Building a better life in the shadow of death

Can you fight cancer and the medical establishment at the same time? By Jeremy Laurance

When Marina Ricciardi was told she had melanoma, the aggressive form of skin cancer, she decided to take on the medical establishment and use every means, alternative and orthodox, to defeat the disease.

She embarked on an extraordinary odyssey that cost her more than $100,000 (pounds 63,500) in the four years before her death.

Her search for a cure took her to clinics in Mexico, Los Angeles and the Dominican Republic. She tried the Gerson diet, a challenging regime requiring rigorous self-control, in a clinic that charged $500 (pounds 317) a day. At a second clinic, she drank wheatgrass juice until it made her retch.

In January this year, when she was clearly dying, she went to the Institute of Magnetic Therapy in Santa Domingo which charges thousands of dollars for a treatment devised in Russia to destroy the cancer cells with magnetic waves. Her mother, Mirella, said: "If we hadn't had friends, I don't know what we would have done."

From early childhood, Marina was a wilful and opinionated girl. When cancer struck she insisted on taking charge of her own health.

Her mother said: "I was struggling alongside her for four years while she tried to go the alternative route. Now we have lost her I have begun to question so many of the things that we were convinced about. Even she had to admit that she had taken a calculated risk and lost. In one moment she burst out crying `It's not my fault, Mummy, if I'm dying'."

When the small dark mole on her foot was diagnosed as melanoma in 1994, Marina's doctors advised that the lymph nodes in her groin should be removed to reduce the chance of spread. She reluctantly agreed. She was a dancer and musician, living in San Francisco, and feared the effect on her legs, which she had been warned might swell. She was admitted to hospital and prepared for surgery.

But as she was being wheeled towards the operating theatre she leapt off the trolley and ran down the corridor and out of the hospital, crying: "I know I mustn't do this. It's wrong." For Marina, then aged 33, it was beginning of the end.

She was brought up in Kenya, and the family has homes in London and Europe, but she had moved to San Francisco where she had become a Buddhist and joined the alternative movement. She was learning to do healing massage.

By the time her mother arrived to join her at the beginning of her four- year battle against the cancer, she had amassed a vast quantity of information on alternative therapies and treatments.

With her mother, she went to the Gerson Institute in Tijuana, Mexico (it is not licensed to operate in the US) which charged $500 a day. Mirella said: "There are incredible stories of hopeless cases who have been given up by doctors and who have been cured by the Gerson Institute. They boggle the mind. But in order to succeed you have to follow this incredibly difficult diet . If you don't stick to it to the letter for two years, it doesn't work."

Marina stuck it for three months. The diet involved preparing and drinking eight ounces of freshly squeezed juices every hour on the hour and four "horrific" coffee enemas each day, to "de-toxify" the body, plus regular injections of liver extract and hormones.

"She did it as if she was going to war," said her mother. "I have never seen anyone bite the bullet as she did. Then one day she rang me and said: `Mummy, we have licked it.'

"Hospital tests had revealed no sign of the cancer in her blood."

The remission lasted almost a year. Marina visited the family home overlooking the Indian ocean on the Kenyan coast. "She was a completely changed person. She had escaped from the jaws of death. We all began breathing again," her mother recalled.

Marina returned to San Francisco and her life took off. Then, one evening in April 1997, the phone rang in the Ricciardis' Kenya home. Marina had been for a hospital test and the results showed that the cancer had returned: "She was screaming on the phone `Mummy, it's positive.' I will never forget that voice. One year after that phone call she was dead."

Mirella flew once more to San Francisco to support her daughter. Although still committed to the alternative route, Marina's opposition to orthodox treatment weakened as her desperation grew.

She underwent experimental vaccine therapy at the John Wayne Cancer Centre in Los Angeles, and also spent three weeks with her mother at the Institute for Optimum Health in San Diego, where they both drank wheatgrass juice and ate raw food.

Tumours were dug out of the lymph glands in Marina's groin, and X-rays showed that the cancer had spread to her lungs. She reluctantly agreed to undergo chemotherapy, but after the second dose the doctors told her that the treatment was not working.

Her mother Mirella said: "When the cancer returned, it came back with a vengeance. It took off, and devoured her."

By the time she made her final journey, last January to the Institute of Magnetic Therapy in the Dominican Republic, her mother knew it was too late. After three weeks, the institute sent her back to San Francisco and refunded the $10,000 cost of the treatment.

Mirella said: "I got a fax in Africa saying it had failed and she wanted to come back to Kenya to die at home. Then I got another fax saying she couldn't make it. I flew to San Francisco and there I found her covered in tumours. They were everywhere - on her stomach and on her neck. But she never lost her soul. She said to me one day, `My body is collapsing but my spirit is soaring.' But two days later she said: `Mummy, I don't want to go'."

Marina died on 15 March, 1998, having planned her own Hindu funeral and cremation. She gave each member of her family and her friends The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, telling them: "I am just moving on."

From the start of her illness, she had been determined to prove the Western doctors wrong. Although the alternative therapies failed to defeat the cancer, she remained in control of her treatment.

Her sister Amina said: "Marina died with some dignity. It didn't work, but in the end it was not as bad as it might have been."

football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss