When Carmela Toews's younger brother was diagnosed with cancer last December, her family was prepared to do anything to fight it.

Her brother, 29-year-old Daniel Penner, was diagnosed with stage four thymus carcinoma, an aggressive cancer attacking glands in his chest. Following rounds of radiation, options began running out.

"The [doctors] basically told us we can do chemo, but we don't expect that it will help," Toews told CBC News.

"We didn't want to do nothing, so we looked for alternatives and his name came up."

Carmela Toews

Carmela Toews holds a vial of what she was told were stem cells that her family purchased from Leslie Colmer. She said each round of the treatment cost them $13,000. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

The name they were given: Leslie Colmer, a Manitoba man who she says was offering alternative therapy similar to a treatment in Mexico that her family had researched.

Toews said because Colmer was local, the treatment was more affordable, so the family met for a consultation.

"He came to [our] house to talk about what kind of treatments he did and how much it would cost and what the prognosis was," she said.

Colmer got into trouble last week when he was arrested on charges and fraud. RCMP allege that Colmer was impersonating a doctor.

Court documents reveal that he currently faces 20 charges of fraud, as well as one assault charge, related to a total of 20 alleged victims.

Colmer turned down a request for an interview on Monday. His lawyer also declined to comment.

'I didn't have a very good first impression'

Toews said during the family's consultation, Colmer offered three alternative treatments for Penner:

  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy — three 40-hour sessions for $24,000.
  • Stem cell therapy — two rounds of treatment, or 20 vials in total, for $26,000.
  • Chelation therapy and health supplements for roughly $10,000. (The health supplements were not purchased from Colmer.)

The price tag for the total treatment would be $60,000, with a discount for paying in cash, said Toews.

It was expensive, but potentially the only alternative, said Toews, who added that they discussed the treatment as a family after Colmer left.

"I didn't have a very good first impression [of Colmer]," she said.

"He seemed unprofessional in some ways. I hate to say that."

Toews said Colmer was discussing his frustration over money that other clients owed him, and he seemed defensive when she posed some questions.

"And there were one or two things that I asked him where his answers were clearly wrong, and that made me doubt everything else," she said.

But Toews said they were more interested in the treatment he was offering than who he was. 

"I think we all agreed he didn't have a very professional manner, but we were willing to go with it anyway because we were desperate," she said.

"I think it was comforting for my family to have somebody who would just give you a whole list of things to do."

The family fundraised and went ahead with the treatments. The oxygen therapy was conducted out of a Winnipeg home.

Toews said the stem cells were injections that Colmer claimed to have brought in from Switzerland and the chelation therapy was in pill form. Both the stem cells and the chelation therapy were administered by the family, she added.

But weeks into the therapy, Penner began having severe headaches.

Toews said her family notified Colmer, who "did some kind of a test where he had [Penner] close his eyes and touch his nose, and he said if he [could], he didn't have brain tumours.

"I didn't feel that was a conclusive kind of test at all," she said.

Colmer arrested for claiming to be a doctor

Toews said Colmer never claimed to be a doctor and her family was not led to believe he was. But RCMP believe he was giving medical advice to others, making house calls across Manitoba and allegedly claiming to be a doctor.

After an investigation, police believe that Colmer saw and treated patients in Steinbach, Winnipeg, Selkirk and surrounding rural areas when he didn't have a medical licence.

CBC News found Colmer's name listed on RateMDs.com, a website in which the public can rate doctors. He was listed on the website as a "Family / GP [general practitioner]" in Winnipeg.

Colmer's arrest on June 3 was prompted by a complaint from someone who had concerns after seeing him for what was believed to be a doctor's appointment.

"There was concern about Colmer's behaviour as a doctor and about the medications he prescribed," RCMP stated in a news release last week.

Toews said she learned of the charges against Colmer while reading the news on Thursday. The RCMP also contacted her that day.

Police believe there are more potential victims in Steinbach, Winnipeg, Selkirk as well as in the Brandon and Beausejour areas.

Colmer's last court appearance was Friday and he remains in custody.

The Manitoba Chiropractors Association confirmed that Colmer was registered as a chiropractor in the province from 1975 until February 2002. However, officials could not say why he is no longer registered.

Court documents also reveal that between 1996 and 1998, Colmer was charged with property theft.

Colmer pleaded guilty to property theft under $5,000 and was fined $1,000.

Sister not surprised about allegations

"I didn't feel very surprised," Toews said after learning about Colmer's arrest.

She said her family does not feel angry or betrayed because they purchased the treatment from him with open eyes and open minds.

"I know that some of these treatments were a bit sketchy. We were totally aware that he was a bit sketchy and we were totally aware that it was very expensive, and yet we still did it because there wasn't a better option," she said.

"I don't know if the treatments helped or not, but I don't know if anything would have helped or not."

Daniel Penner passed away in March after the cancer had spread to his brain.

Toews said Colmer refunded the family in the range of $10,000 for leftover therapy Penner didn't use.

Several vials of what Toews was told were stem cells still have small amounts of clear liquid inside. Toews said she has thought about having them tested to find out what's truly in them.

At the same time, she said the results would not really matter because they wouldn't have changed the outcome.

"With the information we had at the time, I think we made the best choice that we could," she said.

Toews said her family is at peace with the decision to try the treatment and knowing they did what they could to help Penner.

Family wanted more information from professionals

Toews said if there is anything people can take from her family's story, it is to do your research.

"Not just Googling things…. If you could take some of these questions [about alternative therapy] to your doctor and ask them and have them say more than just, ''It's a terrible idea,' we could make some progress," she said.

Toews said she has nothing but praise for the doctors who looked after her brother, but her family did ask them about the alternative treatments they were researching.

"As soon as we talked about it, they expressed disapproval and then backed off," she said.

"I think we felt very much on our own trying to figure some of these things out," she added.

"I just wonder if the doctors had taken the time to look at the specific treatments we were looking at, and gone through them with us and helped us make that decision, if we would have decided anything different.

"Maybe we wouldn't have, but maybe we wouldn't have felt so alone doing it."