An interview with Chris Woollams - the cancer guru

An interview with Chris Woollams - the cancer guru

This is one of CANCERactive’s interviews with icon’s in the cancer world for icon magazine. It just happens to feature founder Chris Woollams, who Geoff Boycott famously calls The Cancer "Guru" because of his vast knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in the world of trying to beat cancer. (originally published in Issue 2 2005 icon)

Chris Woollams

Taken from an interview with John Smart

I’m sitting here with Chris Woollams, the morning after! No, he hasn’t been drinking heavily; in fact he rarely drinks more than a couple of glasses of red wine. Rather, yesterday he spoke on cancer for the first time in Japan. To 28,000 people, no less. And then he personally signed 4,000 books in just 6 hours!

Chris is Mr Energy. He has just completed a nine-venue sell-out tour of Australia. In fact, twice they invited him back to repeat the shows in Melbourne, such was the interest. His memory and command of research facts are awesome. At times it can be like talking to a health encyclopaedia. As he jokes himself, he can bore for Britain on the subject.

But here we are relaxing in the corner of a Japanese restaurant over a cup of green tea. Chris has arrived in trainers, combat trousers and a black T-shirt. On his left wrist he sports a Rolex and also a Buddhist Tsaisin, a sign of good fortune given to him by a Thai monk, and a cancer charity bracelet aptly inscribed with the word Inspire given to him by Koo Stark.

Relaxed, composed, calm he looks nearer forty than his true age - fifty-five. He attributes this to a life of sport, mental stimulation - and good supplements.

Throughout the interview we are interrupted by a steady flow of Japanese wanting to shake his hand and tell him how much they respect him. Well here goes...

Q: So how did it go yesterday?

A: Well the speech was very difficult. I had just 40 minutes to cover something that usually takes 2 hours. I had to speak slowly as there was simultaneous translation and normally my speeches are funny but we had to cut out all the jokes as there is a six to ten second delay in translation and it would have been mayhem. But we got the message over.

Open quotesCancer is caused by poor diet, infection and toxinsClose quotes

Q: And what was the message?

A: Oh, I base it on the World Health Organisation saying cancer is caused by poor diet, infection and toxins. To this, I add mental stress, which they miss completely and then I go through these 4 pillars showing how to avoid them, what matters most and if you get cancer, how you can tackle each.

Q: And what is your main piece of advice?

A: Actually, I never give advice. Firstly, I’m not a doctor. And secondly, no two cancers are the same. I simply try to help people increase their personal odds of beating the disease. What I do give is stacks of information on the latest pieces of research from all over the world. You’d be really surprised just how much is known, in contrast to how little doctors tell you.

Q: What’s your attitude to doctors then?

A: I’m very positive. Anyone who spends seven years studying and then dedicates themselves to saving my life and that of my children deserves every last piece of respect we can give them, I never criticise doctors but I worry greatly about the system behind them which I regard as myopic and increasingly so.

Q: Can you explain that further?

A: Well, take the UK. The BMA runs a closed shop. Margaret Thatcher took on the miners, but the BMA survived. Just before Christmas they were criticised in a report for putting their members ahead of the patients and the situation is worsening not improving.

Open quotesThe BMA were criticised in a report for putting their members ahead of the patients and the situation is worsening not improvingClose quotes

With cancer, the move to best practice and the belief in the clinical trial above all else is pushing doctors down an increasingly narrow tunnel labelled surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Personally, if the powers-that-be want to limit the expertise of doctors to just three areas of treatment, that is their decision. But please don’t try and create rules and laws so that you can impose this short-sighted view on me! We know that poor nutrition can cause cancer. So would it not be logical that some (not all) of those cancers might benefit, or even be cured, by good nutrition??

We know a person’s body energy deserts infected areas. Kirlian photography shows this. Do doctors recommend a patient go immediately to a cranial osteopath or for acupuncture to try to remedy this?

We know that the immune system is our defence mechanism and all manner of factors weakens it. US research says that people with weak immune systems get more cancers. So how many doctors have been trained to strengthen their patients’ immune systems as a priority before suggesting treatments??

Or parasites and yeasts. We know they play a role in some cancers. How many doctors even look into this area with their patient?

Frankly, it is tantamount to neglect.

Q: I can see you get very heated about the subject. What’s the solution?

A: Well, if I were an oncologist I’d want to know about absolutely anything and everything that might help my patient. But then I have an incredibly enquiring mind. The trouble is that if I’d been a doctor, I’d probably have been struck off by now. I’d be worrying about my patients immune system, giving them supplements, getting toxins out of them, killing off parasites etc. etc. before I even started to think about surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Q: Is there a solution?

A: I think every doctor should be made to do an annual top-up course in nutrition, natural health, body energy systems, and infection. Our knowledge in these areas is growing daily. But it won’t happen because the powers-that-be haven’t got the foggiest idea what I’m on about and anyway think it is irrelevant. And that sums up the problem. Oh, and anyway doctors don’t have any spare time as it is.

Open quotesEvery doctor should be made to do an annual top-up course in nutrition, natural health, body energy systems, and infectionClose quotes

The other idea would be to encourage integrated clinics like you have in certain parts of Australia with a doctor’s clinic, next to a physiotherapist, osteopath, reiki master and naturopath all in one complex. I read that in Australia 60 per cent of people consult a specialist first before going to the doctor. Conversely I read that if you go to a UK doctor with a bad back, 92 per cent will send you home with painkillers to rest. Haven’t UK doctors heard of osteopaths? They spend 4 years or more learning their trade, after all!

Q: Have you ever thought about being a doctor?

A: I’d be terrible. I’m about facts, research, content. That’s far more important to me than bedside manner. I did actually apply to Guy’s after A levels but they could see I wasn’t really interested as my other 5 applications were all to go to university to study biochemistry.

Q: Did you go in to Guy’s?

A: Yes, actually. But then my experience rather sums it all up. Just as I was about to enter the room to be interviewed, a man rushed up the side stairs and bumped into me. He looked at me and asked if I played rugby, to which I said, not really. It turned out Guy’s had just lost in some sort of hospital rugby cup final. Anyway he was one of the interviewers. They spent 20 minutes asking me about the school orchestra - I played the double bass - and that was it. In fact I was in the rugby first XV at school but my real sports were hockey and cricket and I played county level for both. All they had to do was read my application though! I already had an A in Biology after only one year in the sixth form but that was ignored!

Q: So then you went to Oxford. But you didn’t go on to be a Biochemist. Why not?

A: Biochemistry for me was about pouring colourless liquids into other colourless liquids and then someone telling me something had happened. I find it hard to sit down all day staring at a test tube.

I was president of the Oxford Business Studies Group for a while and met a man called Ralph Windle, who helped run the Oxford Management Centre. So instead of writing a thesis on biochemistry, the Oxford Examination board let me go out there and I wrote one on marketing.

Q: So you did, or didn’t get a biochemistry degree?

A: Oh yes, I did. People assume Oxbridge is quite stuffy - in fact the opposite is true. The problem was that I played so much cricket and football while I was there my father was convinced I’d fail. Then suddenly I was summoned for a viva, which means they want to see how much you know, in person, because you are on a borderline.

Q: What happened?

Open quotesI was just sitting there saying, Thank you, GodClose quotes

A: Well I thought it was the pass/fail borderline. At the viva they told me that the thesis was well written, easy to follow but they would have to discount it because no one else had done a marketing thesis! They’d made me take economics finals, and I’d not studied economics ever, at O or A level. Anyway they told me the Professor marking the paper said it was the worst paper he’d ever seen.

So by now I thought I’d failed. But then they said, your paper on viruses was the second best paper in the year. Would you like to know why? I was just sitting there saying, "Thank you, God", because Oxford works on quality not quantity of marks so this meant at least I passed. So I said, "Yes, tell me", thinking they’d now go into a long explanation. But all they said was, "Because your paper on cancer was the best in the year and we’d like you to stay on and do a doctorate!" They actually offered me a first to stay. "Amazing really, We only want people with firsts doing doctorates", was their actual phrase. Basically it meant if I wanted to go off into advertising, I would get a second. Peter Cook my, then tutor is now Professor of Biochemistry, I gather. It all seems a long time ago.

Q: Tell us a bit about the advertising part of your career.

Chris in his advertising days with a client

A: I started as a trainee - worked in the UK and New York - rose to the top pretty quickly - spent 14 years as a chairman - ran a UK agency where Publicis, the number one French group, had bought a small UK agency - I was part of a team that took it from number 38 to number 18 in the UK - then a US agency wanted me to turn round their UK operation, which I did. They put me on their European and Worldwide boards. I was 32 at the start. Then Saatchi bought us and talked about me being UK chairman but four of us set up our own company and when we got to nine companies in 1995 we put it on the stock market. And I retired. I always think of myself as being two years past my sell-by date.

It was fun, mad, stimulating, very hard work but it’s over and I don’t even think about it now.

Q: Has it got anything to do with what you do now?

A: Surprisingly, in advertising we use an incredible amount of research. So I’m quite adept at studying figures and conclusions. I do miss the brainpower, the intellect, and the no-nonsense, let’s get the job done by Tuesday and in a first-class way approach. Nowadays, I have brilliant support in my team led by Lindsey (Fealey) my cousin, who was also in Marketing.

Funnily enough, I think that’s why we’ve been so successful. In the ponderous health world, we’ve come a long way because we make things happen. No one can believe how fast we’ve done it!

Q: So just tell us a little about Catherine and how the mission all started.

Chris with his children

A: I’d retired. Just for self interest and personal amusement I’d studied nutrition, body energy, Reiki and Personal Training. Then we had Georgie’s 18th Birthday (Chris had three daughter’s Catherine, Georgina, Stephanie; and a son Ben), over a weekend four years ago. On the Monday Catherine rang me - she had a headache. On the Tuesday she rang me again, saying it just didn’t feel right. Did I have the phone number of my doctor in Harley Street? I remember coming off the phone and saying to the person I was with, I hope that bloody mobile phone she lives on hasn’t given her a brain tumour!

That evening around seven, my ex-wife rang me. I remember it so clearly. She said, "Chris, it’s dreadful. Catherine’s got a brain tumour".

I rushed up to St Thomas’. They were excellent. By Saturday she was in the National Hospital for Neurology - the surgeon, Mr Kitchen, one of the top guys in the country - simply superb. But the following Friday they said it was malignant.

Q: How did you feel?

A: Something had already told me to fear the worst, so I’d been in fact-finding mode for 8 days or so. On a personal level, I just kept thinking about what Catherine must be going through. She was 22 but still my baby. They are always your babies. You don’t like to think of anything hurting them. It was bad enough for me, but I just kept wondering what on earth it must be like for her at 4 in the morning waking up and thinking, I’m going to die.

Q: Did you think she was going to die?

A: It’s hard not to. You hit the internet and look up Glioma and everywhere you look it says you haven’t got a chance! Devastating. Poor Catherine.

Then a friend of a friend offered to do the radiotherapy, and Catherine’s oncologist told him not to bother as she only had 6 months tops. The oncologist even said to me words to the effect of, "Don’t worry, well give her a good summer".

Q: So what was your attitude at the time?

Open quotesThat’s what Dads do isn’t it? We’re the male lion. 
                                        Nothing hurts our pride.Close quotes

A: As I said, upset for Catherine. But absolutely determined I’d get stuck in and do everything I possibly could to try and save her. That’s what Dads do, isn’t it? We’re the male lion. Nothing hurts our pride. And also when I put my mind to something, I never get beaten. My daughter’s life was at stake here.

Q: How did Catherine’s doctors treat you?

A: I think I was seen as some guy who’d read biochemistry a long time ago and kept asking awkward questions like ’why are you feeding her Ribena and ice cream when cancer is all about glycolysis?’

Q: Naive?

A: Well, I also ask basic questions like, What could cause this? What drives it? How can we get her immune system up? That sort of stuff. The problem was that no one knew the answers, and anyway doctors aren’t trained to think like this. So, all in all, I think the doctors suffered me - that’s the best description.

Q: Tell us what happened

A: I think most people know that at six months instead of being dead she had an all clear. They even used those words. Then again at nine, twelve, fifteen, eighteen and twenty one months. Clearer and clearer.

St Thomas’ monitored her. Someone I knew at the top of St Thomas’ was saying they were calling it a miracle. And that there was some sort of covert respect that something I had done must have worked. Not that anybody ever bothered to formally ask me of course!

Q: Did it come as a blow when the cancer returned?

Open quotesOn one hand I think 23-24 year olds think they’re immortalClose quotes

A: I must admit I was shocked by Catherine. I turned up to see her after Christmas, and met her in the pub. She was eating a hamburger, her boyfriend chain-smoking. When I asked if she had a nice Christmas, she said, Great thanks, Dad. I got pissed every night!

On one hand I think 23-24 year olds think they’re immortal. But on the other hand I think she thought she was going to die anyway, so what the heck! Who knows what goes on in the head of a young girl who just finished her degree at Bristol, had a great job at Vogue, the sky’s the limit? Then bang! Awful.

I now know she’d given up the supplements and even returned to smoking. Catherine followed what I suggested to a point, but didn’t want to cut back on her lifestyle. A friend of mine repeatedly tells me that "You’re never a prophet in your own land" and I guess it’s true. I’m no psychologist - I think it is a very, very complex situation. And probably differs for each and every cancer patient.

Q: How did you feel at the end?

The actual end was horrendous. After the first two years of health, Catherine survived a further eighteen months. But she still went diving, skiing, on charity walks etc, so she lived a pretty full life.

The fact was, we tried everything. But in my opinion once she’d had the chemotherapy she was on the downhill slope, I’m afraid.

Q: I gather you are not a fan of chemotherapy?

A: No, that’s not really true. If I had child leukaemia or testicular cancer I’d think about it very seriously. If I had a brain tumour, pancreatic cancer, multiple myeloma or liver cancer and someone offered me chemotherapy, I’d probably laugh. Or cry. Even the mighty Lancet said the brain tumour drugs don’t work.

Open quotesI am so anti this myopic move to become formulaic, one size fits all it                                               doesn’t fit with realityClose quotes

You really can’t generalise. There’s no such thing as chemotherapy; there are a number of very different drugs, which do very different jobs, some quite well, some poorly, some with horrendous side effects. And it depends on the cancer and the individual. This is why I am so anti this myopic move to become formulaic - one size fits all. It doesn’t fit with reality.

I remember Dr Contreras of the Oasis of Hope saying that in their integrated treatment approach, they do give some people chemotherapy. They just find it doesn’t work very well or very often. And not as well as some other non-toxic therapies, and that is another important consideration.

Q: How do you feel about Catherine now, six months on?

A: Don’t go there. I still cry every day.

Q: You’ve told us about a father and his daughter, but what made you take the next step and start this mission that you are on?

A: Mission? I suppose it is really. I never started out that way. When Catherine started to get better one of the top guys at St Thomas’ suggested I wrote down the things I had found out. They say that in every ad. man there’s a book trying to get out but I didn’t think of myself as qualified.

Q: What changed your mind?

A: It was Catherine’s oncologist. Although quite by accident, actually. He was telling us that they had done tests at St Thomas and knew soya isoflavones and selenium improve the success of radiotherapy. When I asked why he hadn’t told us, he said he couldn’t because they were only tests and not clinical trials! Same old problem. I then found out that in Houston, Texas, they were using astragalus. And the Royal Marsden uses vitamin D with breast cancer patients.

The core problem is that the people who find these things out just don’t pass the message on!

So scientists repeat stuff done in other parts of the world causing a huge waste of time and energy. Then they don’t tell the doctors. And hospitals don’t talk to each other about things that help. It’s a mess.

On top of that, when Catherine got ill I’d presumed that there was a website or a book that told you in nice easy-to-understand terms what you could do to increase your chances of survival. But it just didn’t exist.

So I wrote Everything you need to know to help you beat cancer’, and it has easily become Britain’s top selling cancer book over the last two years. And we only sell it direct!

Q: What made you turn it into a mission, though?

Chris speaking

A: A friend asked me to speak about the book at a conference. I did and other people then came up to me asking me to speak. And suddenly there were people with cancer coming up to me, ringing, sending e-mails. As I said, I never give advice but these people just wanted basic information and quickly. We’d launched icon, and everyone was saying what a breakthrough it was. At last there is some information I can read! Each issue costs a lot of money and at the outset I funded it myself and by using our book profits - but now we have put it inside a charity (CANCERactive) and made it free to hospitals. Almost 150 hospitals get every issue free for their patients. We reckon we have around 1 million readers a year.

Then people asked me about diets and cancer, and again I realised that most diet books told you what you shouldn’t eat. But that’s not a diet. A diet is about what you should eat and when I looked into it, I realised that we have forgotten about the foods that best protect us from cancer, like green vegetables, fish oils, pulses, red fruits and berries, onions, leeks, garlic, nuts, watercress and so on. And so I wrote The Tree of Life: The Anti-Cancer Diet which in sales terms is now hard on the heels of Everything you need to know to help you beat cancer. Women especially like it because it has a shopping trolley and tells them exactly what to go and buy.

Oestrogen - the killer in our midst may even surpass both the other two books in sales terms. It came out of an article I wrote in icon. We had so many people ringing us up and I kept repeating myself. So I wrote a book you can read in one hour. A book that tells you seven ways to get this hormone and its chemical mimics back to the levels you should have. Its sales are currently outstripping those of Everything you need to know to help you beat cancer.

Cancer - your first 15 steps also came out of an article. The book is probably being taken up by one of the care charities, we hope, and will form the basis for personal programmes for cancer patients around the country, along with our Catherine Corners. These will be information centres providing help on integrated therapies. Our mission is to help prevent people dying of ignorance so the centres will link to our new website and cover everything from breast cancer drugs to vitamin B-12.

My final book, (and I swear I will never write another book - I’m tired; worn out), also came out of the magazine. It’s a collection of articles written by journalists, doctors, professors and me, showing that there are other therapies around the world that really can make a difference, especially when the going gets tough.

Open quotesThe doctors who have the time to listen are very supportiveClose quotes

Q: So what do the doctors make of what you do, do you think?

A: Well contrary to popular mythology, the doctors who have the time to listen are very supportive. I often get doctors at my general speeches, the first person to buy Everything in Japanese was a lady doctor, I have presented to doctors at their conferences, we have professors and doctors as patrons of the charity, I just think that they know I’m well researched and they sit there usually taking copious notes.

Q: So what next for Chris Woollams?

A: Well, it would be nice to play some golf again and get my personal life back into gear.

With Catherine’s death, the last of my books published and working less for the magazine, I’ll have much more time on my hands. I will always update the books. We have just published the third edition of Everything and now it really is the fount of knowledge. I’m very proud of it - but it’s great that all my books receive praise actually. As does the magazine.

But in a year’s time I want to concentrate on the website. There’s been a couple of recent research studies saying that patients just don’t understand doctorspeak when it comes to cancer, and also that the web empowers them. It makes them feel that at least they can have some say in their own life, and their personal treatment programme.

Open quotesI want to hold international interviews on the webClose quotes

So I want to do a monthly e-newsletter; we’ve a new website planned with twice as many pages as currently on there - do you know we get 3,600 hits a day, just amazing really? Way more than the conventional UK charities so we must be doing something right. Then I want to hold international interviews on the web. People with breast cancer can donate 10, ask two questions and we’ll put all the questions to a top guy in the US during an interview, which you can listen to off the web.

The truth is we’ve got loads and loads of ideas. But Lindsey and I pride ourselves in the quality of what we do. We’re both perfectionists. We’ve got a great magazine, books that are widely acknowledged as the best on the market. So whatever the next step is it must keep our user-friendly tone and be absolutely first-class.

Q: What about Cancer Prevention and the Conference you are holding?

A: November 17th 2005 is a crucial date. Britains first ever National Cancer Prevention Conference. We’ve asked the Secretary of State for Health to give the opening speech and were flying in experts from around the world. Then we have a Cancer Prevention Fortnight. It has to happen. Cancer is predicted to double in the next 20 years, if we carry on like this. It’s not good enough saying, don’t smoke and stay out of the sun. We have planned programmes for schools; all sorts of things.

Frankly, this conference is long overdue. We shall appoint an expert committee from our patrons so that CANCERactive can take forward any conclusions and we’ll hold a follow up conference next year to see how things have progressed.

But CANCERactive must become a first division charity and to do that we need a proper infrastructure and to sort out the funding. Lindsey and I know we can’t do it all on our own, hand to mouth and we are genuinely very tired after three years.

Q: I note that you are in Debretts People of Today. So, who do you admire most?

Open quotesI’m not into famous peopleClose quotes

A: Generally the people who aren’t famous; the people who think of others’ feelings; who care about others and put themselves second. I’m not into famous people. I remember I was having a birthdate/Tarot/Palm reading done by a monk in Thailand and without knowing a thing about me he told me twenty correct things about my life. Truly amazing. Then he said, But you know you have a problem. You always look for the good in people and the world isn’t like that. Then he asked, Do you want to know why you do this? So, of course, I said, Yes and he replied, Because in your last life you were a priest! I think I actually did fall off my chair!

Q: So where will Chris Woollams be in 5 years?

A: (Laughing) On a beach in Barbados, or Thailand. On my boat, diving, fishing, perhaps flying my plane again, beating my mate Larry at golf.

I know what I’m good at, and it’s getting things off the ground. I can put phenomenal bursts of energy into things. But then I want to hand over to the team. Of course, I’ll still retain an interest but I’m not good at routine or running things long term. I like to get up each day and have nothing planned.

Chris in his boat

If I’m in France, (He has a home near St Tropez), I might work, or go off cycling for a couple of hours. Or to the gym, or on my boat. I’m very fortunate with what I do. You can write any time of the day or night. And I tend to be an all-or-nothing person. I’ll work flat out for four days, 12-15 hours a day, then knock off for a week. Perhaps I’m schizophrenic: I’m hard working, and lazy too!

Q: So what do you want your legacy to be?

A: There is so much information known about cancer. Most of it is wasted or ignored. I want my legacy to be that it is now all assembled in one easy-to access place. Easy to use and understand. My little mission in 2004/5 started it all. I think there will be a worldwide explosion in information one day. I see us like the early Christians in the Roman Empire. Unstoppable. This mission tells the Truth about cancer. It empowers people to increase their personal odds of survival. Why wouldn’t people with cancer want to join the mission?

I don’t know whether we can help save lives, nor indeed how many people we can even help. I do know that as we put this together properly, people who have cancer, or people who want to prevent it, will be able to access truthful, accurate, independent information so that they can increase their odds of beating the disease.

You’ve got to remember that in a funny way, I didn’t choose to do all this. It chose me; some power, some force, through Catherine’s illness.

Open quotesNo one needs to die of ignorance anymoreClose quotes

When we started out I used to say that there is so much information out there - probably enough to beat cancer today. But if people cannot easily access or understand it, then at least some of those people are dying, not of cancer, but of ignorance.

Hopefully at the end, I can put my hand on my heart and say, "Yes, we did our bit to get it going. Now no one needs to die of ignorance, anymore". That would be good enough for one life time.

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