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With pancreatic cancer, what Stephen needs is legalised cannabis

A year into his cancer treatment, Stephen heard about the benefits of medical marijuana and CBD oil, but it has proven difficult to get

I was lying face down when I first heard about Stephen Schulman. Id been feeling sorry for myself, complaining of an aching wrist and back the vestiges of an age-inappropriate roller-skating accident – while my massage therapist Elisa worked to soothe my pain.

Eventually, our conversation turned to her friend Stephen. At only 41, just months after marrying the love of his life, Stephen had gone to the doctor complaining of stomach pains and the inability to keep anything down. He re-emerged with a diagnosis: stage-3 pancreatic cancer, inoperable due to a very large tumor wrapping itself around a major artery in his abdomen.

In essence, a death sentence.

Elisa had been buying Stephen sublingual CBD oil $89 for one ounce because it proved to be the only thing effectively alleviating the tingling and numbness that had recently consumed his fingers and toes. He and his husband Wades savings had been bled dry by their $2,400-a-month insurance premium plus general expenses. Stephen is unable to work since his life has become a blur of excruciating pain, treatments, hope, fear and heavy doses of opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone.

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Stephen first heard about the reported pain relief benefits of medical marijuana and CBD oil for cancer patients a year into his treatment. When he asked his doctors about applying for a medical marijuana card, their reluctance confused him. Still, he persisted and when he started using both, he found they controlled his symptoms as well or, in some cases, better than opioids. He also found out that no insurance company covers their high costs.

As Elisa told me Stephens story, I considered how the small discomforts Id come in with made it harder for me to get around in the day or to sleep well at night. How they made me feel irritable and fragile. And how I could pay a negligible amount of money to a lovely woman to help soothe them for me. My ailments were absolutely nothing by comparison with Stephens, yet what he needs is elusive at best, prohibited at worst.

Politicians have been embroiled in contentious debates for years about the morality and logistics of legalizing medical marijuana despite reputable studies, like the Rand study, which supports its efficacy. In the meantime, people like Stephen suffer.

I decided to document Stephens life because his story had something valuable to remind us all about the gap between the abstract moralizing of politicians and the needs of the people they represent.

These pictures were taken between January and August 2019.

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Wade is a freelance hairstylist. Once in a while, he sits Stephen down in the chair in his home salon and treats him to a haircut, shave and facial mask.

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Stephen remembers clearly what it felt like to be diagnosed: It just hits you like a ton of bricks: Everything is about to change. Your life is going to be about doing chemo, radiation, things you wouldnt normally do and its going to be a hard, uphill battle.

Stephen

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Wade adds Osmolite formula, a therapeutic nutrition for patients with increased calorie and protein needs, to a drip every other night to help Stephen maintain a healthy weight. The procedure takes eight hours and is very uncomfortable. Lack of appetite and nausea leading to unhealthy weight loss are common for pancreatic patients. The use of medical marijuana has helped Stephen greatly with these symptoms.

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Artist Jason Naylor, whose self-described mission is to spread color and positivity across the globe, heard about Stephens plight through social media and made him the Love painting, which he hand-delivered to the couple, that hangs above Stephen and Wades bed.

Overwhelmed by medical expenses, Stephen and Wade accepted the offer of a friend to set up a GoFundMe page for them.

We have to lean on each other, trust one another, and be up front about how were doing and feeling every single day, Stephen says of his relationship. Theres no way I would have been able to get through this diagnosis without Wade. I appreciate him more every day. I know that sounds corny, but its true.

Clyde,

Clyde, one of the couples two cats, the other is Bonnie (both male), watches as Stephen tries on his kickboxing gloves. Kickboxing was something Stephen enjoyed with friends before his diagnoses when he was 40 pounds heavier. Now, there are some days hes too weak to get out of bed.

Stephen

Stephen describes the current state of his disease; Stage 3-pancreatic cancer without the possibility of the Whipple procedure because of the placement of the tumor. They do a CT scan every three months and determine the next steps based on those results. A very risky surgery I believe its only performed by one doctor in the US at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota is my only option and were hoping to make that happen. But insurance has, so far, refused to pay for it or the chemotherapy Ill need beforehand, and it is astronomically expensive.

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It makes me smile a little to wear fun, colorful socks, Stephen says in reference to the cock socks he wears to physical therapy.

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I think its funny, Stephen remarks, that in America youre able to buy alcohol, which is known to cause all these problems, but CBD oil and medical marijuana are more regulated and looked down upon. Its sad because theyve definitely helped me immensely.

In New York state, medication comes primarily in the form of pills, vapes, oils and lotions. Dispensaries cant distribute edibles because its much harder to control the doses a patient receives in them. Every dose at Columbia Care New York is consistent and titrated, meaning its increased, if need be, slowly over time.

dr reed

Tricia Reed, PharmD, Columbia Care New Yorks lead pharmacist, describes the purported benefits of some of their products.

High THC products are good for nausea, vomiting and severe pain, giving more of an opiate-type pain relief. THC is a good muscle relaxer and helps with sleep. CBD is a great anti-inflammatory, works well for nerve pain, and is an anti-convulsant so its good for seizures.

Every dose has to deliver the exact milligram per milliliter as prescribed. Each time you take an inhalation from the vapor, it gives you a specific mg.

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When a patient visits Columbia Care for the first time, they meet with a pharmacist who takes them through a full consultation to determine what products they may respond to best.

In the higher-THC products, Reed explains, there can be a euphoric feeling which might not be so bad for patients going through a hard time. Its similar to the side-effects youd get from other meds like Valium. I encourage patients to think of it that way. Its just a side-effect similar to those of other medications they may have already taken. There is still that sense of taboo or stigma that goes along with marijuana. A lot of what weve been trying to do is to de-stigmatize it.

Rosemary Mazanet, an oncologist by original training, is chief scientific officer for Columbia Care. When I think about the disconnect between the enormous promise that cannabis products bring and the fact that theres such an air about it that makes it tawdry, it comes down to the fact that its federally illegal.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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