Hilary Latham – my cancer journey with medical cannabisNovember 6, 2019 | IN PATIENT STORY | BY MCCS
Hilary Latham from York uses medical cannabis treatment as part of her cancer treatment. Here, she tells her story.
In September 2009 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. One mastectomy later I was told the operation had been a success. I was one of the lucky ones… or so I thought.
Ten years later, in February, I moved to York to be near my two daughters, my new grandson, plus another grandchild on the way. Things were looking good. Aged 65, single (apart from the love of my life, my dog!), I was still fit enough to chase my grandchildren around the garden and continue my successful painting and decorating business.
As this year progressed I noticed that my mild asthma was getting progressively worse and by July I was feeling quite ill. A trip to the doctors was quickly followed up by admission to hospital where I was told the cancer was back and had spread to my liver. As a secondary cancer, I realised I wasn’t going to be so lucky this time. My oncologist confirmed I had stage 4 cancer and my life expectancy, without chemotherapy, was just a matter of months, and with successful chemotherapy I had perhaps one to two years.
Considering chemotherapy treatment
I had always thought that if the cancer returned, I wouldn’t have chemotherapy, I didn’t want to spend whatever time I had remaining in this life to be spent on an endless merry go round of potentially debilitating treatment. I also hadn’t planned on the additional complication of hypercalcemia. The cancer was affecting the amount of calcium in my blood, which can be life-threatening. I was very poorly.
As an active outdoorsy type of person, quality of life is so important to me. I realized that the prognosis of just a few months to live wouldn’t give me the time I needed to make some precious memories. I knew I would have to take the chemotherapy route to try to reduce the cancer, which in turn would hopefully reduce the calcium in my blood. In my life I’ve been blessed with a positive mind et, never been one to say, ‘what if?’ negatively. This was time to get the gloves on, time to fight!
Making that decision was so empowering. I couldn’t sit there waiting to fade away or fall prey to the debilitating chemotherapy. I understand many people have an easier journey than others on chemotherapy, but with my limited life expectancy, I needed to know my chemotherapy journey would enable me to have a quality of life to be active and enjoy my grandchildren.
Exploring medical cannabis treatments
In addition to being a decorator, I’m a complementary healthcare practitioner and I’ve had 20 years’ experience researching many potentially healing therapies. I believe that there are many avenues we can take to help in all areas of our health, and I was about to discover a great ally on my journey – medicinal cannabis. Do I hear an intake of breath, an occasional tut-tut, mutterings of illegal drugs at the mention of a natural plant that has been around for thousands of years?
To be absolutely correct, I didn’t ‘discover’ cannabis this year. I was already aware of its existence and had been for a couple of years. I was living in Portugal where the laws regarding cannabis are far more lenient than in the UK. Many people grow it for their own use and my neighbour at the time, a terminally ill lady with secondary cancer, purchased medicinal cannabis from Holland, another country that doesn’t look upon cannabis as an evil weed. I witnessed her final months and was amazed how well she managed – enjoying her life, socialising and being in her garden right up till the last two weeks of her life.
I have been in hospital a fair amount this year with the hypercalcemia and met some amazing people fighting for their lives with cancer. One lady mentioned to me she had bought some cannabis oil on the internet. At this time, I admit I didn’t have much faith in something I could ask Google for, so it was time for research.
Research, education and changing attitudes
I am blessed with a very special friend who has left no stone unturned on her quest to help me, spending hours and hours on research. That research led her first to America and then the UK – in particular to Prof Mike Barnes and The Medical Cannabis Clinics. I was told I would need to be referred by my GP to see a specialist. I can imagine the horror on some faces at the thought of approaching their GP to get cannabis!
Luckily for me, my GP is something else. He goes that extra mile to help his patients and after his initial ‘rabbit in headlights’ reaction, he set about doing his own research and put me in touch with Dr Iveson in York.
The journey to treatment
Dr Iveson is a Consultant Physician specialising in complex care and symptom management particularly in the elderly and patients with stroke and long term conditions. She is working with the Medical Cannabis Clinician’s Society and charity Drug Science to further develop research into medical cannabis treatment and help educate and share her experience with fellow doctors.
During my initial consultation with Dr Iveson I was most impressed by her care and professionalism. My target was to take medicinal cannabis to help alleviate the potential side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea and sickness, plus help with insomnia and anxiety. I left with confidence in knowing I had made a major step forward towards a better quality of life during the daunting journey of chemotherapy.
After my initial delight in the positive attitude of my GP, I didn’t anticipate the reaction of others when I told them I was taking medicinal cannabis. Because of my research and openness to cannabis, I hadn’t realised the stigma behind something so natural. There is something about the word cannabis that really gets a reaction, either a snigger behind the hand or from friends warning me not to mention drugs in front of their partners. My favourite though is the ‘rabbit in headlights’ reaction which I received when I took my prescription to the chemist, which was followed by much huffing and puffing from the pharmacist on duty. But, the pharmacist did some research and realised he was part of something quite ground-breaking. It’s amazing what a bit of education can do!
The impact of medical cannabis treatments
I could hardly wait to begin taking my prescription. I am taking a balanced CBD:THC oil at night and a high CBD oil during the day to manage my symptoms and I am slowly titrating the dose upwards with support and close monitoring from Dr Iveson. It took a short while to appreciate all the benefits but it has been quite amazing.
My mouth ulcers have completely disappeared, I’m sleeping very well, and I’m managing my nausea and sickness so much better. One bonus I didn’t realize is that medical cannabis is an anti-inflammatory and opens the airways. It has helped my asthma and my breathing is so much better. I’m in a very positive state of mind and that in itself is a very powerful tool. My oncologist is aware I am taking medicinal cannabis and in the future perhaps we may see a great relationship forming between all health professionals working towards a better quality of life for all.
Medical cannabis for all
Medicinal cannabis is not cheap. I had some savings for a rainy day – but I didn’t think that rainy day would come so soon. My savings won’t last forever and I can only hope that in the not so distant future, the price will come down as the demand goes up. And one day, I hope it will be available to all on the NHS.
Hilary passed away in 2020. We are honoured that she chose to share her story with us.