Cannabis vs. cancer: Local doc says prospects exciting

OKEECHOBEE — Although medical cannabis has been prescribed for cancer patients in the United States only to treat quality of life issues, elsewhere in the world earnest researchers are experimenting with it and have had incredible results. They’re essentially trying to cure individuals’ cancers one at a time, according to a local doctor who’s researched this subject extensively for several years.

Dr. Ramesh Kumar, a radiation oncologist who has an office in the Big Lake Cancer Center in Okeechobee, shared his knowledge of developments in this field during two presentations he gave in April as part of a local fund-raiser. Based in Palm Beach Gardens and affiliated with local hospitals including Lawnwood Regional Medical Center and Heart Institute in Fort Pierce and Raulerson Hospital in Okeechobee, he became interested in medical marijuana’s possibilities for treating people suffering from cancer about five years ago when his mother-in-law was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that had spread throughout her body.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Okeechobee oncologist Dr. Ramesh Kumar (left) tells patrons gathered at Back to Butch’s Bar about how cannabis is being used to treat cancer patients. Owner Jeffrey Kennedy, who was hosting a fund-raiser for his pro-medical marijuana group, is at right.

He’s been treating patients in Okeechobee since 1994 and says that while traditional medicine teaches doctors to attempt to rid the patient of the cancer if possible, “very little training goes into focusing on quality of life issues. So what I’ve been focusing on ever since I started practicing was paying equal attention to quality of life.”

Dr. Kumar said physical pain is people’s biggest issue when it comes to being able to live their life as they choose but that — along with cancer — anxiety, depression and stress also build. Those might even fuel cancer growth, but they often begin to afflict the patient’s entire family and circle as well.

“When it comes to quality of life, I’m trying to figure out methods of trying to help patients. So I talk about stress reduction, nutrition, all of that; that’s how I counsel my patients. But like any other traditional physician, when it comes to pain management, what would I do? Prescribe them narcotics, because that’s the only thing that we’re trained to do.”

Until 2014, that is; it was all he did until his wife’s mom received her diagnosis.

“So we tried chemotherapy, radiation, the whole nine yards. Thank God she lived in California at that time, and the time came when my wife was called in … so she found Mom literally on her deathbed. This was the time when we started thinking about medical cannabis in the State of Florida, when all the laws were being passed. So my wife asked me, ‘Why don’t these doctors in California just give my mom cannabis, just to keep her comfortable?’

“So I called up her oncologist in California, and had a discussion about medical cannabis. And there was a lot of pushback … ‘Oh, it’s not good for people’ … ‘We don’t know’ (if it does any good) … ‘It’s addictive’ … So I said: ‘She’s on her deathbed. She’s ready to go. What are we worried about?’

“So finally, after quite a bit of conversation,” Dr. Kumar continued, “we got her some medical cannabis in California. And guess what? She had a great quality of life, was back functioning within three or four days, for quite a few months. And the only thing that made a difference was medical cannabis. Not pain medicines, not chemotherapy, not radiation.” Nothing else helped.

“Just from a pure quality-of-life point of view, she was out gardening, taking care of her flowers. She lived for three or four months after that. So those were the months that she could not have had except for medical cannabis,” he said.

Dr. Kumar decided after her death to do more research and ended up getting the necessary certification to prescribe cannabis to his patients.
He tells groups to which he now gives lectures regularly:

“Cannabis can be used to manage, in the State of Florida, nine conditions — again, focused on quality of life, whether it’s PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome), cancer, whatever. In the cancer area, we’re looking at pain management, stopping nausea and improving appetite, which is all good for quality of life.

“But then I stumbled on something that was incredible,” he said. “This is what I found: The research on cannabis has been off the charts in Canada and Israel.”

He doubts that any progress will be made on this front anytime soon in this country, although Dr. Kumar believes more study might well prove someday that marijuana could hold possible cures for cancer.

But that answer won’t come from U.S.-based research, he says. “We in the U.S. are sort of in the stone ages when it comes to cannabis research. Why? Because the federal government does not allow the free use of cannabis to do research.”

He explained that his resource is the Society of Cannabis Clinicians (SCC), a 501(c)(3) institution founded 20 years ago and dedicated to advancing cannabis for medical use. According to Dr. Kumar, the only legal studies taking place in America are tightly regulated and can be done only with marijuana grown under contract at the University of Mississippi. The National Institute on Drug Abuse must approve any clinical research. Oversight by the U.S. Public Health Service was eliminated in 2015. Also, marijuana remains a prohibited Schedule I drug under U.S. law; however, an act of Congress called the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment protects state-legalized medical cannabis activities, and it must be renewed every year. A Justice Department attempt to repeal that law failed in 2016.

“But from the free flow of information that’s going on in Canada and Israel, we are seeing some amazing results,” he said. A study done in Israel, he said, showed that there are some unique strains of cannabis that have shown great promise in killing specific cancer cells from individual patients. In particular, there has been progress in killing glioblastoma (brain cancer), breast and prostate cancers.

Dr. Kumar noted that the studies must be done on a very individualized basis. “You’ve got to test each individual cancer cell from a particular patient and find out what strain is going to work on that particular cancer cell. So you cannot generalize this. But this is the best part: So the scientist made a statement that the extent of cancer kill that they saw was better than the best chemotherapy available for that particular cancer.”

He said that many of the resources on the SCC website, at cannabisclinicians.org, are available to anyone and include videos that describe some of the astounding results that have been achieved. There’s one done by a scientist from Israel, he said, that “changed the way I look at cancer patients.”

As he treats patients and, if he ends up prescribing medical marijuana, he said, “I’m looking at them for quality of life, but I’m just hoping and praying that that particular strain of cannabis may have a small possibility of actually killing those cancer cells in that patient. … Maybe this stuff is actually killing cancer, even though I can’t prove it.”

He did tell about great results he’s seen in his own patients; one woman whom he’s been treating for six months was so frail when he first saw her in October now “doesn’t look sick, and every time she shows up, I look at her like the ghost that came back from the dead.”

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