My Reluctance to Use Marijuana During Cancer Treatment


Growing up, I thought that only “bad boys” used marijuana, but after my cancer diagnosis, my perception slowly changed.

I grew up on Army bases in the 1960s and 70s. “Flower Power” was blooming and spreading across America like dandelions.

While my father, an Army officer, was off fighting the war in Vietnam, my mother let me and my brother grow our hair long. First thing my father did when he came home was to grab me by the ear and drag me in my bell bottoms to the base barbershop.

“No kid of mine is going to be hippie!” he mumbled over and over on the short drive to the PX. Every night we watched Walter Cronkite in black-and-white on the nightly news showing anti-war protestors marching and wielding anti-war signs with slogans like “Make Love, Not War!” I remember my red-faced father who eventually served two tours in ‘Nam with his butch haircut shouting angrily at the set, “Dissident Beatniks” and calling them “unpatriotic.” Even now, I can almost hear him yelling, “Damn hippies!”

Back then, pot was something only hippies used. I grew up thinking that good people didn’t use marijuana. It was taboo. Only criminals and rebels and dissidents smoked pot. Influenced by a childhood of my father’s rantings, I never smoked a joint, not once. In high school, some of my friends did (one eventually became a lawyer; another became a prominent politician). According to the grown-ups around me, only “Bad Boys” did pot. My younger brother smoked Mary Jane. He even had a bong. He was always a rebel. As a teenager, he wore a black leather biker’s jacket and dropped out of high school. He and my dad, an Army lieutenant colonel, came to blows often. The “bad boy” persona didn’t work out for my brother. On a spring day in 1988, he committed suicide just shy of his 23rd birthday.

Ingrained in my upbringing as it was, it’s no wonder I’ve avoided marijuana all my life, even in the face of mounting evidence of its many benefits — including for those undergoing treatment for cancer.

Like many Americans, I was diagnosed with cancer in my older age. At 59, I was diagnosed with stage 2, non-specific, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I would undergo six months of chemo and immunotherapy. It was harsh. My body deteriorated almost overnight. By the fifth cycle, I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to make it. On one especially bad day, I video-recorded a farewell message to my family.

But at our first TEACH session, when the doctors and nurses taught us about what to expect of the process and treatment, the doctor asked if I’d like to use marijuana to alleviate some of the effects of cancer and the treatment. I told her what I’ve told you, that I was reluctant. I wasn’t a “bad boy,” I said.

Back then, in the fall of 2022, marijuana was not yet legal in the state where I live, but the doctor told me I could get a medical marijuana license. Needless to say, she convinced me to try. Some of my friends, colleagues, and even my oldest daughter who, incidentally, works at a marijuana dispensary in Alaska, also recommended that I use gummies. One friend, who had been using marijuana for half a century or longer said he’d be my guide.

Like many other cancer patients, the fuddy-duddy in me wrestled with the decision to use marijuana. The cultural stigma associated with marijuana users made me uneasy. I imagined myself hiding in dark corners smoking a fatty, hoping that no one saw me. I told the TEACH nurse practitioner as much. She recommended that one of the best ways to absorb the beneficial THC is by consuming gummies made with marijuana, which appealed to me. It gave me a way to avoid the stigma of using marijuana. In addition, I wouldn’t smell of Mary Jane like I would if I smoked it. She added that it was safer, too.

In the end, I decided to apply for a license. After all, what did I have to lose?

The application process was easy enough. The oncology doctor went to an online website where she entered her prescription for marijuana in the state database. During my first ambulatory infusion — with my bag of Rituxan (rituximab) and a bag of saline dripping into my veins — I sat down at my laptop and officially applied online for the license. The whole process took minutes. The state matched my doctor’s prescription with my name and, in no time at all, I was issued a license for medical marijuana use. Ironically, marijuana was legalized in our state shortly after I received my license, and now anyone can buy marijuana (licensed medical marijuana users get a discount).

John Smelcer, PhD, CAGS, a non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, author with a package of cinnamon marijuana gummies.

John Smelcer, PhD, CAGS, a non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, author with a package of cinnamon marijuana gummies.

I cannot personally speak to the use of marijuana to reduce pain associated with cancer. I had no pain to speak of (though I experienced what can be described as electrical tingling/shocking in my left hand).

What I can speak of is how the THC in gummies helped me to sleep better, which is important for the body to repair itself. For a number of reasons, I wasn’t sleeping well. For one thing, I was anxious about my cancer and my cancer treatment. I was worried about dying and leaving my family without a husband and a father. I ruminated about things undone and unsaid. My wife and I talked about these issues in bed often, which ruined both our sleep. From experience, I can say that marijuana gummies helped me sleep through the night. Where I used to toss and turn and lay awake half the night, now I slept soundly. My sleep quality was better, deeper. I even got up less frequently to go to the bathroom. My wife remarked how she, too, slept better because I wasn’t waking her up so often. Cancer treatment wears down your body. It leaves you fatigued. Getting better sleep can be beneficial. Sleep repairs our bodies. I have heard it said that even injured deer know to bed down and rest and sleep so that time can heal their wounds.

What I learned from experience was that a quarter or a third of a gummy was enough. It’s best to take it an hour ahead of bedtime. The first time, I bit off half a gummy and I had an adverse reaction. I wouldn’t say that I was tripping, but I didn’t need so much. The good news is that one of the little packages often includes only ten gummies. But cut into quarters or thirds yields enough gummies for a whole month. Even better, a package with ten gummies (each 10 mg of THC for a total of 100 mg) costs only about $15. They come in all kinds of flavors (I loved the watermelon ones). A package with higher concentration of THC will cost more.

A knowledgeable budtender can tell you which products most help with sleep and which might help manage pain or other common symptoms.

As a poet, I wrote poems about my feelings, concerns, and experiences throughout my grueling six-month cancer treatment, culminating in Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor, a book that would be useful to anyone who has cancer, who cares for someone with cancer, or who loves someone with cancer. It’s time for me to go now. My gummies ran out. I need to buy another package at the dispensary down the street.

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