Six-year-old cancer patient's parents share story of treatment by Toronto doctor found 'incompetent' by tribunal
A Toronto doctor is facing penalties after a discipline tribunal found he was incompetent and failed to maintain standards of practice while treating a dozen patients with cancer, including a six-year-old boy.
Dr. Akbar Khan offered patients a variety of unproven treatments, according to a ruling from the Ontario Physicians and Surgeons Discipline Tribunal, including something called “SAFE Chemotherapy” and a drug called dichloroacetate, which is a drug for metabolic disorders.
“Whether it was ‘snake oil,’ ‘witches’ brew’ or otherwise, whatever it was that Dr. Khan was offering his patients, it was not what he claimed. In doing so, Dr. Khan set aside his obligations as a physician to uphold the College’s CAM [Complementary and Alternative Medicine] and consent policies, and in doing so, he failed his patients,” the ruling says.
The parents of one of Khan’s patients, known in the judgment as “Patient A,” told CTV News Toronto they don’t agree that they were misled, saying they believed that their son’s brain cancer would likely kill him and they wanted a treatment that would help them enjoy what time he had left.
“We hoped and prayed that he would live. We really dived into our faith. But we knew, in terms of medical intervention, he was not going to live,” the father said in an interview.
He and his wife told CTV News Toronto that their son was a bright kid who loved his family, enjoyed playing chess and loved figuring out how everything worked.
“We’d say he was a little heartbreaker because he had these big brown eyes, and everywhere we would go people adored him,” said the boy's mother.
But one day, their six-year-old son grabbed his head, and started screaming in pain. His parents took him to the emergency room, where they did tests, and eventually ended up at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, where a scan confirmed the presence of tumours.
“They found a large mass on the back of [his] brain, on his cerebellum, and spots down his spine,” the mother said. Her son was put into surgery immediately, he said, but the cancer was an aggressive medulloblastoma.
“They weren’t able to remove the entire tumour. The risk was too great,” she said.
The boy's father said after considering the side effects of rounds of chemotherapy, they decided, “We would not proceed, we would do something more palliative. We thought if we would lose him either way, why would we put him through that.”
The family looked into other options, and found Dr. Khan, who prescribed dichloroacetate.
“He didn’t experience side effects. He slowly regained his ability to walk. [He] would show off and stand on one leg because he was eating well,” his father said.
After seeing a video of their son, Dr. Khan wrote the parents that their current therapy is “actually working very well,” the decision read.
The cancer spread and he died on his eighth birthday, in 2018, the parents said.
The pair said they researched the doctor extensively and made sure there was no financial motive. They said in total the treatments cost them some $800 — not much compared to the other massage treatments they did.
The tribunal hearing says a Children’s Aid Society representative met with the parents but ultimately did not take their son into protective custody and dropped the case, saying that he was not a child in need of protection.
The parents said they were the ones who asked Dr. Khan not to provide records to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario [CPSO] investigation, not Dr. Khan. Dr. Khan’s failure to provide records in “Patient A’s” case was part of the finding that Dr. Khan did not meet the “acceptable standard of the profession,” the CPSO wrote.
The tribunal wrote that the survival rate for children who have needed treatments for medulloblastoma is approximately 69.2 per cent. “Regarding quality of life, there is significant variance as to the level of toxicity that children experience from the different treatments. Some will attend university with good grades, while others may have significant cognitive decline that requires special accommodation at school,” it said.
But the boy's father said his son's cancer had spread to the thin layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cords -- a condition he believed would drastically reduce his chance of surviving.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons dispute that what Khan provided was palliative care, saying that in six of the cases, the patients signed a form declining palliative care in favour of a treatment that “it is hoped… will cause shrinking of cancer, or remission of cancer… early data indicate the likelihood [of these benefits] is substantially greater [with SAFE chemotherapy] than conventional chemotherapy.”
According to the tribunal, some of Khan’s patients paid $4,200 for a cycle of SAFE chemotherapy.
“Therapy stopped only when his patients either could not afford it any longer, their condition had deteriorated to such a degree that they could not tolerate it, they were so ill that they were admitted to hospital, or they died,” the College’s summary says.
Khan referred comment to his lawyer, who did not return emails.
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