Speaker by Various Artists

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Ann's story: helping doctors understand medical cannabis

by Veronica Stevenson

The author of this post, Veronica Stevenson, is a filmmaker who has launched a PledgeMe crowdfunding project with Victoria Catherwood to make an educational documentary to raise awareness about medical cannabis among doctors. Victoria explains her goals and motivations in this video.

After seeing the media around the crowdfunding campaign,  the woman referred to by Victoria as "someone close to me" has stepped forward. She has asked to be called Ann. Veronica tells her story in this post.

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Ann has battled with cancer for 8 years.

"I don’t know where the disease came from, I never smoked. I’d had regular mammograms all along."

One day Ann felt a lump in her breast.

"It was painful, and I heard breast cancer lumps weren’t painful and so I dismissed it. Tried to ignore it, thought it was something to do with menopause. Then I needed a mastectomy."

After nearly four years without sign of a single cell, suddenly it was back. A scan showed her lungs contained an estimated 48 tumors.

"When I found out, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. I got an oncologist appointment immediately and he said there’s nothing out there to treat it. Just lead your life the best way you can. It might be six, it might be 12 months."

It’s true, treatment for this type of cancer (adenoid cystic carcinoma) is particularly difficult – its resistance to radiation is well-known. Still, she tried but eventually, "I said look this isn’t working – they’re not getting smaller."

The last four years have been spent in pursuit for pain relief and quality of life. This pursuit has taken much from her.

"I’ve lost 30kg since it came back, 20kg in the last year." At one point Ann was losing 5kg a month. "It has only stabilised now with cannabis increasing my appetite."

The pain of 48 tumors sounds terrifying. At the beginning, the only relief in the face of all that pain was morphine. But its side effects were such that Ann was forced to give up her career – one that had spanned forty years as a public health worker.

After the nightmare of morphine they switched her to OxyContin, an opioid pain medication with a bad reputation. That didn’t deter an increasingly desperate Ann.

"I looked up the side effects, heard it was hillbilly heroin and it was highly addictive. I didn’t care. But one afternoon I tried to reduce the dose and the pain came back."

That was four months ago. Since then Ann has found "green fairies in my garden" – the first of the code used around the subject of her medicinal cannabis.

"I admit that when the idea of vaping cannabis was proposed I did poo-poo it. I only knew what it smelled like because a roommate at university used to smoke it."

Now, Ann is a cannabis convert and joyfully shares the benefits with me.

"When I vape I can breathe better, belly breathe, and my chest is less tight."

She goes on to say with effortless lingo "If I vape bud I can decrease my taking of the OxyContin by 40mg and now, four months later, I average 120mg a day, when before I was taking 160mg."*

This reduction was cause for special celebration because "OxyContin really affected my mood, I would get super fatigued and tired."

With her faculties clear of high doses of opiates Ann finally feels stable, and for the first time in a long time, a little more social. This is where the downside to taking cannabis comes in.

"With vaping I can function – hold a decent conversation, but I can’t leave the city. It liberates me from side effects and pain and improves quality of life but restricts me as to where I go."

Ann’s concerns about travel are well founded.

"The density of the breast prosthesis is clay-like and I think it triggers them (airport security). I was going to pull it out and put it through the scanner I get so sick of it."

Knowing she is already a subject of scrutiny, Ann is reluctant to travel anywhere, even within New Zealand. Even if she could fly somewhere, there is the issue of getting access to cannabis in this new location.

"I can’t (go away) because I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a supply and don’t want to put people at risk."

She remains socially isolated because of cannabis’s illegal status as a medicine. 

Risking it all for Ann

Victoria, a fifth year medical student has already put herself at risk by educating Ann about cannabis use and publicly insisting the education among Doctors is insufficient. I asked her why she did it.

"The pivotal moment for speaking out was a call from a Dr Gilly Newton Howes in a New Zealand Medical Journal article last year, where she said 'This is a public debate the medical profession needs to be actively engaged in, bearing in mind the role of medicine in the public arena'. This was a green light in my mind."

Victoria has also had many "secret conversations" with surgeons, practicing pain specialists and GPs, who are all encouraging her.

Victoria, in true Doctor-to-be style feels that ‘the most important thing is to be able to educate and inform a patient of their options and the best way to administer that option. Ihere’s no information about what type of bud, what’s best to take for what illnesses. You see the cannabis shops overseas who have experts, but when I started I knew nothing. I’ve self-educated a lot. I’ve watched Weediquette on VICE  and there was that NZ guy (John Lord) who grows it in Colorado. He was a dairy farmer in Waikato and now has a big business in the states growing cannabis!"

Ann’s story is full of pain but she considers herself one of the lucky ones. "I feel so sorry for the people who don’t know about cannabis or can’t get it. Because the cancer doctors aren’t recommending it … It’s unfortunate because there’s probably people I know that want to take it. But because it's illegal I can’t talk about and neither can they.

"So, we just don’t know."

It’s stories like this one that started Victoria and myself along this path to educate doctors about medical cannabis. Please help us create an educational resource so patients like Ann don’t have to wait four long years for the green fairy to finally show up.

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*There is a scientific basis for Ann's OxyContin reduction, outlined in this journal article. The reduction of OxyContin doses is possible because:

It is known that CBD and THC inhibit the enzyme cytochrome P450 which is responsible for breaking down drugs in her liver.

This means it can increase the efficacy of OxyContin by increasing its lifespan in the body.

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