‘I’m sorry for my mistakes’: Cancer doctor nicknamed ‘God’ tells of his shame as he fights to save his career after inquiry damns his ‘cavalier’ attitude to dying patients
A leading cancer doctor nicknamed ‘God’ for his life-saving treatments has said he is humbled and ashamed as he faces ruin over his ‘cavalier’ attitude towards dying patients.
But even though Professor Justin Stebbing could now be struck off, hundreds who credit him with saving their lives, or extending the lives of loved ones, still back him.
‘Team Stebbing’ has won the support of one of Britain’s most eminent oncologists, who warned that a misconduct finding against the 50-year-old earlier this month would deter fellow cancer specialists from helping patients who were ‘desperate to live’.
Stebbing, who is an oncology professor at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, earned millions from his private practice in Harley Street, treating stars including ‘Oxo Mum’ actress Lynda Bellingham and Sir Michael Parkinson.
Even though Professor Justin Stebbing could now be struck off, hundreds who credit him with saving their lives, or extending the lives of loved ones, still back him
But in 2017 an anonymous whistleblower sent a dossier on his work to the General Medical Council.
A disciplinary hearing heard harrowing detail of the final days of 12 of Stebbing’s patients – many of whom had come to him after other oncologists said nothing more could be done.
Last month, the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service panel concluded his behaviour had breached ‘the very core of the Hippocratic Oath’.
Supporters include Rosa Burdsall whose husband Brian was told he had stage 4 cancer in 2012. Thanks to the pioneering regime of chemotherapy that Stebbing put him on, Mr Burdsall – the former managing director of Midland Mainline railway – was able to enjoy another five years of life
It said the Oxford-trained doctor was prepared to sanction ‘futile’ treatment in a manner that was ‘fundamentally inconsistent with the best interests of patients’.
Tribunal chairman Hassan Khan accused him of responding to legitimate concerns about patients’ treatment in a ‘dismissive, confrontational, and aggressive manner’.
Now details of grovelling ‘reflection’ statements from Stebbing as he sought to avoid the finding of misconduct have been released. In one, he said he had learnt many lessons – but insisted that ‘at all times I was working to save lives’.
In a second statement written after the panel found 33 out of 36 counts had been proved, he described the disciplinary hearing as a ‘deeply humbling, chastening… experience’.
He added: ‘I am sorry I made so many mistakes.’ Saying he was ‘deeply ashamed’ of his failings, he pledged to act in a more cautious manner if allowed to continue his medical career.
Lawyers for Stebbing handed over 1,000 pages of testimonials from 366 patients or their family members. Supporters include Rosa Burdsall whose husband Brian was told he had stage 4 cancer in 2012.
Thanks to the pioneering regime of chemotherapy that Stebbing put him on, Mr Burdsall – the former managing director of Midland Mainline railway – was able to enjoy another five years of life.
His 72-year-old widow, from Brampton, Cambridgeshire, said: ‘Brian was able to spend time with his grandchildren, which was wonderful, and we also got to enjoy some wonderful family holidays.’
She told the Daily Mail it would be ‘a tragedy’ if patients were denied the chance to be treated by Stebbing.
The panel noted the testimonials. But it concluded the public would be ‘extremely concerned’ at an oncologist adopting a ‘cavalier’ approach to consent, treatment and prognosis who had treated patients ‘in the face of futility… potentially depriving patients of a dignified death’.
Oncologist Karol Sikora warned it patients would suffer if Stebbing was banned. ‘What worries me is oncologists will pull back on potentially life-saving treatments,’ said Professor Sikora, a former head of the World Health Organisation’s cancer programme.
‘They’ll say “What’s the point of trying something new if it’s going to get me in trouble?” In my view it’s tall poppy syndrome – he’s annoyed a lot of people.’
The panel will meet next month to decide what sanction – from a warning to being struck off – to impose. Stebbing faced no accusations that his actions were financially motivated.
He allowed me to be a normal mum
After she found a lump on her breast in February 2016, Laura Downer was given the shattering diagnosis of a stage 3 aggressive form of cancer.
With her daughter studying for GCSEs and her son going through his A-levels, she was determined to give herself every chance.
After a mastectomy recommended by her NHS consultant, the nature charity worker baulked at the proposed gruelling cocktail of chemotherapy drugs.
Instead she sought a second opinion with Professor Stebbing thanks to being covered by her husband’s work health insurance.
Following a course of an alternative single chemotherapy drug given weekly, then radiotherapy, he put her on the drug Herceptin for a year. Stebbing also supported Mrs Downer’s own efforts to beat cancer including diet, exercise and meditation.
She has remained his patient, managing to see him under the NHS after insurers cut ties with him four years ago. She is currently cancer-free.
In her testimonial, she said the treatment had enabled her to continue to be ‘a normal mum’. But now she feared ‘losing my oncologist, the man I consider my lifeline’.
She added: ‘I feel he has given me the best chance for a long-term cancer-free future – and if it does come back, I believe he will give me the best chance of survival.’