Breast cancer has made me a criminal

May 01, 2006

Lynda Gorov, OpEd, Boston Globe

AT 9 O'CLOCK on the night of my first round of chemotherapy, exactly six hours after I left the oncologist's office wondering what all the fuss was about, my stomach tumbled into my knees, my knees refused to work altogether, and I crumpled to the floor in a clammy, shivering heap.

I lay there until dawn, at one point vomiting on myself, at another crying that I'd rather die of cancer than undergo chemo again. I was hot. I was cold. My shoulders wouldn't stop shaking. My legs wouldn't move at all. Huge hallucinations rolled over me.

In the morning I was stunned to realize I was still alive. But there was my 2 1/2-year-old daughter, poking me with her toe, wondering whether we could dance. I made my way to the stereo and made myself a vow: I'd do whatever necessary to avoid having her find me on the ground again.

First call was to the doctor, who promised to fine-tune my protocol and adjust my pre-chemo meds. The second was to a friend I thought might have a marijuana connection. I had read enough, and written some, about the medicinal uses of marijuana to believe it might keep me from suffering so in three weeks, when I was scheduled for my second poison drip. Not to mention that months of treatment loomed.

A day or two later, a manila envelope with nothing but my initials on it was delivered to me, free of charge. I stuck the gift deep in the freezer without even opening it. I didn't need to then. But I needed the option. For one of the few times since I had been diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, I felt a sense of control.

Maybe someone who hasn't been there can't understand my willingness to break the law. Sure, a number of states, including mine, have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana. But the Drug Enforcement Administration refuses to go along. It sees me as a criminal. Then again, none of the Supreme Court justices who ruled that medical marijuana users could be arrested despite those state laws stopped by to see how skinny I'd gotten or to retrieve me from a bookstore when I wasn't able to walk another step without retching.

That was left to D., one of my more conservative friends. She was the one who had warned me: Do not get high, or you'll be sorry. She was not, however, telling me to forgo marijuana. The forbidden leaf had, after all, seen her through her own chemotherapy. Now my own unfortunate turn was at hand, and she was encouraging me to smoke until the nausea passed but to stop smoking before any paranoia set in.

''Trust me," she said dryly, ''cancer and thinking too much are not a good mix."

And now the Food and Drug Administration has said cancer and cannabis don't mix at all. The federal agency recently announced that ''no sound scientific studies" support the medicinal use of marijuana, a finding contrary to a 1999 review by scientists from the Institute of Medicine. That highly regarded panel confirmed what many sick people already knew: Marijuana makes the nausea bearable during chemotherapy and can keep AIDS patients without appetites from wasting away. Proponents of its use called the FDA ruling political, as opposed to scientific or, say, humane.

Within weeks of starting chemo, I was down a dozen pounds, not so much queasy as unable to eat. Of course, since I live in Los Angeles this was considered by some a perk. ''You're so teeny," women would tell me. ''Yeah, well, I have cancer," I'd reply, running a hand through my shockingly good synthetic wig. ''Oh, sorry, but . . . you're so teeny."

My oncologist, however, wasn't as thrilled about my size, especially with my cell counts so dangerously low that any cut and every sneeze put me at risk. Alone with her in the examination room, the scar from my lumpectomy still raised and raw to her touch, I asked about marijuana use in cases like mine. The doctor didn't scoff. She did say I needed to stop losing weight despite having eliminated dairy, sugar, and alcohol from my diet in a cancer-fighting frenzy.

So I dug into the freezer for the manila envelope. I undid the clasp and removed a fat bud of seriously stinky marijuana. I remember standing in the kitchen thinking, I have to save the life of my daughter's mother, and whose business is that but mine?

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