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Cancer therapy pained her family...and didn't work

Friday, April 09, 1999

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It got to the point that family members couldn't even talk with Patti Davis about breast cancer, a disease that killed her last month at 39.

It wasn't that they shied away from the tragedy of Davis having cancer at a young age. On the contrary, her brothers, her father and her mother - a breast cancer survivor for 22 years - had numerous conversations with Davis about how she should handle the disease. Again and again they told her that radiation, chemotherapy and the latest treatments available would help her improve her chances.

Davis was a graduate of Fox Chapel Area High School, an all-American swimmer at the University of Pittsburgh and a broadcast journalist whose career took her to a job as TV news anchor at a station in Sacramento, Calif. When she was diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago, she opted for alternative medicine, and refused to undergo conventional therapy. Her care included week-long trips to a Mexican clinic that prescribed lifestyle changes ranging from exercise and positive thinking to grass juices and coffee enemas.

Family members here in Pittsburgh believed she was killing herself.

Eventually, they had to silence their views for fear they would lose Davis not just in death, but in life.

"You talked around it because she didn't want to hear it," said her mother, Pat Davis, 68, of Indiana Township. "In order to maintain the relationship you just couldn't mention it."

Davis was buried in California. Her local friends and family will meet at the East Union Presbyterian Church near Cheswick at 3 p.m. tomorrow to celebrate her memory. It's a chance for them to say goodbye in their own way.

"The last 2 1/2 years have been sheer hell," Davis said. "God knows we tried to be there for her and tried to tell her that we loved her. We wanted her to live and we told her, please don't do this. ... This is something we never understood and never will."

When Patti Davis was a child, her mother's car was seldom found in the driveway of their home - the car was always shuttling Davis either to gymnastics practice or cheerleading or swimming or skiing or any of the girl's other activities. At college, Davis thought she wanted to be a lawyer until she worked two internships at KDKA-TV. That led to radio jobs in Somerset and Kittanning and then, finally, to a television job in a bureau with WTOV-TV in Steubenville. Her career track took her to Lancaster, Pa., Florida and, ultimately, California, where she had lived for the past 13 years.

She got a break working for KOVR-TV in Sacramento when she interviewed Ellie Nessler, a woman who shot to death her son's accused molester in a California courtroom. The interview helped Davis win a job in 1995 as the anchor for Channel 13's morning and noon broadcasts. That year she married Tony Toste, a camera operator at the station.

After her diagnosis, Davis began sharing her cancer story with television viewers as well as a reporter at the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

According to the newspaper accounts, Toste supported Davis throughout the ordeal, as she adopted a rigorous 13-hour-a-day treatment plan called Gerson Therapy. The therapy - based on a combination of diet, exercise and coffee enemas - is controversial. Doctors in California warned Davis against relying exclusively on the alternative treatments.

But the couple held out great faith in the therapies, which were prescribed at the Center for Holistic Life Extension in Tijuana. To support his wife, Toste adopted Davis' diet and at one point they were eating about 15 pounds of carrots per week between them.

Family members in Pittsburgh also stressed to Davis that conventional treatments can be effective. Pat Davis thought her example of being diagnosed with breast cancer at 47 and living 22 years after radiation and chemotherapy would have shown her daughter the way to go. But Patti didn't see it that way.

"She was here with me and she knew what I was going through with breast cancer," Davis said. "The bottom line is what matters - I'm alive. There were days I thought I was going to die, and there were days I wished I would die, but I'm still here."

The disagreement strained relations. Davis said family members here were unsure what was happening during Patti Davis' treatments. Then, last spring, Davis turned to conventional treatments in addition to alternative therapy after detecting a lump under her arm.

"I think she wanted the best of both worlds when she knew that the tumors were not disappearing," Pat Davis said. "When that was, I don't know - I only got told what she wanted me to hear. It made it even worse. She was so resolute."

In a December newspaper account, Davis said of adding conventional therapy: "I realized I needed to be open to all kinds of treatment." In that article, Davis and Toste said they didn't regret delaying seeking radiation and chemotherapy.

"She did whatever she believed was best for her at the time," Toste told the newspaper.

Davis talked with her daughter for the last time on a Wednesday, three days before her death on March 20. Her daughter was being cared for at a Tulsa hospital that specializes in combining Western and alternative medicine. She asked if she should visit, but her daughter told her she would be fine and would expect to see her during a future visit to California.

Davis said that at one point in the last few months she asked if her daughter had regrets about her treatment decision.

"All she said was 'Yes,' " Davis said. "It was too late, and in her heart I think she knew it, but she was confident until the last two days that she was going to make it."

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