Meet Jason Vale: champion arm-wrestler … cancer survivor … convicted felon.
Mr. Vale, 40, grew up in Whitestone, Queens. He excelled on the handball court, in neighborhood pool halls, and on the drums in his church band. But his real forte was as an arm-wrestler. He captured city, state, national and world titles throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
He also beat cancer. Twice, doctors told him that he had fatal tumors. And twice, he survived. The second time, he refused radiation and chemotherapy in lieu of an alternative treatment consisting of eating apricot seeds. The seeds have laetrile, which some people consider an alternative cancer-fighting agent — and the government considers a fraud.
A government-financed medical study by major cancer researchers in the 1980s determined that laetrile had no therapeutic benefit for patients. A 1982 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 90 percent of the patients’ cancers became worse within three months after treatment started and fewer than 20 percent of the patients were still alive after a year.
But Mr. Vale used his platform as an athlete to promote the seeds as “the answer to cancer,” and also began selling them online. He was one of the early Internet spammers, sending millions of e-mail advertisements.
Federal Food and Drug Administration officials warn that not only are the seeds not a cancer cure, but that they may contain harmful amounts of cyanide. Agency officials accused Mr. Vale of profiting from desperate cancer victims, and in 2000 got a court injunction to stop him from selling the seeds as a cure. Mr. Vale changed his marketing and had relatives handle the seeds, but he was arrested and, in 2003, convicted of criminal contempt of the injunction and sentenced to five years at the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
Mr. Vale was released recently and has returned to competitive arm-wrestling. He spent part of his sentence in solitary confinement, where he kept in shape by doing push-ups and pull-ups, he said, but he is hardly back to championship form.
“I want to be No. 1 again, not for myself, but as part of my mission to show the world the power of apricot seeds,” he said recently at his house in Bellerose Manor, Queens.
Mr. Vale is up against an old foe again. He has a tumor in his kidney for which he is refusing standard medical treatment in lieu of the apricot seeds.
Dr. Miguel Cima, a rheumatologist in Garden City, N.Y., who has examined Mr. Vale, said he recommended immediate surgery to remove the tumor but that, “Jason believes in this type of treatment, and this is what he wants.”
Mr. Vale takes a pre-medical curriculum at Queens College and works out with hulking men who tear in half phone books and decks of cards, and roll up frying pans, as shows of strength. Mr. Vale holds his own popular Thursday night arm-wrestling practices in his garage in Queens, which includes Bobby Buttafuoco, a top arm-wrestler and the brother of Joey Buttafuoco.
The arm-wrestling scene in New York City is a tight-knit brotherhood of eccentric (and often well-tattooed) men. Mr. Vale said he recently bought a former city bus to transport the competitors to various tournaments.
“Jason was at the top of his game when he went to jail and I think he could definitely get back on top as a world champ,” said Gene Camp, founder and president of the New York Arm Wrestling Association. “He never gives up and that kind of willpower helped him view cancer as another opponent he was going to beat.”
This month, Mr. Vale took second place in the 31st annual White Castle Empire State Golden Arm Tournament of Champions in Manhattan, where after competing he showed a group of people an open hole in the left side of his torso through which he could exhale, because of a puncture in his lung.
I met Mr. Vale perhaps 15 years ago and wrote an article on him for a Queens weekly newspaper. He managed Royal Billiards parlor, in Bayside, and kept an arm-wrestling table there where he would take on all comers. This was before he had started buying apricot seeds in quantity. He was buying peaches by the case and cracking open the seeds with a hammer.
As a child, Mr. Vale learned arm-wrestling from his father and practiced competing against his aunts. His thick right forearm now dwarfs his left. He was the lightest arm-wrestler to ever win the world title as a super heavyweight, said Dave DeVoto, 77, president of the World Arm Wrestling Federation.
With exceptional technique and mental toughness, he has become known for beating much bigger opponents. Some arm-wrestlers like to hook and twist the opponent’s wrist. But Mr. Vale prefers the “over-the-top” motion, bending back his opponent’s wrist and forcing his way almost over the top of the foe’s fingers.
Mr. Vale’s sale of seeds has been publicly debated and was presented to Congress in 2000. As a spammer, his case was detailed in “Spam Kings,” by Brian McWilliams.
Even the federal judge who presided over Mr. Vale’s trial, Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn, found it intriguing.
Before sentencing Mr. Vale to 63 months in prison, according to court transcripts, Judge Gleeson remarked that “the crime is mitigated by the fact that there is a germ of legitimacy to Mr. Vale — that is, he believes these apricot seeds work, whether as a curative or a preventative.”
The judge mused on the possibility of “someday people will look back on those who sold apricot seeds to cure cancer the way we now look back on the prosecution of Galileo for saying that the earth revolved around the sun.” Medical reviews over the years have found no such evidence, however.
Mr. Vale, who has filed an appeal of the conviction — “just to prove that I was right” — seems intent on making such authorities eat their words, and to get cancer patients eating apricot seeds.
“The same way that arm-wrestling gave me an edge against cancer, as a competitor, the apricot seeds are also an edge,” he said. “They are the answer to cancer.”