From the moment a patient walks into his consulting room, Jan de Vries studies every tiny detail. The way they walk. The way they talk. Hair. Eyes. Not so different, then, from the professional interviewer. So here is that very first glimpse of the interviewee: up through the stairwell of his Edinburgh clinic, Jan de Vries is visible on the top landing. An array of our photographerís equipment is spread out and de Vries stands, a small figure in a neat suit and tie, hands clasped one over the other, smiling stiffly at the camera. Climbing towards him, I notice he looks uncomfortable facing the lens.
Downstairs, we observe one another across his desk. Sometimes, he claims, he can tell what is wrong with a person before they speak. For my part, I look at de Vriesís eyes. At first, I wonder if they are a little hard. He has small, black pupils. I suspect he is a little quirky despite that conventional suit. Quaint, formal, incredibly courteous. And intense, a deep grain of seriousness running beneath his smile, like the grain running beneath polished wood.
Perhaps such observations donít convince. Where is the evidence? But then sometimes de Vriesís patients think his instant diagnosis is mystical, when actually he has been studying concrete physical symptoms. Intuition, too, may seem random, but is often based on quite specific signals: the warmth of a smile, a fleeting expression, the tone of a voice. We might find it hard to interpret or define those signals. It doesnít mean we havenít received them.
Complementary medicine sometimes seems to exist in that twilight world of hunches. You either get it or you donít. Like conservation and feminism, it has baggage that can be as much to do with the supporters as the cause itself. Alternative therapies? Cranky, unscientific, downright weird. Or is that just Prince Charles?
Charles is one of its most famous advocates, and around 20% of the British population agree with him; we spend £1.6 billion a year on complementary therapies. But the proof? Scientific data does exist. De Vries himself has been involved in extensive research with the Dutch health service, which showed alternative therapies to be twice as effective as conventional ones in treating rheumatoid arthritis. But there are difficulties. We can see how acupuncture, homoeopathy and herbalism might be tested. But how do you gauge the effects of thinking positively? Of becoming more spiritual? According to de Vries, both affect health.
As Britainís most famous alternative health practitioner, de Vries was a health guru on Richard and Judyís This Morning and has taken part in countless other radio and television programmes, particularly with broadcaster Gloria Hunniford. He has ten clinics throughout Britain, including those in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Troon and London, and he has written 40 books, the latest of which is on cancers in women.
De Vries is worried by the huge increase in cancer cases. On the table by his window is a framed photograph of Hunniford, whose daughter, the broadcaster Caron Keating, died of breast cancer just weeks ago. Hunniford was sceptical when she first worked with de Vries, but gradually she was converted. When she broke her arm and was told it would not mend completely, she consulted de Vries. Her surgeon was astonished by her subsequent rapid improvement. Hunniford and de Vries became friends, so it was natural that Keating should consult him when she became ill.
De Vries looks at me across his desk. It is important to talk about breast cancer. Important to talk about Keating. He spoke to Hunniford and asked if he should write about her, and Hunniford said yes, she knew he would do it in the right way. But de Vries is a careful man.
We will go and eat, he and I. His treat. I think he is still assessing me. We will talk about Keating later.
WhEN Jan de Vries first came to Scotland from Holland, he visited the only complementary clinic then in operation. What, he asked the clinicís principal, was the Scottish cancer rate? “I am sorry to have to tell you,” came the reply, “that it is one in 18.” It is now almost one in three.
De Vries has never forgotten the principalís words. You must remember, he said, that cancer is a metabolic disease. It had a lot to do with what you eat and drink. “He said that as the world develops,” recalls de Vries, “and the stresses get bigger, it will be a growing problem. And he was right.”
De Vries and I are now sitting in an expensive restaurant, eating the best seafood, vegetables and fruit. There is something delicious not just about the food, but about his sense of pleasure in it. Waiters come and go, and as each little delicacy is presented there is another exclamation of delight. How lovely! Isnít it delicious? He thanks staff until they blush, his Dutch accent peppered with Scottish inflexions. “How well you look after us here,” he says in amazement, with such gratitude that you would have thought they were doing it for free.
Positive attitude, perhaps. His book gives detailed dietary advice. But it also discusses the function of the mind in a healthy body, the importance of thinking positively and dealing adequately with stress. “Every day the question I get is why is there so much cancer? Cancer is as old as the Bible. But it is a big, growing problem. I would say it is probably because of society today, because of eating habits, pollution, a whole list of reasons. But most are to do with the stressful way we live and the problems we have – unhappy marriages, resentment at work, traumatic experiences.”
De Vries was the youngest pharmacy graduate in Holland. But he was worried – rightly, as it turned out – about the growing use of antibiotics then taking place. When he met the Swiss naturopath Dr Alfred Vogel, with whom he would later found the homoeopathic company Bioforce, he became intrigued by alternative medicine. He studied in China, learning various techniques, including acupuncture and Chinese facial diagnosis.
It was not an easy transition. “The beginning was terribly difficult. You were standing there in cloud-cuckoo-land. Nobody believed in it; nobody wanted to know.”
That included his parents. Hitler and Himmler were well-known advocates of homoeopathic medicine, and many homoeopathic doctors had been Nazi supporters. The stigma remained. “My father and mother couldnít cope with that.”
Itís hardly surprising. De Vries was brought up in the Dutch town of Kempen, and his family suffered greatly during the war. His father and older brother, Nicholas, refused to register with the Nazis and were taken away by the SS, his father to Auschwitz. De Vries was left behind with his mother, “a wonderful woman”, who harboured many refugees. Was he aware of the danger? “Yes,” he says flatly. “I was scared the Germans would shoot her. I saw them with a gun at her head. But I donít know what that woman had. She had something that meant they didnít dare pull the trigger. She was something special.”
De Vries had a strictly religious upbringing, and his own Christian faith was shaped by war experiences. Once, a desperate man, covered in scabies and wearing only one clog, came to their door. The Germans were after him. De Vriesís mother hid him under the floorboards with others she was protecting. “The Germans came into town in their big cars, shouting and screaming. I was scared, my mother even more so. She said, ĎGet down on your knees and pray to God.í Believe it or not, they turned every house upside down but never touched ours. Is that not a miracle?”
De Vries reunited his mother with the man just before she died, in 1993.
His father returned from Auschwitz “a wreckage”. His brother Nicholas fared better. “He was a fantastic footballer, a great sportsman. He was always in the limelight. He was everything I am not: tall, good-looking, charming, absolutely gorgeous. All the women fell for him. He was also a nice fellow.”
And smart. Nicholas lied to the SS, telling them he was a wonderful cook. He became one of their chefs, managing also to feed himself. By charming several women he worked with, he also got food to his father a couple of times.
De Vriesís father influenced his beliefs about cancer and, like most people, his life has been touched by the disease. His sister was born with it but survived; the husband of one of his four daughters now suffers from it; and his father died from it. His fatherís was a strange case. Forty years after returning from Auschwitz, he fell through a roof. He had been perfectly healthy but was so ill the next day that he couldnít swallow. Cancer of the oesophagus was diagnosed. When he was operated on, it was discovered the tumour must have been there many years and was growing in every direction. Six months later, he died.
De Vries believes his fatherís cancer began in the concentration camps, only becoming dangerous after his fall. Physical and emotional trauma, he argues, exacerbate cancer. He believes that also happened with Caron Keating.
Yet the practitioner himself sometimes works a coronary-inducing 90-hour week. Why is that not harmful? Because he loves it. His son-in-law once said to him, “I have asked myself what makes you tick. I have come to the conclusion that it is the challenge of your patients.”
People tend to come to de Vries when they have exhausted conventional medicine. They have given up hope. That is the challenge. Inevitably, de Vries divides people. Some patients say he is the most wonderful man in the world. Another, who found her appointment too short and his remedies useless, tells me he is “a charlatan”. Does he mind being controversial? He smiles. “I rather like it.”
De Vries makes no grand claims. He uses the word “probably” a lot. And he does not talk of cures. It is too big a word. Others make the claims for him. In his book Living Proof: A Medical Mutiny, Oxford don Michael Gearin-Tosh described consulting de Vries after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He would not be alive today, he believes, had he not followed his advice.
But de Vries will not even talk of “treatment” for cancer. “By law, only oncologists can treat cancer. I am not allowed to, and never will, treat cancer, but I will advise patients how to back up hospital treatment. The person who is willing to go on to a more natural way of life probably has more chance of survival. There are two armies of cells fighting in the body – the army of the healthy cells and the army of the cancer cells. If the army of the cancer cells is winning, you have a problem. So you have to back it up to make the healthy cells as strong as you can.”
Sometimes, I find interviews move up or down a gear because of a specific moment. The interview with de Vries is different, changing form slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, like an ice cube slowly melting into water. Who knows why we suddenly click? Not everything is a matter of logic. We talk late into the evening, gradually edging deeper into the spiritual beliefs he shared with Caron Keating. It can be spiritually demanding dealing with cancer patients. He saw13 in one day last week. “I went home and I was drained. I really was.” His voice sounds drained now.
Peopleís hopes, their expectations, are they a burden to him? “I get upset,” he says quietly, “when I see that hope in their eyes, and they look at you and they expect from you that you will keep them alive. And I keep saying to them, life is not in your hands or mine. Let us make the best of it.”
It is time to talk about Keating.
CARON KEATING was co-presenting This Morning with Richard Madeley the day she first spoke to de Vries about breast cancer. He had a regular health slot and Keating asked him to come to her dressing-room after the show. De Vries had laughed. No, no, he had joked, he did not go to ladiesí dressing-rooms. Oh, he must, insisted Keating, and he must look at her breasts too. She was light-hearted then. But in her dressing-room, de Vries knew something was wrong. “Her nipple was already pulling. I said, ĎYou must go immediately to your doctor.í”
She went to the Royal Marsden the next day. Tests proved she had cancer, an aggressive form. With her surgeonís permission, she asked de Vries to help, augmenting her conventional treatment with complementary remedies. “I had a professor over from America for her, a Professor Shamsuddin, who had studied for 18 years how to control a cancer cell. That is basically what cancer is: cells out of control.”
Professor Shamsuddin had done a lot of research into a protein called inositol, which is found on the inner wall of rice grains. “He told Gloria and Caron that was what he would advise her to take in a fairly big dosage. It did work, because although she had such an aggressive cancer that you would expect her to live only six months, she lived for seven years afterwards.”
During those years, Keating suffered several setbacks. The first was when her father, Don Keating, died. De Vries had also been treating Don, and had warned Hunniford that her former husband was seriously ill. “Caron was really upset. She went very much down. She was very fond of him, very close to him, as she was to her mother. With cancer, physical and emotional trauma can make things much worse.”
In fact, de Vries believes Keating might have lived longer had she not also suffered a physical trauma. Just weeks before she died, she fell at home. By this time, she was living in Australia but was still regularly in touch by phone. “I always tell patients with cancer to be careful of falls,” says de Vries, thinking also of his father. “I think the end came a bit too quickly because of that. Thatís my personal belief. I donít know if the family believes that, but I believe it.”
He also believes her illness changed her. “She became totally different. She was always a nice girl. But she changed and became very spiritual. A very nice person with a lot of good philosophies that helped a lot of people. She said herself that she had become different. I think she saw life to its full value.”
One conversation in particular sticks in his mind. “About a year ago, I spoke to her in the middle of the night. She was very keen that we should do a series of programmes together on the soul of man. We spoke deeply, and I realised how spiritual she was. She wanted to do a programme about the connection between mind, body and spirit. We spoke a long time, and we both agreed the soul is by far the strongest of the three. I discussed it with her, how much the soul played in the health of the human body.”
Keating knew she was dying, but believed she would have a new life. De Vries went to see her in London once. It was a lovely sunny day, the kind of day that must make it hard to contemplate dying. “I was amazed how deeply she spoke about her future. She had terrific faith. She was worried for her children, but she also spoke about what her life would be in the future. She said she would do her best as long as she was here, but she was quite convinced there was another life waiting.”
Was she frightened? “No,” he says immediately. “She completely trusted in the future. She told me during this illness that there is a bit more to life than just life. It has a much deeper meaning.”
Her husband and children have taken it very badly, says de Vries sadly. And her mother? “Her mother was her best friend, really, a sister to her. They were so close.”
He seems genuinely surprised when I ask if Hunniford has lost faith in alternative medicine because it couldnít save her daughter. After all, he says, Keating lived for seven years longer than she might have. “I think Caron was too big an example to everyone to lose faith.”
So he knew she couldnít be cured? “I think everybody knew her cancer had to come to an end some time.”
Keating believed in angels. De Vries does too, in “saving angels”. He has been in car crashes, a hijacked plane… God saved him. I find that peculiar, I tell him. Didnít God care about the people who died in crashes, then? Itís not that, says de Vries. “I think that you go when it is your time to go. I am quite sure that when your time is up, it is up.”
And he believes it was Caron Keatingís time? “I think she believed that herself.”
Right at the start, he said it was important to talk about her. What is it important to say? “That you are not neurotic if you see something unusual, that it is important to detect things early.”
And Keating, what did she want to say? “She wanted to tell people of their inner strength, and how much in their souls they could develop to overcome physical and emotional trauma.”
Did he go to her funeral? De Vries looks slightly discomfited. He should have. “Gloria was upset, but she saw all the obituaries I wrote and was very pleased with them.”
He had several programmes that day, he says. At first I am shocked; it seems cold. But listening to him, I come to understand it is more to do with his attitude to public events. I read that he once refused to go to a public ceremony where he was to be a guest of honour. “I am not very keen on that sort of thing,” he admits.
De Vries has treated many celebrities, but fame leaves him unmoved. “A lot of people who think they are somebody, it just puts my blood pressure up. I do appreciate the person who is a somebody and doesnít recognise it. I have met many people in my life who really were something. But they were so humble, not big pompous people.”
The question of Keatingís funeral prompted him and his wife to discuss his own funeral. What did he want? That was easy, he told her. No fuss. Not even a newspaper intimation. “Nobody needs to know. I said to Joyce, ĎJust the children and close family.í I like to keep things simple.”
We leave the restaurant, finally. De Vries, who writes a weekly newspaper column for free, is the first interviewee I have ever met who pays the bill. His motive? Generosity, I think. And also honour; I think he does not want payment, even in kind, for talking about Caron Keating.
He insists on walking me through the dark streets to my car. I insist on driving him through the dark streets to his hotel. It is the final glimpse, de Vries standing on the pavement, bending to wave through my car window with a warm smile.
Female Cancers by Jan de Vries is published by Mainstream (£5.99)