He calls himself a doctor and promises to cure cancer. Critics say he's profiting from misinformation
Darrell Wolfe, exposed in ‘90s over fake AIDS cure, is touting cures for ailments from chronic pain to cancer
A self-described health practitioner exposed nearly 30 years ago for selling fake HIV cures in Toronto is now peddling unproven and harmful treatments for everything from chronic pain to cancer, according to a Marketplace investigation.
The Doc of Detox — as Darrell Wolfe calls himself — has built a burgeoning alternative health operation at a resort in Ixtapa, Mexico, where he and his staff use questionable procedures and devices that are not only costly and ineffective, but can often cause egregious physical suffering. He also trains new recruits in his techniques.
- Watch Marketplace's investigation Friday at 8 p.m. on CBC or anytime at CBC Gem.
"People that are grifting, or trying to take advantage of others, will take every avenue they can," said Jacob Shelley, a health law professor at Western University in London, Ont. "He's not actually providing medical care. He's not helping people. He's selling a story to try to line his own pockets…. It's preying upon people's hope."
WATCH | Self-described health practitioner shows aggressive massage technique that he says will heal a recently broken wrist:
Marketplace spoke to 21 people who described their experiences with Wolfe and his program. They said that it was akin to joining a cult; that the physical treatments bordered on "torture"; and the promises that he'd be able to cure diseases, including advanced cancer, left them feeling "foolish" and "deceived."
"He's a snake oil salesman," said Calgary woman Carla Adamarczuk, who has multiple sclerosis. "I totally bought into it. I bought all the products, bought all the supplements."
She said Wolfe promised she'd be cured and even be able to walk again, so she spent over $10,000 on his devices and supplements because of her "desperation." None of it worked.
Adamarczuk said that as a former nurse, "I should know better."
Undercover CBC Marketplace journalists — attending one of his courses in Mexico this past May — captured some of the suffering described by Wolfe's clients on hidden camera, documenting a woman with a recently broken wrist writhing and screaming in pain as Wolfe performed an unproven physical technique on her to release what he claimed was emotional trauma manifested as scar tissue.
Wolfe refers to himself as a doctor, yet he is not a licensed medical practitioner and is not qualified to treat people with serious medical issues. Still, many people Marketplace spoke to believed he was a medical physician.
WATCH | Health claims made by 'Doc of Detox' captured on hidden camera and social media:
While Wolfe advertises his services to potential clients in Canada and the United States, he largely operates from Mexico, where costs are substantially cheaper and both government scrutiny and enforcement are more lax.
Marketplace reached out to the local government in Zihuatanejo, which also governs Ixtapa, to inquire about Wolfe's operation, and did not receive a response.
Those who went to Mexico for teachings or treatment learned quickly: come with money, and at their own peril.
Wolfe claims device can 'shut down cancer with one treatment'
In 2021, Nancy Jacobs's left breast was so lumpy it had broken through the skin. Doctors informed her she had breast cancer. While seeking natural treatment options, she came across Wolfe's videos online.
Jacobs spent thousands on supplements and devices based on Wolfe's recommendation. But when things got worse, she said he told her to go to Mexico so he could use a pulse machine called the CellSonic on her.
"He said he's worked with this, he's worked with breast cancer and that's what I need," said Jacobs when she spoke to Marketplace from her home in Fairfield, Calif.
Multiple videos on Wolfe's Facebook page insinuate that the CellSonic can cure cancer, including Wolfe claiming the device can "shut cancer down with one treatment" and saying "after one CellSonic treatment, they can't find cancer cells."
After Jacobs arrived in the fall of 2021, Wolfe didn't see her for weeks, according to text messages between her and Wolfe's staff. When she was finally treated with the CellSonic, she claimed she lost function in her arm.
An oncologist Marketplace consulted said arm swelling can be caused by breast cancer, but Jacobs said the pain got worse following the CellSonic treatment.
"From that point on, I could not take care of myself," she said. "And I was in pain."
There is no evidence that supports claims that the CellSonic treats cancer, according to multiple oncologists and medical professionals Marketplace consulted.
"It's a treatment I've never heard of or seen before," said Dr. Matthew Follwell, a radiation oncologist at Royal Victoria Regional Hospital. "Sounds like quackery."
By the time she was back in California, Jacobs was even more frail and sick.
"I'm mad," said Faith Ceja, Jacobs's daughter. "I get frustrated. I'm sad ... it's really very heartbreaking. I want [Wolfe] to be stopped."
Marketplace reached out to the Ministry of Health in B.C., where Wolfe's address and business are registered. The ministry confirmed the title "doctor" can only be used exclusively by registrants of a college, and Wolfe is not registered with the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons or as a naturopathic physician with the College of Naturopathic Physicians.
In an email statement, the ministry also said: "We encourage the public to contact the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons to file a complaint if they believe they have fallen victim to a fraudulent medical professional."
The statement also said that, "if any individuals believe Mr. Wolfe violated the Criminal Code of Canada during their interactions, the appropriate authority to submit a complaint to would be the police."
The maker of the CellSonic, Andrew Hague, said he stands by his product, and offered anecdotal reviews from practitioners in India and the U.S.
Jacobs, in the end, said she maxed out three credit cards and spent close to $13,000 US.
She died two weeks after her interview with Marketplace.
Hidden cameras capture cancer patient, dangerous claims
Wolfe's clinic is cordoned off to one wing of the resort, with rooms featuring everything from massage beds to light therapy for moods.
Marketplace's undercover team documented several people, like Jacobs, who were there for treatment.
Another man who had a tumour the size of an orange on his face told the undercover journalists he had CellSonic done on him to bring it down, although it was apparent it hadn't worked.
And despite repeated claims that the CellSonic can reduce or remove tumours, Wolfe acknowledged during the course that they were now trying to raise $20,000 to remove the man's tumour surgically.
"It's too big to take down for the CellSonic," said Wolfe on hidden cameras.
'A higher level like Jesus Christ'
CBC requested an on-camera interview with Wolfe while in Mexico, but he declined. Instead he conducted a Facebook Live that lasted more than an hour in response to CBC's request.
"Is everyone satisfied with our work? No," he said on the video. "Go ahead, let them strip me of everything, let them strip me down, let them cut my tongue out.… Maybe I can move onto a higher level like Jesus Christ."
In August 2022, CBC caught up with Wolfe at a seminar in Barrie, Ont.
Wolfe repeatedly claimed that he never said he could cure cancer, and that there was no cure for cancer. He also said that nobody has died after spending thousands on his treatments. When asked about his credentials, Wolfe said he has a "doctorate of natural medicine."
No recognized university in Canada offers a doctorate of natural medicine.
WATCH | Wolfe's claims about cancer treatments captured on hidden camera and social media:
The CBC journalists had gone under the guise of students taking the "Whole Life Coach Certification" course, a nine-day event that would teach people to "deprogram" themselves because the root of all disease, according to Wolfe, is negative emotion.
Many in attendance had come from the U.K, U.S and Australia. There were three Canadian nurses in the course as well.
During the course, Wolfe espoused conspiracies about COVID-19 and big pharma, and upsold his products and made wild claims of miracle treatments.
"I would give my father a shot of his urine … and I'd do that three times a day," he told the class. "You can think this is ego, but I got rid of [my dad's] leukemia in six weeks. Untraceable."
More controversially, he provided the class with unfounded ways to fight tumours, which included using devices called a "belly button massager" and "clapper."
"I can say it: this kills cancer cells, this kills infections," said Wolfe.
Dr. Dave Cescon, a medical oncologist and clinician scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, said Wolfe's claims and treatments "lack evidence of efficacy."
"Besides the financial or personal consequences, the greatest risk to the individual is that they get drawn into this instead of proven conventional treatment, and experience preventable complications of their disease or shortened survival," said Cescon.
'It's become like a cult,' former student says
John Kitson travelled from the United Kingdom to Ixtapa last year after he came across Wolfe's videos on Facebook.
He took his courses multiple times, spending over $20,000. He was a star student and was even featured in one of Wolfe's videos.
But he grew disillusioned.
"When I tried to look up the academic research, for example, PubMed or any scientific peer reviewed references to [Wolfe's] research, there's nothing there…. This was another alarm bell for me."
He grew disturbed by how Wolfe would talk about himself.
"They've come there and they see him as a saviour figure," he said. "He would openly boast in the meetings that God worked for him. You know, he would say, 'God works for me. And I work for you.' So if God works for him, wow, he must have some sort of special divine status.… It's become like a cult."
CBC investigated Wolfe in 1994
In 1994, Wolfe had set up shop in Toronto selling a device claiming to cure HIV, around the height of the AIDS epidemic. He claimed the device, which involved inserting a tube into a person's rectum, would kill the virus in their blood by pumping ozone gas into their system.
The device was not proven and no studies showed it worked. Yet he told the undercover CBC Marketplace reporter in 1994 that "60 per cent of my business and all my clients have HIV," and that he had several clients that tested negative after they tried the device.
Although he denied selling the fake HIV cure, following the episode, his business shut down, according to multiple people with knowledge of Wolfe's activities. In 1997, he filed for bankruptcy, according to documents obtained by Marketplace.
As of 2014, according to Wayback internet archive, he began selling all sorts of supplements like detox teas but his tune had evolved: he now described himself as a specialist that could "help everything from constipation to cancer," and was "the head of one of North America's leading natural cancer treatment and preventative care centers."
"Do you also realize that cancer or any other disease is an extension of your corrupted emotions? And do you understand that all corrupted emotions are self-hate?" he said during a video appearance on the misinformation site The Truth About Cancer.
His social media is substantial: he has hundreds of thousands of followers, mostly on Facebook, who cling to his every word about his treatments and, more recently, conspiracies about COVID-19.
"I just don't understand how he's allowed to do this.… There's just no way that he can be curing cancer," said former Manitoba Nurses Union president Sandi Mowatt. "Outrageous, absolutely outrageous."
Mowatt's brother, Jeff, had used savings from his impending funeral in 1993 to purchase the device from Wolfe as a last-ditch hope after he contracted HIV. He died months after.
"Now that I hear that he's profiting greatly from [cancer treatments], that even makes me more angry," said Mowatt.
Marketplace asked Meta, the parent company of Facebook, to comment on Wolfe's public posts spreading misinformation. Meta confirmed that Wolfe's page had been "demoted from the feed," meaning it's been filtered from recommendations and demonetized. The company had also flagged previous posts to third-party fact-checkers for violating policies, and conducted an additional review after Marketplace contacted the company.
YouTube also removed over 10 videos from Wolfe's channel that the company says was in violation of "our medical misinformation policies." Like Meta, YouTube limits recommendations of videos that could misinform users in harmful ways.
For people who may have loved ones seeking treatments or advice from practitioners like Wolfe, Shelley, the health law professor, suggests encouraging critical reflection.
"There's never going to be harm in getting more perspectives," he said. "Ask interesting questions: what does it mean, how does it work?… Be critical, and don't accept things at face value."