By David Holland, MD
I recently spoke with a nurse who was diagnosed, as an adult, with leukemia. She endured the chemotherapy regimen her doctors prescribed, only to suffer from a secondary fungal infection during that time. The intensity and duration of the antifungal treatment rivaled that of the chemotherapy. At any rate, she recovered from both afflictions and went back to work.
Later, as a result of another workup -- which included a liver biopsy -- for some returning symptoms she had, bad news was again brought up. "Your leukemia has returned," her oncologist told her, and he proceeded to lay out the next line of chemotherapy drugs she would have to take.
Given that her chances of dying were much higher now that her cancer had returned, she opted to get a second opinion on her biopsy before proceeding with her next round of chemotherapy. She took her tissue sample to another hospital, and what she was told there was absolutely stunning: "You don't have leukemia," remarked the pathologist, "what you have is a fungal infection!"
The scenario that her doctors figured was that her previous fungal infection had returned -- a total possibility. But for this nurse, more questions were raised. She thought, for example, "If they diagnosed my fungal infection as leukemia this time, is it possible that they were wrong the FIRST time? Was my leukemia really a fungal infection to begin with, and was my so-called 'secondary' fungal infection I had earlier really a full-blown manifestation of what originally might have looked like leukemia?"
Of course, she would never get answers to these questions, for to fully investigate thoughts like these might imply that a diagnostic error was made on the part of either her initial oncologist or pathologist.
Nevertheless, an intense six months later -- some of it spent in the hospital -- of high-dose, powerful antifungals finally achieved a cure for her fungal infection. Today, she is again back at work, exuding more than ever with compassion for her patients. It really struck me when she told me where she works, because in her case, her occupation may very well relate to what she had suffered over the past two years. It turns out that she works at a bone-marrow transplant center, and is in daily contact with children with leukemia.
Now, the thought of her "acquiring" something as grave as leukemia would almost be preposterous to some. But the temptation to scratch our heads and wonder about this is unbearable. What if she really did have a fungal infection -- and NOT leukemia -- her first time around? And if so, did she "catch" this from her precious little patients?
Fungal infections not only can be extremely contagious, but they also go hand in hand with leukemia -- every oncologist knows this. And these infections are devastating: once a child who has become a bone marrow transplant recipient gets a "secondary" fungal infection, his chances of living, despite all the antifungals in the world, are only 20%, at best.
And then the unthinkable thought arises: what if all of these children didn't even have leukemia, but rather a fungal infection, just as this nurse did? If doctors, in the 21st century, could mistake a fungal infection for leukemia in this nurse, could the same fate have fallen upon these children?
Doctors in general are not very good at diagnosing fungal infections because their medical school training is based so heavily on the role of bacteria and viruses in the area of infectious diseases. Fungi have been a forgotten foe ever since the advent of antibiotics. Once we had a drug that could kill bacteria, the interest in and the study of fungi fell to the wayside.
Laboratories display the same difficulty in diagnosing fungal infections: current tests for detecting the presence of fungi are both terribly scant and sorely antiquated.
Despite these training and technical inadequacies, there have been at least a few good reports that implicate the role of fungi in causing leukemia.
For example, in 1999 Meinolf Karthaus, MD, watched three different children with leukemia suddenly go into remission upon receiving a triple antifungal drug cocktail for their "secondary" fungal infections.(1)
Pre-dating that, Mark Bielski stated back in 1997 that leukemia, whether acute or chronic, is intimately associated with the yeast, Candida albicans. (2)
Finally, almost 50 years ago, Dr. J. Walter Wilson, in his textbook of clinical mycology, said that "it has been established that histoplasmosis and such reticuloendothelioses as leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, lymphosarcoma, and sarcoidosis are found to be coexistent much more frequently than is statistically justifiable on the basis of coincidence." (3)
Histoplasmosis is what we call an "endemic" fungal infection. It is most commonly acquired in regions surrounding the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys in the United States. One becomes ill by merely inhaling the tiny fungal spores of this fungus. Three similar reports like this over the span of 40 years should convince us to at least study the role of fungi in cancers like leukemia a little more thoroughly.
The late Milton White, MD., did exactly this. He fully believed that cancer is a "chronic, intracellular, infectious, biologically induced spore (fungus) transformation disease." (4) Using the proper isolation techniques (involving saline instead of formaldehyde as a tissue transportation medium between the operating room and the pathology lab), he was able to find fungal spores in every sample of cancer tissue he studied. His lifetime work has been routinely dismissed as nothing more than an unproven postulate.
Regardless, wouldn't you expect all of this information to make front-page headlines in every newspaper across the country, if not the world? Instead, every one of these findings was merely a brief mention -- only curious thoughts that one might entertain but never take seriously.
The fact is, if leukemia and fungal infections "co-exist" so frequently, and if an antifungal drug cocktail effectively cured at least these three children of their leukemia, then I say we put the brakes on right there. Is there a need to go any farther, except to more deeply investigate the need for antifungals in treating leukemia and not just the secondary infections that arise in the course of chemotherapy?
In his book, The Germ that Causes Cancer, author and television host Doug Kaufmann asserts that not only fungi, but also foods play a role in the etiology of cancer. He has seen children become free of their documented leukemia once the child's parents simply changed the child's diet. Kaufmann's diet is base on the widely-published problem of mycotoxin contamination of our grain foods.
Grains such as corn, wheat, barley, sorghum, and other foods such as peanuts, are commonly contaminated with cancer-causing fungal poisons, or "mycotoxins." (5,6) One of them, called aflatoxin, just happens to be the most carcinogenic substance on earth. If this is indeed a problem, Kaufmann asserts, then cereal for breakfast and soda pop for dinner may not be conducive to a cancer-free lifestyle.
A case in point: in a grain-based diet, we consume, on average, from 0.15mg to 0.5mg of aflatoxin per day. (7) Further, he states, it is not the sugar alone that is the problem in our western diet, but the fungal toxins that are found in the sugary grains. More than once has Kaufmann interviewed a caller (on his health talk show) who absolutely craved peanut butter and popcorn just prior to their diagnosis of cancer.
Fungi are such a nuisance in carbohydrate foods in particular because fungi need carbohydrates to thrive. Therefore, it is rarer to see fungal contamination problems in foods like vegetables and high-protein foods.
Kaufmann goes on further to explain how even antibiotics may play a role in the disease process. Antibiotics destroy the normal, protective gut bacteria, allowing intestinal yeast and fungi to grow unchecked. These internal, gut yeast make toxins, too. This can lead to immune suppression, symptoms of any autoimmune disease, or even cancer. "If the onset of any symptom or disease- cancer included- was preceded by a course of antibiotics," he maintains, "then look for a fungus to be at the root of your problem."
David Holland, MD
Co-author, The Fungus Link, Infectious Diabetes.
20 May 2003
1. Karthaus, M. Treatment of fungal infections led to leukemia remissions. Sept. 28, 1999
2. Bielski: Boyd, W. Introduction to medical science. 1937. Lea & Febiger. Philadelphia, PA.
3. Wilson, J.W. Clinical and immunological aspects of fungus diseases. 1957. Charles C. Thomas. Springfield, IL.
4. White, M.W. Medical Hypotheses. 1996;47,35-38
5. Mycotoxins: Risks in Plant, Animal, and Human Systems. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. Task Force Report No. 139. Jan 2003. Ames, IA.
6. Etzel, R.A. Mycotoxins. Jan 23, 2002. 387(4). Journal of the American Medical Association
7. Cheeke, P.R. Natural toxicant in feeds, forages, and poisonous plansts. 1998. Interstate Publishers, Inc. Danville, IL.