Every year the American Cancer Society releases a report of projected cancer patients for that year. On July 7, 2010 1,529,560 new cancer cases and 569,490 cancer-related deaths were projected for the year 2010 in the United States. In 2004 the number of new cancer cases was projected to be 1,368,030. I was one of these cases.
Barely making it into the 2004 projection I was diagnosed with cancer in December 2004. There was a cancerous growth located in the third ventricle of my brain. Would I die? Death certainly would’ve been easier than the daily pain I experienced as a result.
Of course it didn’t start with the diagnosis. The first symptoms surfaced months before when I was visiting a girlfriend in Austin, Texas. I lay awake all night quivering in pain. The neurological symptoms began a few months later. I was violently ill for days and experienced a temporary loss of motor-functionality in my fingers. After the surgery that identified my tumor as a germinoma, I would undergo radiation therapy. The radiation stopped me dead in my tracks. I slept most of the time and felt like my head was caving in when I was awake.
One of the major side effects of radiation-therapy is nausea. I recall waking from my hibernation only to kneel by my mother’s bathroom toilet for a time, resting my forehead in the cubital fossa of my arm as I expelled the contents of my stomach. Antiemetics can be helpful in reducing nausea and are often used in the treatment of chemotherapy related nausea. According to livestrong.org, some of the most common antiemetics used in the treatment of chemotherapy related nausea are benzamides, butyrophenones, serotonin antagonists, corticosteroids, and benzodiazepines.
Side effects tend to surface during the use of any of these drugs. The use of benzamides can lead to drowsiness, diarrhea, depression, and muscle spasms. Taking butyrophenones can lead to muscle spasms as well. Serotonin Antagonists don’t cause muscle spasms, however they can cause diarrhea, fever, constipation, and headaches. Corticosteroids can cause anxiety and trouble sleeping. They may also be especially dangerous for diabetic patients as they tend to cause a rise in blood glucose levels. Benzodiazepines are tranquilizers that are often used with other medications in the treatment of chemotherapy-related nausea. According to medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com, the use of tranquilizers can lead to physical and psychological dependence. Nausea might seem preferable to some of these symptoms.
Now let’s take a look at some of the current treatments for cancer pain. Ibuprofen, aspirin and acetaminophen fall under the category called NSAIDs. I recall a heavy dose of Ibuprofen after my surgery. While it did seem to change my experience of the pain, the pain was apparent and difficult. Some NSAIDs (Ibuprofen and aspirin especially) have been known to cause gastrointestinal problems. This could explain the regular use of suppositories required after my return home.
Another common treatment for cancer pain is the use of opioids. An opioid a semi-synthetic or fully-synthetic drug designed to mimic the effects an opiate ( a drug harvested from the poppy plant) would have on a person. As the Wicked Witch of the West said, “Poppies will put them to sleep.” Opioids tend to cause sleepiness during the first few days. Like NSAIDs, the opioid is known to cause stomach problems, specifically constipation and nausea. Another less common side effect of opioid use is respiratory depression (a slow shallow breathing)2 which can result in respiratory arrests and cardiopulmonary arrest (cardiac arrest).
An article entitled Inhalation Marijuana as an Antiemetic for Cancer Chemotherapy was published in the New York State Journal of Medicine in October of 1988. The article reviews a study designed to identify the effects of marijuana as an antiemetic on patients who were undergoing chemotherapy. At the end of the study 56 patients were questioned about the effectiveness of their treatment. 18 (32%) of patients rated marijuana as very effective in treating nausea and 26 (46%) rated it as moderately effective in treating nausea.
In a double-blind, randomized study, 11 men and 12 women who experienced chronic post-traumatic or postsurgical neuropathic pain were recruited as test subjects. Subjects rated their experience of continued pain while receiving cannabis or a placebo on an 11 point scale, 0 being the least amount of pain and 10 being the most. Subjects of the cannabis group reported a 7% lower rating of pain than did subjects of the placebo group. This rating of pain reduction may seem fairly insignificant, but these test subjects were patients for refractory pain for which conventional treatment methods had already proven unsuccessful. Side effects included headache, dry eyes, burning sensation in painful areas, dizziness, numbness and cough. These symptoms would seem mild in comparison to the side effects produced by other medication used in the treatment of cancer pain. It has been suggested that marijuana can be bred to deliver the positive results we desire from it without any experience of negative side effects.
The human brain produces its own version of marijuana naturally. Marijuana is similar enough to these naturally occurring endocannabinoids that it can be used to activate cannabinoid (CB1) receptors in the brain. These receptors are located throughout the brain, but population of cannabinoid receptors is most dense in the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, hypothalamus, cerebellum, basal ganglia, brain stem, spinal cord and amygdala. Marijuana’s effect on the spinal chord has proven to reduce pain while its effect on the brain stem has reduced vomiting. It has also proven to increase appetite in AIDS patients and has even worked to treat obesity in some clinical trials.
My experience of cancer and radiation has led me to monitor my body’s intake of unnatural substances much more closely. The biggest contribution to this is the fact that no one could tell me exactly where the tumor came from. I suspect that my violent illness throughout my experience was my body’s attempt to rid itself of the foreign tumor and radiation. Yet we treat these symptoms with synthetics that lead to other symptoms. A naturally occurring treatment for the symptoms of radiation and cancer just makes sense.
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