My friend was 29 when she found out she had cancer. It had started in her pancreas and quickly spread everywhere: liver, lungs, lymph nodes, and womb. Like almost anyone sentenced to death at 29, she looked around desperately for some promise of hope. That promise came in the form of tong ren–a form of alternative medicine developed recently by a self-professed healer named Tom Tam. While every medical doctor told my friend that she had months or, at best, a year to live, Tom Tam looked my friend in the eye and told her, “Stage four cancer is no big deal.” She believed him–and spent the last year of her life sinking thousands of dollars into tong ren, in hopes that her disease might actually be “no big deal.”
When I talked to my friend on the phone a month after her diagnosis–her voice pained and exhausted by the cancer spreading so rapidly through her body–she explained to me how tong ren works. In short, it involves a combination of voodoo-doll witchcraft and the sort of “energy healing” used in acupuncture and reiki. As tong ren’s founder, Tom Tam, explains in deliberate pseudoscientific jargon on his website, his patients use magnetic hammers to hit bronze dolls in the areas affected by illness. The patients are instructed to strike the dolls at the acupuncture meridians that are theoretically connected to their disease, and–through some form of presumed magic–the healing effects are supposed to transfer to their own bodies.
“I’m a skeptic and a scientist,” my friend had said weakly to me about tong ren, “But I promise you, it works. I can’t explain it, but it works.” It’s no wonder she felt that way. People in desperate situations will turn to absolutely anything that promises relief from the pain of their disease and the terror of dying young. Furthermore, almost any meditation technique that enables relaxation has been proven to alleviate symptoms of pain and anxiety among cancer patients. The ACS actually recommends meditation as an adjunct treatment for cancer. I’m sure that the relief my friend got from tong ren was very real–but I’m also sure she could have gotten it by meditating at home instead of by paying thousands of dollars to hit a bronze voodoo doll with a magnetic hammer.
Tom Tam sucked my friend’s resources dry as she lay dying of cancer. He told her not only that he could cure her cancer, which was “no big deal” as long as she kept coming to sessions, but also that he could use his voodoo-doll acupuncture to treat AIDS, multiple sclerosis, obesity, depression, and thyroid disease, and more. He told his “patients” that it could work for pets as well as people, and that he had never seen a case in which tong ren didn’t work–unless the patient simply didn’t have enough “intent” or faith when whacking voodoo dolls with hammers. While I’m sure that tong ren has helped many vey sick people cope with depression, anxiety, helplessness, and pain–in the way that any form of meditation can–I find it sickening, and even criminal, that he actually claimed his techniques could cure terminal diseases.
Not surprisingly, there isn’t a single scientific, rational study examining the effects of tong ren. No placebo-controlled clinical trials, no well-documented case reports, no double-blind tests, no vivisection of animals. Instead, Tom Tam’s “evidence” that tong ren works lies in his dedicated followers. They fall, almost unanimously, to confirmation bias: patients who were told they have three months to live determined, after living four months, that tong ren was the reason. Patients who experienced predictable pain relief from the meditative effects of tong ren attributed it to the technique itself, rather than the relaxation and peace of mind it offered. These testimonials have drawn hundreds of new patients to tong ren, where they dish out thousands of dollars for a form of “medicine” so laughably implausible that only the desperately ill would take it seriously.
My friend put up a very brave fight against her cancer. She went through chemotherapy three times. She drank human breast milk to support her body’s defenses against cancer. She ate a strict macrobiotic diet. She exercised as much as her body could possibly allow it. She used a variety of herbal supplements that her doctor approved. But, a year after her diagnosis, she surrendered to cancer. Her mother sang her to sleep and her sister held her hand as she passed away at thirty years of age. The disease, which Tom Tam had so flippantly said was “no big deal,” claimed her life.
I know that my friend’s life was prolonged by her use of complementary alternative medicine. The ginger she used to cope with chemotherapy-related nausea likely helped, according to the ACS. I’ve written about how hopeful I was that breast milk, although experimental, might have helped her struggle. Macrobiotic diets and exercise have long been known to boost defenses against cancer. And, of course, the meditation involved in tong ren was likely useful, too. I don’t oppose complementary medicine, but I do oppose Tom Tam’s crude, quacky, and exploitative insistence on promoting a method with no scientific basis. There is no reason to believe that tong ren can cure any disease. Anyone seeking complementary treatment for cancer should avoid Tom Tam’s techniques and instead seek help from more reputable practitioners.