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."

Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    C++ Software Developer / Image Processing / 3D Visualisation

    £45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: C++ Software Developer / Image Process...

    Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux

    £30,000 to £40,000: IT Connections Ltd: Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux ...

    Software Development Manager / Java / J2EE

    £45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: Software Development Manager / Java / ...

    Digital Content Manager,Leicester

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Charter Selection: Leading Nationwide and important...

    Day In a Page

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor