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Teen refuses court-ordered test to check cancer status

By ELIZABETH SIMPSON, The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK - Fifteen-year-old Abraham Starchild Cherrix never intended to challenge the medical

Abraham Starchild Cherrix
establishment when he refused chemotherapy earlier this year.

He simply believed the treatment was poisoning him, rather than saving him from Hodgkin's disease. What he wanted was a more natural approach, which he sought through an alternative treatment clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.

That decision has led to a courtroom battle, accusations of parental neglect and the possibility of being removed from his Chincoteague home.

A judge earlier this week ordered Abraham to receive diagnostic tests to determine the status of his disease. On Friday, though, the tall, lanky boy refused to abide by the order. After showing up at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in a crisp white shirt and blue tie, he rejected the test.

"I think my body has taken enough, and it shouldn't have to take any more," he said.

Abraham's case has brought into public view some difficult questions: What are parents' - and more expressly, children's - rights in choosing medical treatment? When is alternative medicine helpful or harmful? And who has the right to intervene when the answers to such questions are in dispute?

Abraham was diagnosed with the lymphatic cancer late last summer and went through a three-month round of chemotherapy at the hospital, traveling back and forth with his father from their home on the Eastern Shore.

In February, tests showed that the cancer was still active. Doctors said the boy needed more chemo, and radiation therapy to attack tumors in his chest and neck.

That's when Abraham dug in his heels. He and his father did some research and decided to try a treatment in Tijuana that includes an organic diet and herbal supplements. Soon after, his case was reported to a child-abuse investigator at the Accomack County Department of Social Services, who asked a judge to order that the teen continue conventional treatment.

At a Tuesday hearing, Judge Jesse E. Demps ordered tests to see whether Abraham's cancer had worsened. He also filed a temporary order saying the parents had "neglected or refused to provide necessary treatment" for the boy. He ordered that joint custody be shared between the parents and Social Services to ensure proper care.

Abraham's parents, Jay and Rose Cherrix, accompanied their son to CHKD on Friday. They already knew that Abraham was going to refuse to comply with the court order.

Abraham said the judge had indicated at the Tuesday hearing that he would order the "least intrusive" tests possible. The court order the Cherrix family received Thursday, though, said Abraham was to receive "any diagnostic testing that doctors feel is necessary."

Abraham does not want to be exposed to the radiation of a CT scan, which takes multiple X-ray images of the body. He met with CHKD oncologist Rebecca Byrd for 10 minutes Friday to tell her, then left the hospital.

Representatives of Social Services in Accomack County declined to comment on the case, as did an attorney who has been appointed to represent Abraham's best interests . CHKD also declined to comment and cited federal privacy guidelines.

Abraham said he realizes that he could be removed from his parents' custody, but it is a risk he is willing to take. "I know my family will fight to get me back," he said.

Jay Cherrix said the Accomack County social worker told him the judge could award full custody to Social Services.

The parents said that would jeopardize their son's health because it would disrupt his current treatment.

"It's a natural method, so you have to give it time to get into their system," Rose Cherrix said.

Dr. Lawrence Rosen, a New Jersey pediatrician who has studied alternative medicine, said such treatments have increased rapidly in the past decade, in part because of the Internet, where many people find out about them.

However, people " do not usually use them in a way that rejects conventional medicine," said Rosen, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Complementary, Holistic and Integrative Medicine committee.

Typically, he said, patients might try "complementary" therapies, so-called because they are in addition to conventional treatments. For example, aroma therapy and ginger are increasingly common accompaniments to chemotherapy. Both are thought to help quell nausea.

Rosen said cancer is one of the conditions for which people most often seek alternative treatment, because of the seriousness of the disease and the side effects of conventional treatment.

Dr. Biral Amin, a radiation oncologist who practices with Oncology Associates of Virginia in Hampton Roads, said conventional cancer treatments can have severe side effects and carry long-term risks, including heart ailments, bone-growth problems and other types of cancer.

Those treatments also are highly successful in beating Hodgkin's - better than 80 percent - depending on the stage at which the cancer is detected, so most patients he deals with are easily persuaded to go forward with conventional methods.

Although it's unusual for cases to land in court, it's not unheard of. For instance, in Texas, a 12-year-old girl named Katie Wernecke was removed from her parents' custody last year when they chose an alternative treatment instead of radiation to address her Hodgkin's disease.

In that case, she was returned to her parents after five months. According to a Web log established by her family, she now is receiving alternative treatment in an undisclosed clinic.

Rosen said health care providers have a responsibility to report such instances to social services agencies when they think a treatment, or lack of one, could harm a child.

Because the identities of people who report medical neglect are protected by law, the Cherrix family was not told who reported them to Social Services. However, they think it was either the hospital or the CHKD oncologist they were seeing.

The family's first contact with the hospital came late last summer.

Abraham, who is home-schooled along with his four siblings, had felt tired for several months. Late in the summer, he felt a knot on his neck. A local doctor gave him an exam and referred him to CHKD for more tests.

The tests showed he had Hodgkin's disease and that a tumor was pressing against his windpipe.

Within days, he started chemotherapy.

"It's so devastating, you agree to almost anything because you are afraid," said Jay Cherrix, who runs a kayaking expedition business on Chincoteague Island. "I thought if he did not have chemo, he would die."

Abraham wanted to try something called the "Hallelujah Acres" approach, which is a Bible-based diet approach to illnesses. "But I don't think I have time," he told his father.

He started chemo in September. He became violently ill after the treatment, rising many times during the night to vomit. He lost his hair. Veins in his arm hardened from the insertion of needles. "It was the worst I ever felt," Abraham said.

The first round ended in December, according to the Cherrixes, and pushed the cancer into remission. Then tests in February showed the presence of active cancer cells, so more chemotherapy was recommended, along with radiation therapy to attack the tumors.

When Abraham went to see the oncology radiologist, he was put off by the risks involved in such treatment. Father and son explored other methods through the Association for Research and Enlightenment, a Virginia Beach-based center founded in 1931 by Christian psychic Edgar Cayce.

They read an article about a man who said he was cured of Hodgkin's through a treatment known as the Hoxsey method at the Bio-Medical Center in Tijuana.

Abraham signed on for treatment during a spring visit to the clinic and now eats only organic food, mostly vegetables. He doesn't eat refined sugars or processed substances. He takes supplements that Jay Cherrix says are natural sources of some of the same chemicals used in chemotherapy. The family has planned to return to the clinic, which re ports an 80 percent cure rate, this summer for a checkup.

In the time between the end of chemotherapy in December and April, the lump on Abraham's neck did get bigger, but the family thinks that's because the new treatment has not yet taken effect. His parents said the growth hasn't gotten bigger in the past two weeks.

"Abraham said that God has told him this is his test," Jay Cherrix said. "I think that, too."

Source Hamptonroads.com

Last Updated ( May 27, 2006 at 03:54 PM )