One loving family and a lethal divide: Sam, 25, and dying of a brain tumour insists faith healing can cure him. His cancer-consultant father is desperate for him to trust doctors
11:19 GMT, 14 December 2012
In a week where a mother Sally Roberts triggered a national search after she ran away with her seven-year-old son Neon to stop him having radiotherapy, a family faced with the same dilemma have spoken out about their own battle to get their 25-year-old son to accept treatment.
Blood cancer specialist Martin Dyer, his wife Sally Ann, a former nurse, and their son Sam, who has an inoperable brain tumour, give their own accounts on the very different therapies they hope will prolong his life.
Professor Martin Dyer and his family can remember the precise second when their normal family life ended.
‘It was 12.23pm on January 29, 2010,’ he says, each digit scorched into his memory. ‘I can still hear the consultant’s voice as he began: “There’s no easy way of saying this …”’
Martin, his wife Sally Ann and their son Sam were in a neurosurgeon’s office at the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham, braced for the results of Sam’s biopsy test.
They were expecting good news. It didn’t come.
Professor Martin, his wife Sally Ann and their son Sam, remember the precise second when their normal family life ended. It was when Sam (centre) was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour
Sam, pictured here in hospital, has an inoperable, slow-growing tumour in his brain
But Sam, 25, pictured here cuddling mother Sally Ann, has refused treatment
Sam, 22, had what the consultant termed ‘a grade-three anaplastic asterocytoma’, words that would bewilder and terrify most people.
But Martin and Sally Ann knew only too well what they meant.
In a cruel stroke of irony, the neurosurgeon’s preamble was one that Martin had used countless times himself, to many white-faced, terrified families over the years.
As the professor of haemato-oncology (blood cancer) at Leicester Royal Infirmary, he has dedicated his career to treating cancer patients and researching a cure for leukaemia and lymphoma.
Sally Ann, a former nurse, also understood the grim reality of the situation.
Their son Sam — handsome, gifted and much-loved — had an inoperable, slow-growing tumour in his brain.
Martin recalls: ‘Sally Ann and I could not look at each other. Sam was confused by the medical terminology, but we both knew immediately what was meant.’
Their precious child was dying.
What happened next should have followed a set, medically recognised pattern.
Sam would undergo radiotherapy followed by chemotherapy in a bid to halt the growth of the tumour and buy him precious time.
But, as the recent case of seven-year-old cancer patient Neon Roberts has shown, when a young life is threatened, people react in desperate and sometimes unfathomable ways.
Fear, grief and grasping on to snippets of hope can lead people down paths that divide families.
Neon, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, too, and had undergone an operation to remove it, was taken on the run by his mother Sally.
She was terrified of him having follow-up radiotherapy, and wanted homeopathic treatment instead.
Their case deeply affected the Dyers. Just like Sally, Sam has railed against traditional medicine — saying that his parents ‘bullied’ him into the one course of radiotherapy he received.
He has since refused all further hospital treatment, causing his helpless parents terrible anxiety.
Sam, a keen drummer, pictured here with his drum sticks in happier times during a family holiday to California
Sam as a toddler during a family picnic. Doctors are unable to operate
Even if he started having radiotherapy now, it would be too late. His tumour is too far advanced, and doctors say he will be dead before he is 30.
It is impossible to say whether more radiotherapy at an earlier stage would have increased his lifespan — but on average, it cures 40 per cent of all cancer sufferers.
Radiotherapy is widely acknowledged as the most effective form of treatment after surgery. The effects of alternative medicines, meanwhile, remain utterly unproven.
His father told the Mail this week: ‘None of these so-called alternative treatments will work. They won’t save my son and they won’t save Neon either.
'They provide false hope, and some treatments can be downright dangerous. For most patients, the best chance of survival lies with the treatment doctors have mapped out for them.’
Despite his parents’ views, Sam remains convinced he has done the right thing. More than that, he believes alternative medicine will save his life.
‘My parents have the best of intentions for me,’ he says. ‘But it felt like I had to take their feelings into consideration before my own health.
‘Of course, they didn’t want me to die, and my having radiotherapy would give them hope, even though I don’t think it was the best course of treatment for me. They were loving and supportive, but I felt they were misguided.’
He adds: ‘We are all blinded by emotion when it comes to cancer — but my parents and I have always been at odds about how I am as a person.
They have never fully understood me, although I know they love me dearly. And there is an added dimension in that my father is a doctor, which does make it harder. He is a very good man and a smart man but I always knew that conventional treatments were not the right thing for me.
‘Radiotherapy is like a nuclear bomb, it just wipes everything out in the affected area. It’s not surprising that Sally Roberts was pushed over the edge when she was told — rather insensitively — that her son’s brains would be fried.’
Sam spent the afternoon in his mother Sally Ann's arms after his diagnosis. She said her son's 'life and future were being stolen from him, and neither of us could save him'
Martin Dyer, a professor of blood cancer, comforts his son on the day of diagnosis
To date, Sam has spent an estimated 10,000 on alternative cures including, most controversially, cannabis oil, which is illegal in the UK.
His intensive cannabis-oil therapy took place during a two-month stay in Canada last year.
He ate the sticky honey-coloured oil — made from the resin of the cannabis plant — at every meal, usually on bread.
The oil is legal in Canada and easily accessible.
Sam is convinced the therapy will save his life — but his parents believe it will do no good at all.
They can only stand back and watch in quiet resignation as Sam, now 25, pins all his hopes on unconventional therapies.
Although Professor Dyer admits that, sadly, there is nothing conventional medicine can now do for Sam, he believes the one course of radiotherapy is responsible for a slight shrinkage of the tumour, and is giving Sam a small extra lease of life.
Sam disagrees. In a show of defiance — which in many ways is admirable — he resolutely refuses to accept he is going to die, and has much empathy with Neon’s mother.
‘This little boy’s mum only wants the best for her child, and I believe some alternative therapies can work,’ he says.
‘My tumour has shrunk from 14cm to 12cm. It’s just sitting there now, asleep. I feel there is a good chance I could recover. If I had not taken these alternative cures, I believe I would be dead now.’
Before Sam became unwell in March 2009, the Dyers enjoyed an idyllic existence in their rambling six-bedroom home in Leicestershire.
The couple also have a daughter Becca, 28, who is a talented artist and musician.
Sam, a gifted drummer and pianist, dropped out of a music degree at Thames Valley University in 2008.
He says it was due to depression and personality clashes with his flatmates, but those close to him wonder if his moods were affected by the tumour.
A year later, he started experiencing double vision, then a year after that a twitch in his right eye.
An MRI scan revealed a 14cm mass in his brain but doctors suspected it was a rare inflammation called ADEM (acute disseminated encephalomyelitis), as it was considered too large to be a tumour.
For ten months Sam was treated with steroids then, in January 2010, a valve was fitted to relieve pressure in his brain. During this procedure a biopsy was taken.
The shocking truth was then revealed: the mass was indeed a tumour, one so large and deeply embedded that it could not be surgically removed without killing Sam or leaving him severely disabled.
Sally Ann remembers watching helplessly as her beloved son blanched and slumped forward with his head in his hands after his death sentence was read out nearly two years ago.
‘When we asked how long he had, we were told a matter of years — maybe three to five,’ says Sally Ann.
Sam spent the afternoon in his mother’s arms. She recalls: ‘I was calm, telling him we could cope, but I could not promise he was going to be all right. I felt so guilty. His life and future were being stolen from him, and neither of us could save him.
‘I felt as if every securing rope had been cut and I was in free-fall without a parachute. Or that I had somehow wandered off the map into uncharted territory, with no compass and no way back.’
Sam, too, has very clear memories of that afternoon. But unlike his parents, his attitude was one of belligerence and fury. ‘I’d been given a death sentence but I remained utterly stoic,’ he says. ‘A survival mechanism kicked in. I thought: “No way am I dying, I am refusing to allow that!”
‘The diagnosis angered me — the gall of telling me I was going to die in a few years was absolutely astounding. I’ve got too much to do. I spend every day thinking about how I want my life to proceed, and I have found answers that work.’
Martin, meanwhile, says his own instinct was to fight for his son’s life with science as his weapon.
A five year old Sam with his mother. Before he was diagnosed in March 2009, the Dyers enjoyed an idyllic existence
He wanted to halt his research and divert his energy to seeking advice from specialist colleagues so that he could bombard the disease with all the intelligence and contacts at his disposal.
But Sam didn’t want that.
Martin recalls: ‘He told me, “You are not my doctor, you are my father.’ Sam began to trawl the internet for alternative cures.
As well as cannabis oil, he has taken sodium declorate acetate, a powdered drug commonly known as DCA.
Although not illegal, its use is controversial as it still has to undergo human clinical trials. In trials on rats, it was found to shrink tumours.
He has also followed a so-called ‘anti-cancer’ diet devised by the late German biochemist Dr Johanna Budwig, who claimed she could shrink tumours in some patients.
The diet requires followers to eat a special muesli twice a day containing flaxseed oil and cottage cheese.
In addition, Sam, who is not religious, has visited spiritual healers for ‘laying on of hands’, a symbolic practice said to invoke the Holy Spirit into sufferers’ bodies.
Sam on his 24th birthday. He has tried a raft of 'alternative therapies', including cannabis oil and faith healing
He believes this has been of enormous benefit — but it is anathema to a man of science like his father.
Understandably, there has been conflict between Sam and his parents, who are devout Christians.
Naturally, they wanted to do everything they could to prolong his life and were worried about him trying distrusted or illegal drugs from the internet or elsewhere.
Sam, currently setting up a web-based business, knows his dad’s views on his alternative treatments but stands by them. ‘I believe that cannabis can cure cancer and if the anecdotal evidence is correct, seven out of ten people who have tried it say it worked for them,’ he says.
‘I know my medical viewpoint is vastly different to my dad’s, who is probably thinking: “OK, you keep fooling yourself,” but there are videos of people online saying it has cured their cancer.’
Although Martin is sympathetic and tries to comprehend what Sam must be thinking, he cannot agree with his son’s views. The halting of the tumour’s progress, he says, is down to luck — and possibly the course of radiotherapy.
Sally Roberts on Daybreak to explain why she went on the run with her son Neon, 7, to stop him having radiotherapy for cancer. Sam Dyer says he understands her reasons
‘Naturally, I want him here with us for as long as possible, but his being here has nothing to do with alternative therapies,’ Martin says.
‘He is fortunate that some things he has tried have not made it worse, and I am well aware that many of my own cancer patients are trying alternative therapies behind my back, too.’
Some of the therapies he sees peddled at desperate people, make him furious. ‘The Budwig Diet is complete rubbish,’ he says. ‘If you do it fully you’ll spend thousands of pounds with no benefit whatsoever. Spiritual healing is also complete rubbish and you can be ripped off. There are charlatans out there.’
Sam and his family can only quietly agree to disagree as each finds their own way of dealing with this terrible situation.
Despite their differences they remain a loving, close family, united in their determination to savour the time they have left together. Martin says: ‘I don’t condone what he does but he’s an adult and he’s my son. I love him very much.
‘I am so very happy that he is still relatively well — but no conventional treatment I am aware of will cure his terminal illness now. I can just hope for a miracle. But that miracle will come via conventional medicine, not the alternative route.’
Sally Ann agrees. ‘No one wants to face their mortality, and even less their child’s, and there is a lot of denial and “hoping for the best” that goes on.
‘Sam hasn’t lived his life yet. He doesn’t want to die. But all we can do now is surround him with love and give him the best life we can — while we’ve still got him.’