Some of the stories Payson residents have to share about “Indian Mud” seem fairly benign.
Dan was told by a friend that the highly caustic substance would help remove several spots on his forehead that he thought were cancerous.
“But I didn’t know for sure,” he said. “They may have just been sun spots. But I went ahead and dabbed that stuff all over. It worked.”
Dan" who, like the other Indian Mud-users in this story, requested anonymity" continued to “dab” over three or four years, for two or three days at a time, with only a single problem.
“I had a little brown spot on my chest and put mud on it,” he said. “All of a sudden it was oozing, stuff was coming out, and this is how it looks now.” Dan lifts his shirt to reveal a white, square area of burned flesh the size of a postage stamp.
Jackie first heard about Indian Mud from a friend, too. She ordered a bottle off the Internet, thinking it may rid her husband of what looked like cancer spots on his face.
“We never got them diagnosed,” Jackie said. “I just assumed they were cancer spots. So my husband put this stuff on, and for a while he looked really bad. It just dug holes into his face. But now those areas are just pink, and the spots are all gone.”
Jackie was so pleased with the results that she passed some mud on to a friend, Jane, who had been diagnosed with skin cancer near her eyes and on her arm.
“It burned a hole maybe two inches long and a half-inch wide on my arm,” Jane recalls. “And it burned into my head about a quarter of an inch, made the whole left side of my face swell, and it hurt tremendously. My husband said it looked like a third-degree burn.”
Both areas are now healing, Jane adds, thanks to her use of a triple-antibiotic salve on them.
Would Jane recommend Indian Mud to a friend looking to rid themselves of skin spots?
“Sure, as long as it’s not on your face,” Jane said. “Anywhere but on your face.”
Payson dermatologist Dr. Donald Steele adamantly differs with that opinion.
“I’ve seen many people who applied Indian Mud to themselves and ended up with holes eaten completely through the skin to the bone,” Steele said. “I currently have one patient who used it on his face. It ate a hole in his flesh all the way to the bone but didn’t get the cancer. It’s just horrible. Local surgeons can do nothing, probably the Mayo Clinic could do nothing. They may not be able to get the cancer with radiation therapy, either.”
Another Rim country doctor, Steele said, has a patient who put Indian Mud under his eye. “It ate all the tissue and through the bone. You can see his brain underneath.
“And yet,” Steele added with a frustrated sigh, “the undercurrent of alternative-medicine people keep recommending Indian Mud. The damn stuff is really, really poisonous.”
Invariably, the story Steele hears from his patients is identical to those told by the Indian Mud users interviewed for this story: “They always say they got it from a friend, or from under the table” in some alternative-medicine shops.
Indian Mud comes in a variety of forms including salves, pastes, poultices, and plasters and recipes. Some use bloodroot mixed with other ingredients, such as vitamin A, birch bark, polk root, pascalite clay and/or wintergreen. In some, the caustic compound is zinc chloride, and another combines wood ash and water, which turns to lye.
“Then it is added to mud, which holds the lye in place while it eats a hole in your skin,” Steele said.
Indian Mud has as many names as recipes. A cursory Internet check found the substance being sold as “black salve,” “Compound X,” “C-Herb,” “HerbVeil,” “Cansema” and “Can-X.”
These corrosive substances are often referred to as “escharotics” because they produce a thick, dry scab called an “eschar” on the skin. Their use to treat cancer dates back hundreds of years, perhaps even to ancient times, and was fairly common during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Indian Mud and its variations that are marketed to the public are not regulated by government agencies in the United States or Canada so it may not even be possible to know what’s in them.
But no matter how the product is made or marketed, Steele said, its dangers remain unchanged and whatever benefits it may seem to have for one user won’t necessarily be experienced by another.
“You really have to know what you’re treating,” Steele said. “You should not assume it’s a cancer, or that it’s superficial enough that Indian Mud can get to it without eating it’s way to the bone. You really need a biopsy not only to diagnose the spot but, if it is cancerous, to determine how deep it may go.”
Those who do not want to bother having those determinations made do have an alternative to Indian Mud, Steele said.
“You could accomplish the same thing by treating your skin cancer with a branding iron,” he said. “If you burn deep enough and wide enough, you’ll get it. But that would not be a very intelligent approach.”