Alternative Cancer Treatment Works for Billy Best
A decade ago, Billy was on a different mission. On October 26, 1994, the 16-year-old cancer patient pulled his backpack out from under his bed and tucked his skateboard under his arm. His father was in the basement and his mother was not home. Quietly, he walked out the door of his family’s home in Norwell, Massachusetts, hopped onto his skateboard, and skated away.
Since July of that year, Billy had been treated for Hodgkin’s disease at the famed Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Each week, he received chemotherapy. Each week, he became sicker, weaker. To his mind, this was not the way to be healed. Like a prisoner waiting for the right moment to break away, Billy began selling some of his belongings: a video here, a stereo there, skateboard parts. Whatever he thought his friends might want to buy, he sold. Soon he had several hundred dollars. And a plan.
Billy knew he was dying. His aunt Judy had recently died of breast cancer. He had watched her go through the same treatments, get just as sick, grow just as weak, and then she died. So he thought that if he could get to California, where he once lived with his parents, he’d be happy. He thought that if he could watch the sun set and then go to sleep, what could be better than that? That was how he pictured himself dying. So he kept this backpack under his bed. He had four pairs of shoes in there. Of course, he would take his skateboard, the heart of his life. But he thought he might end up having to skateboard across the country, which made him think he would need a lot of shoes. He kept the money hidden. Maybe he had enough for a bus ticket to California. He wasn’t sure.
That October morning, he got to the bus station in Boston and found he didn’t have enough money for California, so instead he bought a one-way ticket to Lake Charles, Louisiana. He thought it sounded like it would be a pretty place. Once on the bus, a feeling of intense peace came over him, as if nothing could touch him now. He was safe. No more treatments. No more being sick. He stashed his skateboard overhead, put on his headphones, sat back in the seat, and let the music roll.
When the bus arrived in Lake Charles, Billy saw it was a big industrial place, not what he’d expected. So for another 20 bucks, he bought a ticket to Houston. That seemed like a good place–at least it was warm. Once there, he put his stuff into a bus-station locker and took off on his board. Soon he met some kids, skating. He told them he’d fought with his parents and run away. That’s pretty much what he told everyone, even though it hurt him to say it. He loved his parents and already missed them and his sister, Jenny. But even that couldn’t change what he’d been through. He had begged not to continue the treatments, but his parents were firm: No, you have to do what the doctors say because it’s the best thing there is. Your only chance is to do what they say. So it wasn’t any use talking to them. They didn’t understand. He just wanted to be free, to skate, to die without feeling so sick.
Every day in Houston he felt stronger. The boys he met had a kind of a clubhouse in a storage locker they had broken into. They had outfitted it with some old furniture plucked from a trash bin, and, since there wasn’t any electricity, they used candles for light. They let him sleep there. During the day they skated all over Houston. At night he often went home with one or another of them and they fed him. A week went by. One night, they were over at a boy named Pat’s house. Pat’s father was in the living room, watching TV. Suddenly he shouted, “Hey, you guys, get in here. Billy’s on television!” There was Billy’s mom on the screen, crying and saying, “Billy, just call us!”
Billy ran out the door and onto the street. He put on sunglasses and put the hood up on his sweatshirt and ran. He called his mother from a pay phone and told her he was all right but that he wasn’t coming home–not ever–if it meant he had to go back to the hospital. Then he ran again. People looked for him at the storage locker because the word was out that the boys were hiding him there. He found another boy to stay with. He lay low.
At home, Billy’s parents, Sue and Bill Best, were besieged by reporters. Billy phoned from time to time, never revealing where he was. They didn’t tell him about the media circus that had pitched its tent on their lawn. They were afraid that would give Billy–such a private boy–one more reason not to come home. Finally, they promised him that if he came home, he would not have to go back to the hospital. Using money donated by a sympathetic observer, Billy flew home, almost a month after he had left on that Greyhound bus. A visit to Dana-Farber revealed that his cancer had worsened. The Bests told reporters they had promised Billy he would not have to resume chemotherapy. They said they would research alternative treatments.
People who had toughed it out on the chemo and won the battle had watched Billy’s drama unfold on television and in the newspapers. They wrote to Billy, telling him to hang in there, that it’s worth it. Others wrote about alternative treatments. Everyone who wrote maintained that the method they had tried had worked for them. For Sue and Bill Best, it was very confusing. They were also under a lot of pressure. When they told Dana-Farber they planned to seek alternatives and stop Billy’s treatments, the hospital reported them to the state’s Department of Social Services.
But the Bests knew that if they forced Billy to return to Dana-Farber he would run away again. They loved Billy, a boy they had adopted at birth. The Bests were religious and prayed for the solution to come to them. They prayed and they studied. In all the information they were sent, two possibilities kept coming up. Both originated in Canada. One of them was a tea called Essiac. The other was 714X, which promoted itself as a “nontoxic treatment for cancer and other immune deficiencies.”
While the authorities investigated the possibility of putting Billy into foster care so he could resume treatment at Dana-Farber, Billy and his father went to Canada to meet with Gaston Naessens, the biologist who developed 714X, and find out about these intriguing treatments. “I was here alone,” Sue recalls. “I was scared that I might be arrested. Nothing like that had ever happened to me in my life. Since then, we have heard of kids who were forced to take chemo or else the child would be removed [from the home].”
The publicity that surrounded Billy at the time seemed to dim the state’s desire to get involved with Billy’s case. “I think they would have looked pretty bad and they knew it,” Sue says. “But if Billy hadn’t run away, he might have had to stay on the chemo, and I wonder where he would be today. That stuff is poison–even the doctors tell you that.”
In January 1995, Billy began a daily regimen of drinking 9 ounces of Essiac tea and injecting himself with 714X. He also began eating whole grains and organic foods. No red meat. No caffeine. Until then, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese had been his daily fare. “When Billy was diagnosed, we knew nothing about alternative medicines,” Sue says. “I was never the medical kind. I wasn’t much interested in things like that.”
The Bests read everything they could find about diet and exercise and vitamins. And they continued to pray.