We all know the cancer statistics: 50% of the population will be directly affected in their lifetime. But nothing prepares you for when cancer comes knocking at your own door.
Two years ago my friend’s mother was losing her battle with pancreatic cancer. Doctors had tried everything to make her comfortable. Morphine had gone some way to controlling the unbearable pain, but left her confused and unable to enjoy the final months with her family.
Right now, I’m witnessing the same happen with my mum. Advanced cancer has gradually taken over her body, squeezing her ailing organs in a vice like grip. A once robust appetite has been replaced by gingerly picking over the tiny portions put in front of her. While many of us long for pronounced cheek bones and a slight frame, I’d swap mum’s gaunt features in a heart beat for her pre-cancer ample covering.
There are good days - usually the ones when she doesn’t need any morphine. In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between how much morphine she takes and the amount of light that shines from her eyes. Those are the times I selfishly want to stop her meds so I can hang on to those last few moments when mum is really mum.
In the last couple of months of my friend’s mother’s life she had stopped taking morphine. Living in Belgium, the family GP availed of a legal loophole, prescribing medical cannabis as part of her palliative care regime.
We’re not talking here the kind of cannabis oil sold legally in shops across the UK as CBD oil. I’m no CBD hater, I make my living writing about the stuff. However, CBD is only part of the medical cannabis story.
What her doctor prescribed was a cannabis oil containing both the psychoactive compound THC and CBD together, although this wasn’t so that she could live out her final days in a stoner haze. Many scientific studies exist examining the use of THC for symptoms associated with cancer such as reducing pain, stimulating appetite, staving off nausea, and aiding sleep.
What happened with my friend’s mother was just that. Not only was the pain under control, the infamous cannabis munchies got her eating again, plus her lucidity returned, allowing her to eventually die with dignity.
In countries such as Israel where medical cannabis is legal, it is a viable alternative to heavy opiates and is regularly used in palliative care for cancer patients. Indeed, approximately 30,000 patients in Israel take medical cannabis, many for advanced cancer symptoms.
In a recent Israeli epidemiological study, 95.9% of patients mostly with advanced cancer, reported significant or moderate improvement in their condition after taking medical cannabis. Not only that, medical cannabis treatment increased the number of patients reporting good quality of life from 18.8% to 69.5%.
Sitting here in the United Kingdom where any use of cannabis containing THC is illegal, it feels like a cruel joke knowing that a gentler and equally effective alternative could ease my mother’s suffering. In fact, in one plant there are multiple solutions to the numerous cancer-related symptoms she is encountering, potentially replacing the cocktail of medication she is currently prescribed.
That’s not to say I haven’t had various offers from the kind folks of the underground medical cannabis world.
But I know my mother. She’s 82, an ex-nurse, and needs a doctor’s approval before really trusting a medication. Plus, taking a hempy tasting oil without any prescribed dosage just doesn’t cut the mustard in her books.
In other parts of the world where medical cannabis usage has been normalised, doctors prescribe medical cannabis on its own or alongside other conventional treatments in palliative cancer care. There’s no flailing around in the dark hoping that you’re giving your loved the correct dosage.
I long for a time when this is the case in the UK. Last week a group of MPs, who also happen to be doctors, came together to campaign for the legalisation of medical cannabis. Headed by the ex-Conservative Health Minister, Dan Poulter, they have formed an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) that will put pressure on the government to change its outright ban on the medicinal use of the cannabis plant.
I know this is too little too late for my mother. However, I hope and pray that common sense will prevail, allowing patients with cancer and other life limiting illnesses to benefit from a medicinal plant that has been used safely and with great success for thousands of years.