Should He Be Forced to Have Chemo?

updated 08/21/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/2006 01:00AM

Starchild Abraham Cherrix learned the hard way about the side effects of cancer treatment. Diagnosed last August with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph system, Cherrix, 16, endured three months of chemotherapy, each session leaving him feverish, aching, nauseated and so weak that his dad sometimes had to carry him. His 5′11″ frame dropped from 156 lbs. to just 122. "It nearly killed me," says Cherrix.

It also worked. By December, Cherrix's cancer was in remission. His doctor recommended a course of radiation as follow-up. But Cherrix and his parents—Jay, 61, and Rose, 46—said no. Even in February when tests showed his cancer had returned, Abraham (as he is called) passed up chemo and radiation, opting for an alternative treatment of herbal supplements and an organic diet. "I did my research," says Abraham, whose parents run a kayak business in Chincoteague, Va. "I believe alternative medicine is the cure."

Not everyone agrees. After being tipped off by Cherrix's oncologist, the Accomack County Department of Social Services accused Rose and Jay Cherrix of medical neglect. A judge granted the department temporary joint custody with the Cherrixes—and sparked a nationwide debate over whether teenagers should be able to make their own health decisions, even when they go against conventional wisdom. "I know how deadly this disease is," says Dr. Cindy Schwartz, an authority on Hodgkin's (who hasn't treated Cherrix). "But should this young man be forced to undergo treatment?"

The Cherrixes think not. "Abraham is capable of speaking for himself," says Rose. And many medical ethics experts concur. Dr. Eric Kodish, a bioethicist at the Cleveland Clinic, says Abraham "should be treated like an adult—and adults get to make their own decisions." Adds the parents' lawyer John Stepanovich: "These are not neglectful parents; they're model parents."

Devout Christians, Jay and Rose Cherrix homeschool four younger children and Abraham, whom she calls "the technical one," who writes computer code and memorizes star charts. "Give him a book and he'll go for it," Rose says.

Last July Abraham felt a lump in his neck that his father first thought came from a muscle strain. When he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's, pediatric oncologist Rebecca Byrd of Norfolk prescribed chemotherapy. After the cancer returned, Jay traveled in March with Abraham to a Tijuana, Mexico, clinic that follows the methods of Harry Hoxsey, a controversial figure who advocated alternative herbal treatments. The clinic prescribed a natural-food diet and the supplements Abraham takes four times daily. "I'm not a spokesman for alternative medicine," says Jay, "just a parent trying to wrestle with this enemy."

Medical experts say the odds are way against Abraham. There is no scientific documentation of cancer cured by the Hoxsey method, says the American Cancer Society. With early detection and conventional treatment of chemo and radiation, up to 95 percent of Hodgkin's patients live at least five years; without any treatment at all, none survive, according to oncologist Schwartz. The survival rate after a relapse varies according to treatment but does not go above 50 percent, experts say.

Still, every patient responds differently to treatment. If Abraham were over 18, no one could legally question his treatment choices. On July 21 a juvenile-court judge ordered the family to bring their son to a hospital for testing and treatment—but four days later a circuit-court judge reversed the order and set a trial for Aug. 16.

Despite tumors in his neck and chest, Abraham is focused on recovery. Does he worry what might happen if his treatment fails? "You can't think about dying when you're trying to get well," he says. "You've got to live life to its fullest."

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