likelihood of response?’
“They can say whatever they want. So maybe it could work. But there’s no proof it’s going to be beneficial.”
Hamm said patients considering alternative medicine should consider everything, including success rates and finances — since such treatment is not covered by Canadian medicare.
“People grab on to ideas, and I so understand it,” said Hamm, who worries about possible false hope. “Nobody wants to die. I just think it’s important that people understand all the ramifications. I don’t know that I have heard anything clear that I would trust coming out of some of the clinics in Mexico.”
Hamm said as an example, it seems like a majority of cancer patients in Windsor have tried dandelion root extract, but most people don’t respond to it. Some do, but limited success hardly makes for a surefire bet.
Besides, Hamm said, approved treatments in Canada have evolved.
“There is a lot of excitement right now in oncology with all the treatments that have become available,” Hamm said. “There are a whole bunch of new immuno-oncology drugs and targeted therapies that are just incredible. And there are virtually no side effects.
“There truly is a revolution of cancer therapy going on.”
Chemotherapy and radiation are also still used because they often work — though they cause nausea, fatigue and hair loss. But anti-nausea drugs are better than ever and, as Hamm says, side-effects of chemo and radiation are better than side-effects of cancer.
Naturopathic doctors say many complementary treatments improve wellness for cancer patients.
“In a case where a patient has actually gone through all the different lines of conventional treatment, it’s understandable that the patient would seek treatment in different jurisdictions or outside the conventional framework,” said Dr. Eric Marsden, a naturopathic doctor involved in government and public relations with the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors. “Where we get really concerned is when patients are trying to avoid conventional treatments.”
Marsden said a few facilities in places like Mexico and Germany provide quality care, but many don’t, so it’s a buyer-beware situation.
He said a number of treatments Wojdylo will undergo have some research behind them, but are not as proven as other methods.
His Marsden Centre in Vaughan, Ont., also provides alternative treatments such as thermotherapy and vitamin C treatments, and promotes healthy living as a way to improve wellness.
“Patients come here and say, ‘I want an alternative,’” he said, adding that patients should always try conventional treatment as well. “My point is, why are we dogmatic? I say most important is treatment that works, whether it’s natural or otherwise.”
In Wojdylo’s case, traditional treatment hasn’t cured her.
To fight breast cancer in 2003 she underwent six chemo and 21 radiation sessions, which was tough but seemed to work. Yet when Wojdylo slipped on church steps in 2015 her world came crashing down with her.
She had just delivered bouquets from the family-owned K. Michael’s Flowers to a wedding.
The crash landing hurt, but not as much as her back did within two days. The pain kept intensifying and soon she could barely walk. It turns out, she fractured a vertebra — missing 90 per cent of the bone because of a tumour.
The breast cancer she thought she beat in 2003 had metastasized to her spine.
She went through five more radiation sessions. It didn’t kill all the rogue cells — though it took its toll on her.
“I felt terrible,” said the Polish-born woman who came to Canada in 1990 speaking no English. “I was tired. I am 47 now and as you age it gets even harder. I had such fatigue.”
So her three adult children support her Mexican journey.
“At this point you might as well do it because there’s nothing that’s really helping here,” her daughter Jessica, 23, said. “So it’s a risk worth taking.”
How hopeful is Wojdylo?
“Oh, 100 per cent,” she said, noting that she watched a video of an American woman in hospice care who went for treatment in Mexico for a brain tumour and left much healthier.
“When I looked at that video it took me a second to make the decision to go.”
To donate to Ilona Wojdylo’s fund-raising campaign for alternative cancer treatment in Mexico, visit her GoFund Me page listed under Ilonaw.