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Cancer patients and doctors tackle pain with pot

The patient, a former paramedic and fireman who asked to remain anonymous, was on death's doorstep. After a three-month coma and 23 surgeries to his abdomen, he'd finally seen a slowing of the cancer that had been attacking his pancreas. But years of hospital procedures, radiation treatment and chemotherapy drugs had left him a shadow of his former self — barely able to eat or sleep, and in constant, excruciating pain. And his body was still slowly degenerating.

One night, on the advice of his doctor, his son brought him one of the few medicines he hadn't yet tried — marijuana. He hadn't eaten in five days, but suddenly he found himself craving food that hadn't crossed his mind in months.

"My son just ran out, at 11:30, and grabbed me a Whopper," he says.

Since then, the patient has been able to return to something closer to his previous life. Whereas before eating anything had been a slow, painful process, the marijuana made his body "call" for food in a way it hadn't since he began his treatment. Within weeks, he had regained a modicum of his former strength, put on some weight, and was mobile again.

This occurred in Michigan, but many similar patients are now using Colorado's system to treat their cancer symptoms. Tony (who requested we only use his first name), the owner of Tejon Street dispensary Pikes Peak Alternative Health and Wellness Centers, has seen several.

"We had one guy, with [terminal] pancreatic cancer," he says, "and when we gave him the medicine, he was able to get up and go back to work."

The use of marijuana among cancer patients is a fairly controversial subject, with limitations on federal grants for cannabis research preventing comprehensive study. However, according to UCCS professor of microbiology and medical marijuana activist Dr. Robert Melamede, the benefits range from its appetite-stimulating, mood-regulating and nausea-reducing properties to the possibility that it could even prevent the spread of, or cure, certain types of cancer.

Yes, that's a big claim. Let him explain.

"Cancer has to do with cells communicating with one another, and working together in a harmonious fashion, when you're healthy," he says. "When you have a cancer cell, it becomes a greedy cell, no longer playing nicely with its friends. It only wants to replicate, taking resources and destroying its environment."

Cannabinoids, the active compounds in marijuana (and which also occur naturally in the human body), can help to slow these processes.

"Because of the way cannabinoids regulate everything, even at the sub-cellular level, they happen to have the property of killing some cancer cells."

When asked why researchers have trouble finding funding for cannabis, Melamede says the biggest reason is economic.

"Many people have realized that [as opposed to] taking five pharmaceuticals ... which are designed to be taken for life — which the pharmaceutical companies love — cannabis is a brand new paradigm. It's one where you take the one drug, and it deals with all the illnesses."

Not all physicians share Melamede's enthusiasm for medical marijuana. According to John Finn, the Michigan doctor who prescribed marijuana for the aforementioned patient, the potential for misuse among patients remains a concern.

"There's a crisis right now of abuse of prescription medications, and people," he says. "It's amazing how much medications are shared, sold and traded — the numbers of deaths are just astronomical. And now we have another substance we can prescribe, medical marijuana. I wish we could be more permissive, but we just live in a society that's so abusive."

And the abuse is what often gets reported. Stories like that of Finn's aforementioned cancer patient rarely do.

"I was totally disabled," he says. "My mind was moving at a million miles a second, but my body would only take half a step an hour. ... I'm still here battling, and marijuana's a big reason why."

newsroom@csindy.com

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