Professor offered false and expensive hope to dying cancer patients

Professor offered false and expensive hope to dying cancer patients

October 6, 2021

Saviour or sinner? To some families who gave evidence against him, this top professor offered false – and expensive – hope to dying cancer patients. To others, including celebrities, he is a maverick genius

  • Oncologist Justin Stebbing, 50, was nicknamed ‘God’ by his grateful patients
  • But Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service in Manchester probed his practice 
  • Tribunal ruled the world-renowned oncologist had failed to provide good care
  • A-List supporters include Lynda Bellingham’s husband and Michael Parkinson

Diagnosed with cancer hours earlier, Lynda Bellingham couldn’t hold back the tears as she entered the office of world-renowned oncologist Justin Stebbing.

‘I don’t want to be a burden,’ the actress told him, assuming she was about to be told she was beyond help and should return home to put right her affairs. ‘If I’m going to die, let me die now.’ 

But Professor Stebbing – a man nicknamed ‘God’ by his grateful patients – was having none of it.

‘You can both stop crying,’ he told her and husband Michael Pattemore. ‘Lynda, I can’t cure your cancer, but I think I can get you to the point where we can control it.’

Over the next two hours the medic painstakingly explained how he intended to treat the cancer which, by then, had spread from her bowel to her liver and lungs. 

And, from that moment on, Stebbing would be with Lynda, the ‘Oxo Mum’ in 16 years of gravy adverts, every step of the way.

A tribunal ruled that Professor Justin Stebbing (pictured), a man nicknamed ‘God’, failed to provide good care and will now decide if Stebbing’s fitness to practice has been impaired

‘I was by her side while she had cancer and I don’t care what anyone says – life is precious,’ Mr Pattemore told the Daily Mail. 

‘If you can extend life by a month, a week, a day, an hour or a minute, if you are the patient, you will try and extend it by whatever you can.

‘If it’s your wife, your husband, parents or kids who has cancer, they are going to want that extra week, that extra day before their last breath. And I feel that thanks to Justin, I had Lynda for an extra 15 months. And for that I will always be grateful.’

And yet those words of praise could hardly contrast more with those of the relatives of other patients treated by the 50-year-old oncologist.

Over the course of the past 20 months they have been among dozens of witnesses giving evidence to the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service in Manchester at a hearing probing his private practice.

It ruled he had failed to provide good care and will now decide if Stebbing’s fitness to practice has been impaired and what sanctions, if any, he will face. This could include striking him off the medical register.

Whatever the final outcome, his reputation as a world-leading oncologist lies in ruins. 

Having previously had 1,200 patients under his care and with earnings running to millions of pounds a year, on Monday he applied to dissolve the company through which he did much of his private work.

Having previously had 1,200 patients under his care, on Monday he applied to dissolve his company. Pictured: Justin Stebbing with the late actor Sir Roger Moore

That Stebbing has a brilliant medical mind, there can be little debate.

After a first-class degree in medicine at Oxford University, he trained in the United States before returning to London, first at the Royal Marsden and then at Imperial College and its linked NHS Trust.

At the height of the pandemic he even wrote a series of papers on coronavirus, one examining how easily it could be transmitted by touching a ball – be it a football, a cricket ball or a golf ball.

With a private practice in Harley Street his reputation grew, along with the financial rewards. 

As well as a £3.5million north London townhouse, company accounts show that in 2017 and 2018 he received dividend payments of £2.2million and £1.6million.

But this week he applied to Companies House to dissolve Justin Stebbing Ltd, a process often undertaken when a company is no longer active.

Twice married, he has two sons with his second wife Aimee, an Oxford-educated lawyer whose clients include Umbro, Mulberry, Alexa Chung and Space NK. 

She often supports him at charity events, as does Sir Michael Parkinson, who he treated for prostate cancer.

Other supporters, and there are many, highlight his treatment of Douglas Myers, a New Zealand brewing tycoon who consulted the professor in 2013 after being told he had only weeks to live.

Sir Douglas, who had colon cancer, spent tens of thousands of pounds, including on three shots a week of pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug costing up to £20,000 a dose. 

He later wrote to a friend: ‘My take is I won’t be cured but probably the way it’s responding to treatment it’ll be contained and OK for a few years.’

Sir Douglas died four years later, at the age of 78.

It was also in 2013 that Stebbing started treating Miss Bellingham, who was referred to him at a private London clinic. She died in her husband’s arms the following year.

‘If a patient turns round and says to a doctor like Justin Stebbing ‘do whatever you can’, then he will,’ Michael Pattemore said.

‘Everything he did for Lynda, he would sit down and explain exactly what’s going on. This hearing concerns 12 of his patients, but how many thousands more has he treated who, like us, were absolutely happy?’

But lawyers for the GMC argued that the number of satisfied patients was irrelevant to the tribunal’s consideration of the allegations relating to those he was accused of failing to provide good care for between March 2014 and March 2017.

Other charges concerned his failure to gain informed consent by not discussing the risks and benefits of treatment with patients and failing to maintain proper records.

He has two sons with his second wife Aimee, who often supports him at charity events, as does Sir Michael Parkinson (pictured in November 2019), who he treated for prostate cancer

Complainants in the case included Leaders in Oncology Care, a specialist cancer treatment centre which is part of HCA Healthcare UK, Bupa and Axa insurers.

Its concerns resulted in the firm – the country’s largest private healthcare provider – requiring Stebbing to get approval from his supervisor for his work.

However, in March 2017 he was found to have breached those conditions over the care of a patient. In response HCA suspended him from its list of recognised consultants, meaning they would not fund treatment he prescribed.

A source yesterday stressed that the firm’s concerns ‘were not about billing’ but were instead about his alleged failure to heed the conditions.

Shortly afterward a whistleblower sent a dossier raising serious concerns about Stebbing’s private practice to the General Medical Council and the Care Quality Commission.

Described by one investigator who saw it as ‘causing quite a stir’, it is understood to have contained allegations that he was prescribing expensive cancer medication beyond the remit of its licence as well as having a ‘gung ho’ attitude to patient care.

The GMC then launched an investigation which ultimately focused on 12 patients, imposing interim restrictions in May 2017 requiring Stebbing to be supervised in all his medical work. He faced no accusations that his actions were financially motivated.

As the hearings unfolded, the tribunal pored over the often-agonising details of each patient’s cancer struggle, with evidence from dozens of witnesses, including patients’ families.

A recurring theme in the case was patients receiving treatment in spite of their disease progression, deteriorating condition or poor prognosis. 

Many of the 12 had been told by other oncologists they had just months to live and had gone to Stebbing for a second opinion.

One patient even received immunotherapy while he was in a hospice and some died on intensive care units just days after being given chemotherapy.

Even Stebbing’s own QC, Mary O’Rourke, acknowledged that all but one of the 12 patients had died within a month of having treatment.

Experts called by the GMC spoke of the need to used evidence-based medicine, to recognise the limitations of treatment and have ‘honest and open’ conversations with patients and their families to help them make difficult decisions.

In one case, Stebbing sought to obtain private funding to treat an NHS patient when medics at The Christie hospital in Manchester had stopped treating as her prognosis was likely to measure just a ‘short number of weeks’.

The 44-year-old woman – known as Patient D – had been diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her liver and bones.

Stebbing sought funding for her chemotherapy and stated, inaccurately, in a letter that The Christie was taking ‘an enormously long time’ to make a decision about her treatment.

He then failed to inform the patient or her family that his funding application had been refused prior to her £3,000 treatment, which her father then had to pay. The woman died two days later. 

In 2013 that Stebbing started treating Lynda Bellingham (pictured in October 2014), who was referred to him at a private London clinic. She died in her husband’s arms the following year 

Stebbing also admitted inappropriately treating a 47-year-old female patient – known as Patient E – and failing to maintain an appropriate degree of professional distance with her after they exchanged ‘flirty’ messages.

He’d referred to her as LMT, or ‘Little Miss Trouble’, and many messages were accompanied with kisses, ‘love to LMT’ and ‘good LMT’. 

Patient E later admitted to developing feelings for him due to their ‘strong chemistry’ and his ‘super tactile and affectionate’ nature.

Although there was no suggestion their relationship went any further, it was claimed the patient’s emotional attachment may have clouded Stebbing’s judgement.

In his defence, Miss O’Rourke repeatedly highlighted the differences between NHS care and private care, where private patients had more choice over their treatment.

There were always private patients, she argued, who wanted to pursue a ‘last chance’ or seek out cancer treatment regardless of the slim chance of success.

In giving his evidence to the panel, Stebbing had described the GMC’s position as being ‘if you’re in doubt, let the patient die’ whereas his was to try to save lives.

‘I always did my best and I’ve clearly fallen short in some cases and I’m very remorseful, upset and sad about that, and hopefully I’ve learned my lesson,’ he said.

He was also forced to deny claims of spreading himself too thinly by having 1,200 patients under his care at one time.

Allegations found not proved included one that he had failed to explain to a patient the reason for escalating treatment.

Another unproven allegation was that he failed to explain to another patient the option of ‘receiving no systemic anti-cancer therapy’.

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