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Not Always About The Money

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From KPBS and PRX, “Port of Entry” is launching a new series on medical tourism at the border today.

Up first: We follow a San Diego woman as she crosses the border for alternative cancer treatments in Tijuana.

This isn’t an investigation into the efficacy of alternative cancer treatments. Instead, it’s a story about one woman’s cross-border experience and her own personal convictions.

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Text or call the "Port of Entry" team at 619-452-0228‬ anytime with questions or comments about the show.


SILENCE

From PRX and KPBS, this is Port of Entry…

Where we tell cross-border stories that connect us.

I’m Alan Lilienthal.

***
NEWS CLIP

In Tijuana, medical tourism is blowing up.

BEAT
News Montage

The entire Tijuana landscape immediately surrounding the border has just completely transformed...

Natsound crossing into Mexico

Flashy blinking digital billboards advertising dentists, cosmetic surgeons and cancer clinics are everywhere.

Natsound crossing into Mexico

But towering over them is a huge new medical center and hospital that just opened its doors.

Natsound construction

There’s a lot of talk about how this new medical center is gonna be the most technologically advanced hospital in ALL OF LATIN AMERICA!

BEAT

I actually went to the launch party for another new-ish center, called NewCity Medical Plaza... in 2019…

PARTY SOUND

It was crazy….It was super glamorous...a bunch of the big business people and politicians in Tijuana were there. It felt like a fancy wedding.

BEAT

These shiny new medical buildings stand tall here at the border …

Poised for a future where the billions of dollars being spent lots of people from the U.S. and beyond, just... keeps...ballooning.

BEAT

And the pandemic...it’s barely put a dent in the industry’s growth.

In fact, COVID-19 is actually driving a big boost in plastic surgery procedures in Tijuana….thanks, in part, to people staring at themselves in zoom meetings all day.

Zoom Boom Clip
And it’s causing people to see themselves on screen in not the most flattering light...keeping plastic surgeons busy….it’s called the zoom boom.

BEAT FADE

So yeah...Tijuana is big-time when it comes to medical tourism….

Most people are crossing south to save money on medication and medical procedures…

But….some people...

Folks like Maria Davis-Cherry…..

Maria 2 Clip 5
How are you?

They aren’t crossing the border to save dollars on things like nose jobs and dental veneers.

Maria 3 Clip 11
For three weeks, I think it's about 23, 22,000 and some change…
Kinsee: And where’s that money coming from, your savings?
Maria: Mmhm.

People like Maria….

Are crossing the border…..hoping to save their own lives.

Maria 3 Clip 1
We are in Tijuana Mexico, right across the border, and I just finished my last natural holistic cancer treatment at Immunity Therapy Center.

BEAT

Today, we kick off a new series on medical tourism at the border with Maria’s story of crossing for alternative cancer treatments.

It's really a story about faith….and belief…...and looking death right in the eye.

Ahorita regresamos.

Midroll 1 ad
SILENCE

Ya regresamos

So...When Maria gets a headache…

She doesn’t reach for Tylenol.

Maria 2 Clip 1
I just put like peppermint oil across my, my temples or lavender oil and drink more water. I go for like the natural stuff before.

She’s what some people might call “crunchy.”
Maria 2 Clip 2
tumeric and mushrooms and alkaline water, you know, how to keep your alkalinity in your body. Um, I started looking at, now even more at elderberries, um. Vitamin B 17, which is apricots, seeds, you know, uh, so just a lot of natural oils, frankincense, essential oil...

BEAT

Maria believes 100 percent in the power of holistic healing.

Healthy, clean eating….exercise….natural remedies...those kinds of things.

And...she’s kinda the perfect poster child for it.

BEAT

Maria was 49 back in 20-19 when my producers and I first talked to her.

But...she looks way younger...

She’s one of those people who somehow always looks like she just stepped out of a spa or something.

Like….her skin just sorta glows.

Which is worth noting because…

At the time…

she was in the middle of a battle…

BEAT FADE

For her life.

Maria 1 Clip 3
I was in the doctor's office. I'm at the oncologist office, and I was sitting there with my husband again. So they just, they said, yeah, unfortunately, yes. Breast cancer. Again, it came back,
you know, they call it coming back. I don't think it ever left, but it came back. So, um, I mean, you, you feel disappointed and irritated and sad and a bunch of different emotions at the same time, but, okay, let's do this again.

And look... I want to say this right up front…

I am most definitely not a doctor…

And this is not some kind of hardcore investigation into the efficacy of alternative cancer treatments..

We’re not recommending or warning anyone about anything here..

Instead, this is a story about one woman’s experience and her own personal convictions….

BEAT/AMBI

OK So...Maria lives in Otay Mesa…

A city really close to the U.S.-Mexico border..

Clips from maria 3 Sees Mexico from Backyard
Yeah. I just go out from my yard and you could see all the little lights. it's an open field. And then right after the open field, you can see all the lights and you can see Mexico from the, the Otay border pretty much.

One of the first things you notice when you meet Maria is her sorta stoic look…

It’s like being calm, cool and collected is her natural state.

She’s strong...and also a little emotionally guarded…

At least with me and my producers, Emily Jankowski and Kinsee Morlan....

Maria 3 Clip 13
Kinsee: Man, how do you stay so tough? Did you like build a wall around your heart? How do you stay so strong?
No. No. I mean, the only thing we can do now is to educate ourselves to, to keep pushing forward. It's another day you know. [Spanish in background.]
Maria 3 Clip 16
the Bible says, you know, if you pray, don't worry. But if you worry, then why pray? So I just don't worry anymore. I think stress is going to probably even cause bigger things. So I think the more you stress, the more you keep things in your body and worrying about is not going to change that I got cancer twice. You know?
Kinsee: Don’t you get mad though.
Oh yeah, of course. I'm just not mad right now. [Laughs.]

BEAT FADE
So….for this...Maria’s second battle with cancer…

She’s built herself what she feels is an impenetrable suit of armor...

Armor that’s made up of her faith in God.

and her newfound faith in holistic healing…

BEAT

The first time around….

Maria 1 Clip 9
My first diagnosis was April 1st, April fools 2015....
Maria did all the things you’re supposed to do when you have breast cancer…

Chemo…

A double mastectomy (ma stek tuh mee)….

And very potent cancer drugs…

But the surgery and especially the chemo and radiation….

Maria absolutely hated how it made her feel...

Clips from maria 1 Mouth sores and side effects
You lose your taste buds, metallic mouths you, you get, um, constipation or diarrhea and/or both..you’re tired...I got mouth sores, I couldn’t eat anything …..that’s when I lost the weight.

After the second diagnosis…

Maria’s oncologist and team of doctors in San Diego said it was time for her to prepare for round two.

Surgery to remove the cancer, chemo to kill anything left behind and cancer drugs to help keep it at bay.

Maria 1 Clip 4
And I told them I wasn't going to do it this time. I was going to go the holistic route and I was going to do my own research

BEAT FADE

Mexicancuresclip Clip
You got something wrong with you? There’s a Mexican remedy for that.

So...here’s the thing about Mexican culture when it comes to folk medicine…

A lot of Latin people have stories about our moms or abuelas and their special herbal remedies…

Here’s a youtuber named Rubi breakin’ it down.

Mexicancuresclip Clip
There’s always a tea...there’s a tea for everything...

And maybe you’ve been to a botánica? …

They’re these little Mexican tiendas that sell folk medicine, religious candles and other things that people believe are magical or can be used for healing.

So…alternative medicine has long been a thing in Mexico.

And now it’s blowing up in the U.S. as well.

Essential oils are everywhere these days…

Tons of people are taking CBD for all kinds of problems…

Healing crystals are a thing.

BEAT

There’s actually a lot of emerging hard science on alternative models of healing.

Like the real-life chemical benefits for your brain when you meditate, for example.

I’m actually a lot like Maria.

But not everyone is….

BEAT FADE

Cancer Support Clip 10
Personally when I heard it, I, I kind of freaked out for her…..

Stereo Nat sound from cancer support group

Maria actually helps run a cancer support group for women.

So, because I’m not a woman…

My producers Kinsee Morlan and Emily Jankowski stopped by instead.

Cancer Support Group Intro
Hello I’m Kinse...I’m Emily….Maria is on her way….

So...again...this was back in 20-19…

Long before the pandemic…

And a group of about half a dozen women sat in a circle of chairs crammed inside a small room in the back of a hair salon in Chula Vista…

Chula Vista...by the way... is a city in southern San Diego County just a few exits away from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cancer Support Group Clip 1
Would you like some water or tea or coffee?
Kinsee: I'm good.
Once everybody gets here, I'll close the door did you find parking
Kinsee: right out front is it always here in the salon? It’s usually at Maria's house, right?
Yeah...

After settling in with some snacks and tea….the night kicked off with a few heavy cancer war stories.

But...actually….most weren’t about the cancer itself.

They were more focused on the treatments...

Cancer Support Clip 2
I mean, they never tell you the tail end of chemotherapy. it's the devil.

That’s Delia Calara…

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015.

She did a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation.

And..yeah...the cancer did go away.

But the chemo was hard on her heart.

And actually...she’s one of a tiny percentage of people who get congestive heart failure from chemotherapy.

Cancer Support Clip 5
There's only like a portion, two people out of 50, where they'll receive congestive heart failure and woohoo, I’m one of them. Yeah. So it's, it's really difficult. So I dunno if ever I had a second chance, I'd probably have to double think it. Yeah.
Kinsee: Right. Because chemo for you almost killed you I mean....
Delia: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Kinsee: Wow, that’s intense, I’m sorry to hear that.
Yeah. I'm still dealing with it. I have a defibrillator. I have a other machine. Yeah. So

BEAT

Cancer Support Clip 4
The ill effects, like Del was saying, the ill effects of chemo. Once you go through treatment, it's not over,

This is Anna Maria Rico, another breast cancer survivor.

Everyone here knows her as “Snooky.”

Cancer Support Clip 4
You know...the chemotherapy the way it. It ravages some people's bodies, stays with you, stays with you for the rest of your life…..

Snooky owns the salon where the cancer support group met that night.

She also runs a nonprofit that gives women undergoing chemo a free makeover and a wig.

Cancer Support Clip 4
I'm still battling through a lot of harmful effects of what the chemotherapy did. Not to mention the chemo brain that I had for a good three years. You now and I'm a woman who's used to multitasking and all that was taken away from me.

But even with the long list of side effects from chemo…

Most of the women here aren’t quite like Maria.

They aren’t as confident in alternative treatments’ ability to beat cancer the way chemo can.

Cancer Support Clip 6
I wish she would go a little bit. She could do both.

This is Billie Carino, yet another breast cancer survivor.

Cancer Support Clip 6
She could do traditional medicine and go across the border for alternative therapies.

Most of the ladies in the group agree with Billie.

They think Maria should consider doing more of the conventional treatments her oncologist recommends.

Cancer Support Clip 7
When I first heard about it, I was like, wow, she's gonna do it.
Cancer Support Clip 8
My opinion would be. I still would want her to try to go on traditional….
Cancer Support Clip 11
Yeah so with Maria is going to go towards over the border. You know, I just hope everything goes well for her and everything's going to be negative later on. You know?
Cancer Support Clip 9
I would do holistic, but I would also go with the traditional treatment. Just a combination of the two.

BEAT FADE

Maria’s mind, though, is made up.

NEW BEAT

Maria 3 Clip 4
Cancer is not a death sentence, right? It doesn't have to be a death sentence.

Maria did end up agreeing to some of the conventional treatments her oncologist suggested.

She got a lumpectomy in San Diego... and she’s taking a hormone therapy drug used for breast cancer..

But she just would not budge on the chemo or radiation.

Maria 3 Clip 4
I didn't want to put any more poison, you know, in my body. I was tired. It obviously, it, you know, it came back, even after the chemotherapy, after the double mastectomy and it came back on the side. So how is that effective? You can't convince me anymore to do chemotherapy because I know what it did to me, and I know what it does to women that I've talked to. Many women that I’ve talked to, their side effects. You know, the consequences, and even death. People die from chemotherapy all the time.

So...you can kind of hear Maria’s working theory here...

She’s convinced that her cancer never really went away in the first place.

Even after doing all the things.

BEAT

Maria does credit chemo for one, big, important thing, though...

It completely changed the way she takes care of herself.

After putting so much toxic stuff in her body to kill the cancer…

That’s when she started incorporating all those natural remedies into her life.

Maria 2 Clip 3
Some juicing, you know, some detoxing, try to drink more water, try to de-stress, yeah. So I do, I diffuse oils at home every day. I do them at work as well, and I take them internally.

BEAT

So yeah..this time around…

Maria is leaning in on her new healthier lifestyle...and fighting the cancer... her own way….

BEAT

In Tijuana….

BEAT

Without all the suffering.

No te vayas a ningún lado.

MIDROLL 2

Bienvenidos a regreso.

So...back in December, 20-19…

My producers and I drove to Tijuana…

And we met up with Maria inside a clinic called the Immunity Therapy Center.

She had just wrapped up the last of her treatments and was finishing up lunch.

Maria 1 Clip 5
So Maria is there….
Maria 1 Clip 6
Hola Maria. Hi, how are you? good to meet you. Oh my gosh. Rico? Was it nice? Yeah, it was really good.
Alan: Yeah, it smells really nice in here.
It was really good actually...

After lunch…

We sat down with Maria to talk about all the different treatments she had done at the clinic.

Maria 1 Clip 7
There's a little machine called magray. So it's like a lot of heat. They give you a lot of heat. So it was the matte gray, so it was like a heat lamp. And then it's a mat that you lay on this a different one, and it's also heat. And then they give you, um, I have a port, so they give you, um. Therapies like vitamin C, vitamin B, 17. A new castle vaccine, and they give you a, there's this little light is called halo. So you kind of open your mouth and let all the little particles go in and, and they kind of works. Everything works to destroy cancer. Um, when you ask them like, what is this for? They’re like for cancer, for cancer, for cancer, everything's for cancer. So yeah.

BEAT

So that day...Maria was seriously, like...glowing…

She looked really refreshed and healthy…

I personally haven’t been around too many cancer patients…

But she definitely didn’t look like any I’ve ever seen at least.

AMBI UP

My producer Kinsee Morlan brought that up...

Clips from maria 3 Don't Look Like Chemo Patient
Kinsee: You don’t look like a cancer patient.
Maria: Right? That’s good? What are cancer patients supposed to look like?
Kinsee: They’re, you know...sickly..
No correction. I don't look like a chemo patient.

So...how many Marias are out there?

Like...how many Americans leave the U.S. and cross the border to become medical tourists?

The U.S. government estimates that close to 1 million people in California alone cross to Mexico every year for some kind of medical procedure or to buy prescription drugs.

BEAT FADE
AMBI

Border Wait Clip 1
Kinsee: Hi...hablas ingles?
Guy: Yes..

A few weeks after we met up with Maria that first time….

My producer Kinsee wandered through the traffic jam at the border crossing…

Poking her microphone inside cars waiting in Tijuana to cross to the U.S.

Border Wait Clip 1
Can I ask you just why you're crossing today?
Uh, well, we are crossing because we have patients from Mexico. She's one of us patients, uh, for cosmetic surgery.
Kinsee: Oh really?
That's right.

She stood near a lane that’s actually reserved for people just like Maria…

A designated medical lane for people undergoing procedures.

Border Wait Clip 2
I work in the medical fields, um, this is a, people have a surgery and we are crossing and on the way back for them. Yes.
Kinsee: So mostly your clients are all from the U.S.?
Exactly. Us in Canada and around the world. The cosmetic or it's a kind of cosmetic dental in plastic. Everything one.
Kinsee: Yeah? How's everyone feeling?
Gooood.
You're ready to get back to the United States. Yeah?

BEAT

Medical tourism in Tijuana is a welcome trend when it comes to the money it brings in.

BEAT

A local tourism group says medical visitors are bringing in over 1 point five billion dollars a year to Baja California.

BEAT

So...for the most part...it’s basic math that’s driving the exponential growth of medical tourism in Tijuana.

Because..things are just so much more affordable here.

But….as we’ve said, for people like Maria it isn’t always about the money.

Sometimes...people like Maria are crossing to take advantage of Mexico’s looser rules and regulations.

And they’re paying lots of money to try things they can’t easily access in the U.S.

For instance...if Maria had just done the things her oncologist recommended…

Her insurance would’ve paid for almost all of it.

But, of course, no insurance company is willing to cover therapies in Tijuana that are either not widely accepted…..or even outright banned as pseudoscience in the U.S.

Maria 3 Clip 3
And I think that's what I'm more upset about, I think is the doctors, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, you know, they don't give you a choice, you know, they just go, this is what we're going to pay for you take it or leave it. And if you leave it, then you're on your own.

People like Maria honestly don’t care that the therapies the Tijuana clinics are offering are officially unproven….or even written off in the U.s. as scams and a total waste of money.

They believe in the treatments’ efficacy... and that’s all that matters to them.

And then there’s this whole other market of people with cancer who just run out of treatment options in the U.S….

So...some of those late-stage cancer patients…

They’re willing to try anything.

Including going to Tijuana.

BEAT FADE
AMBI DOOR OPENING

Maria 1 Clip 8
People that comes to us, I mean, they're, uh. There had been this, it’s when conventional methods fail them.

This is Carlos Alvarez…

He works at the clinic in Tijuana where Maria was treated.

Maria 1 Clip 8
We believe that would it be better if they come to us first? Okay. Because this is for us, more comprehensive, comprehensive program. That's why we receive a lot of stage four cancer patients because they wait until the end and then come to us.

After a short interview,

Carlos took us on a quick tour of the place...

AMBI
Maria 1 Clip 9
So we're going to the second floor. Second floor. We have a few treatment areas that, uh, we use to treat the patients that are outpatient.

Ambi of walking in stairwell

So..the clinic looks like what you might expect.

Lots of beds covered in crisp, clean sheets…

Private patient rooms, nurses’ stations and then the treatment areas…

And that’s where things diverged a bit... there were a few tools and instruments that didn’t look like standard medical devices.

Carlos described them as, quote, “special equipment that kills cancer cells.”

AMBI OUTSIDE CLINIC

After the tour…

We stood on the sidewalk in front of the clinic with Maria…

Where we waited for a mini van to come pick us up..Take us through the border line Then drop us off at Maria’s house on the other side of the border.

Maria 3 Clip 6
Here we go. An Adventure back back to the U.S. guys,

After a quick drive from the clinic to the border line…

The driver headed to the special medical lane.

Maria Clip ?
Oh, the medical line it's empty.
Maria: It's empty? If it's empty. It's okay. But if it's not an issue, go no.
There's no traffic through the medical.

It was shorter than the normal lanes of traffic…

But we still had to wait.

Line Ambi

Maria 3 Clip 9
We are now in the medical lane at the border.
Kinsee: You should roll down your window.
You see a lot of vendors here. If you roll down your windows, you better buy something because they're going to want you to buy something. And if you look at anything, be ready to buy it….laughs…see!

Line Ambi

So...waiting in this beast of a border line after getting cancer treatments…

Maria says the experience has actually played a surprising and important role in her healing process…

On the day we crossed….

A young mother with a baby strapped to her chest was standing in between the lines of traffic at the border… asking people driving by for money in exchange for chikle.

Then there’s the guy in the wheelchair who can’t move his arms.

Border Singer Nat

His wife is always holding their baby as she pushes her husband through the lanes of traffic and holds a microphone in front of him so he can sing Mexican classics in exchange for tips.

Border Singer Nat
BEAT

Seeing these heartbreaking things…

Maria says it puts things into perspective.

Maria 3 Clip 10
You know, people go through way worse things than what I've gone through.

Maria 3 Clip 10
And they don't complain, you know, just coming across the border, I see people with no legs, selling, you know, candy or sodas or chips, you know, who am I to complain? You know?

AMBI

Maria 3 Clip 10
And it's just hard and it's just there. It's really sad.

Border line nat up, then sound fade to silence
BEAT SWELL THEN FADE

Mostly...Maria says she’s confident in this choice of hers to refuse chemo and radiation and do alternative treatments instead.

But her life is literally on the line.

So yeah...of course she feels a little nervous sometimes.

Maria 3 Clip 12
I worry. I mean, I'm not saying that I don't worry.
Maria 3 Clip 12
It’s always in the back of my mind. You know, the what if, the what if, the what if, but I don't stay there. I don't stay in that moment. I'm not gonna sit in the worry. I say, well, what if it happens again? You know, I'll deal with it when it gets here. For now, I'm going to get up and go to work for now. I'm going to get up and enjoy the sun.

BEAT

So..to be honest…

I was a little worried for Maria.

When the pandemic hit and we pushed this episode back further and further…

I was hoping she was doing well, but also a little scared that...the next time we called to check in on Maria...

She might be super sick or...I don’t know….maybe even….gone.

BEAT

Maria Davis Update Clip 1
Alan: How are you doing Maria?
I'm doing good. Thank you. How are you?

So yeah.....I’m happy to report that Maria is doing really well…..Great even...

Maria Davis Update Clip 2
Maria: I went to my oncologist here about three months ago. And he did the, um, was an MRI of my breasts and everything was cleared, clear scans.

BEAT

Look...there’s no way to know for sure if those clear scans are because of the alternative treatments Maria did in Tijuana …

Or the lumpectomy she got in San Diego…or maybe even a combination of both…

And her clear scans now don’t mean the cancer won’t ever come back...

But Maria isn’t letting herself worry too much. She says she’s happy with how things turned out.

Maria Update Alan Track Clip 2
Alan: Are you technically in remission right now?
Yes, I'm in remission. Mmhmm.
Maria Update Alan Track Clip 3
Alan: That's great.

BEAT SWELL THEN FADE

Next time on “Port of Entry”...

Erin in Tijuana Next Episode Teaser Clip
On the hunt for insulin, [laughs] I feel a little bit like this is a. Well, or a drug deal. It is. It just feels funny. Insulina? That's the right word, isn't it, Alan? Yeah. My daughter taught me that…

We continue our series on medical tourism by crossing the border for insulin.

It’s really a story about desperation and frustration and how the border is literally a life-saving alternative for some folks who can’t afford drug prices in the U.S.

BEAT

Port of Entry is written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the co-producer and director of sound design. Alisa Barba edited this episode. Lisa Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is the interim associate general manager of content.

This program is made possible (in part) by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people."

So….we want to know what you think about our series on medical tourism at the border so far. Give us your feedback….call (619) 452-0228. Tell us who you are, where you live and what you think.

I’m Alan Lilianthal… Gracias por su atención.

Port of Entry podcast branding

Port of Entry

These are cross-border stories that connect us. Border people often inhabit this in-between place. From KPBS and PRX, “Port of Entry” tells personal stories from this place — stories of love, hope, struggle and survival from border crossers, fronterizxs and other people whose lives are shaped by the wall. Rooted in San Diego with tendrils reaching into Tijuana. Hosted by Alan Lilienthal, produced by Kinsee Morlan and sound design by Emily Jankowski.