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END 4/20 SHAME: An Oncology Nurse’s Struggle

By: Kelly Vo

What if there was a medicine that could help millions of people, but doctors refused to or couldn’t prescribe the drug—you’d be furious, right? Well, that’s exactly what we’re fighting when it comes to cannabis.

Modern research suggests that cannabis is a valuable medicine that can be used in the treatment of a wide range of clinical applications, including pain relief, nausea, glaucoma and movement disorders. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, recent animal studies have shown that marijuana extracts may help kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of others. And evidence from one study indicates that purified, whole-plant cannabis can slow the growth of a serious type of brain tumor. It’s also been shown to ease symptoms for patients suffering from HIV, AIDS, dementia and cancer.

There’s just one problem, according to Sanjay Gupta’s documentary, WEED: only six percent of medical studies have investigated the potential benefits of cannabis, rather than its harms. This has made the legalization of medicinal cannabis an uphill battle, one that Evan Christenson, an oncology nurse with twelve years of experience, knows intimately.

“For all of us, cannabis is an essential nutrient, and we have the right to use it effectively. It’s helped me. It’s here to stay, and so am I.”

Evan started his career as an oncology nurse at a children’s hospital in northern Florida. His work began when cannabis was illegal, but the positive effects weren’t completely unknown. Already, some pediatricians were prescribing Marinol—a synthetic form of cannabis—to treat nausea and increase appetite. The only trouble was that Marinol wasn’t nearly as effective as whole-plant cannabis. In fact, according to Evan, there was a clear discrepancy between his experience with cannabis and his patients’ experiences.

It was then that Evan decided he needed to look deeper into cannabis to see how it could help his patients. “I found a lot of research and story after story of how cannabis was being used effectively for a wide variety of ailments,” he remembered. “I learned that there were many components of cannabis—not just THC—and that those components worked together to provide relief from pain, nausea, inflammation, lack of appetite and more.”

Then, in 2009, Evan was suddenly diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that affects multiple organs in the body, but mostly the lungs and lymph glands. “I was put on one anti-inflammatory after another, but the pills and weekly shots made me nauseous and weak,” he said. “So, I gave up and started using cannabis regularly.” It was a game changer.

While using cannabis, Evan noticed a huge improvement in his inflammation and pain—plus, he wasn’t nauseous. From that point on, he was a believer and wanted to help his patients experience the same relief. There was just one problem. Cannabis was illegal in Florida and “more than once I was talked to by management for recommending weed,” Evan explained. Still, that didn’t stop him.

“One of the first patients I recommended cannabis to was a 50-year-old woman who was struggling with terminal breast cancer,” he said. “She was in a great deal of pain, nauseous from her treatment, exhausted, malnourished and miserable. Unfortunately, all I could do was try to work with the legal medicines I had at hand, opiates and benzodiazepines (like Valium), but these had many side effects.”

So, Evan decided to take a different, riskier path. He didn’t know how his patient felt about cannabis, and he knew he could get in trouble for recommending it, but it was the only thing he could think to do.

“Initially, she was surprised that I suggested it. Her image of a cannabis user was a spaced-out hippie,” Evan remembered. “Still, I sat down by her side and held her hand as I explained what cannabis could do for her at this stage in her life, and I saw a flicker of hope. Two weeks later, she was a different person. She had a brightness to her step, and she came right up and hugged me!”

Evan’s patient tried cannabis, and was immediately able to eat again. Then, later, she noticed that she didn’t need to take as many pain pills when she used cannabis. “She thanked me profusely. It was really rewarding to be able to help someone like that,” he said.

What Evan wants everyone to know is that cannabis has many medical benefits for cancer patients and beyond. “Cannabis has more than 100 compounds that are unique to the plant, and we are learning more every day,” he said. “We know they work together to produce the overall effect of the medicine. THC and CBD work together to reduce pain, inflammation, nausea, lack of appetite and more.”

And it’s for that reason that Evan finally quit his job in Florida, and moved to Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California. “I can now use cannabis openly and advocate it constantly. As a budtender, I’m now surrounded by motivated, intelligent cannabis advocates and patients who teach me on a daily basis,” he said. “For all of us, cannabis is an essential nutrient, and we have the right to use it effectively. It’s helped me. It’s here to stay, and so am I.”

The American Cancer Society supports the need for more scientific research on cannabinoids for cancer patients. The Society also believes that classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance imposes too many conditions and deters scientific study of cannabinoids. They feel that federal officials should examine other options in order to enable more scientific study on cannabis.

If you have a story to share about cannabis as part of our #End420Shame series, use the hashtag on social media or email kellyv@dopemagazine.com.

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