Photo: Godofredo A. Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer
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If we needed 2020 to remind us of anything, it is that taking care of our health and well-being should always be a top priority.
COVID-19 has shown us that there can be a magnitude of alternative reactions to the same disease: some infected with the coronavirus remain asymptomatic, others suffer severe reactions, and tragically, 250,000 Americans have died from the virus. We don’t all react the same to COVID-19, and treatments may produce different effects for different patients.
This concept applies to patients living with cancer and in survivorship. After diagnosis, the effects of the disease and related treatments can be immediate and severe. Doctors amend their treatment protocols based on each patient’s unique reaction. Treatment is not just condition-based, but symptom-based.
As a four-time cancer survivor, I know first-hand that pain is a nearly inevitable symptom during treatment. The goal of any oncologist and cancer patient relationship is to reach remission as quickly and with as little pain as possible. Providing relief through acute administration of pain, anti-nausea and comfort-inducing medications is wholly necessary. However, when a patient is fortunate enough to enter remission, the goal should be to manage discomfort in a healthy and sustainable manner.
Despite being in remission for 20 years, discomfort from surviving 75-plus surgeries and two bone marrow transplants has never waned. After a tumor extraction and subsequent facial reconstruction in 2000, a failed nerve block forced pain specialists to resort to an assortment of narcotics, anti-inflammatories and topical anesthetics to combat the pain. I remained on this regimen for almost eight years and became chemically and physical addicted. At some point, the medications that were once a source of comfort prevented me from feeling anything at all
Despite chronic pain in my jaw and persistent anxiety of relapse, Texas prohibits doctors from prescribing patients like me a safe, effective, research-proven pain management remedy: medical cannabis. Essentially, our legislature has nominated itself as the governing medical expert and decision maker regarding the health of millions of Texans. This needs to change.
In 2015, Texas established the Compassionate Use Program, which allowed physicians treating intractable epilepsy patients to prescribe low-dose THC cannabis. Since then, the legislature has wisely expanded the program to include conditions like autism, multiple sclerosis and ALS. However, hundreds of thousands of patients who could potentially benefit from this medication are still restricted from it. This includes cancer patients plagued by pain but who have not been diagnosed as “terminal.”
Thirty-six U.S. states allow non-terminal cancer as a qualifying condition to be treated with medicinal cannabis. Mississippi and South Dakota joined those ranks following successful ballot initiatives in 2020. Of those states who have enacted “comprehensive” medical cannabis laws, doctors — not the state — are often allowed to determine eligibility or petition for unique cases to qualify. Texas should follow suit.
“Cancer-related pain is not the exclusive domain of those who die of cancer. Even many who are cured of their disease live with the long-term effects of the disease and its treatment; many of them live with pain,” reads an excerpt from the medical book “Cancer: Disease Control Priorities.”
Texas should open its Compassionate Use Program to non-terminal cancer patients and allow doctors to decide when symptoms and circumstances warrant a prescription for medical cannabis. Adequately managing our pain improves our quality of life, our health outcomes and our productivity.
Last year, doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Centers examined attitudes and beliefs about medical cannabis in a survey of adult cancer patients enrolled in their outpatient palliative care programs in Houston and in Gilbert, Ariz. They found overwhelming support for the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes and a strong belief in its medical application. Ninety-three percent of Texas cancer patients believe in the medical usefulness of cannabis.
As a community, cancer survivors and their families are always looking for advancements to deal with pain and the collateral damage our treatments cause. Medical cannabis is a proven therapy prescribed to cancer patients in the majority of U.S. states and we hope the Legislature will act to let Texans take advantage of its benefits, too.
Thompson is a native Texan and executive director of the Front Row Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping those facing life-threatening conditions by creating uplifting and life-giving moments through once-in-a-lifetime experiences.