Dr. John Buhmeyer, a PhD in Health Services graduate, and his wife Melissa met while serving in the military and stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Both Dr. Buhmeyer and Melissa were in the Air Force at that time. Melissa was a former Marine who became an officer in the Air Force. They married in 1998 and less than 1 year later she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. In 2007, after many years in remission, cancer was found in Melissa’s colon during a routine colonoscopy. During a surgery to remove her ascending colon, the cancer was found to have metastasized to her internal organs, and she was diagnosed with peritoneal carcinoma.
Melissa was a warrior and fought many battles to survive. “We tried various conventional and alternative treatments over the years,” explains Dr. Buhmeyer, a 2018 recipient of the Harold L. Hodgkinson Award for his dissertation, “Pain Management, Gender, and Quality of Life in Cancer Patients.” “It isn’t until you have a family member or someone you deeply care about fighting for their life that you search out a different treatment, something that’s going to work.” Over many years, Melissa suffered many cancer-related symptoms, including cachexia—excessive loss of weight and muscle—that caused her pain and gravely affected her quality of life.
Dr. Buhmeyer retired from the military in 2011 and three days later started his PhD in Health Services at Walden University. He wanted an online program that would enable him to continue caring for his wife full time from their home in Colorado. “When things got very bad, she had trouble eating and had so many other issues that it made sense to try marijuana,” he says. “Since we lived in a medically legal state, we tried it, and it helped her to eat and sleep while relieving the pain and anxiety.”
The decision to undertake the alternative treatment was not made hastily. “Melissa and I both grew up in the age of ‘just say no to drugs.’ Being in the military, we were drug tested at least annually, if not more, so marijuana was not seen as regular course for us,” says Dr. Buhmeyer. Still, they felt it was worth it to try to help improve her physical and psychological quality of life. Thus, the basis of his dissertation.
Pain management alternatives with less side effects, morbidity, or related mortality that provide patients equal or greater quality of life could provide positive social value. “There can be a tremendous amount of pain for cancer patients, and effective pain management contributes to increased survivability,” says Dr. Buhmeyer. “Marijuana could be a substitute for opioids entirely or used in conjunction with a lower dose to improve patients’ quality of life.” His research findings indicated significant benefit in cancer patient physical and psychological quality of life in participants using marijuana when compared to participants using opioids. There was also significant benefit for physical quality of life for participants using marijuana over participants using both opioids and marijuana combined.
However, the barriers to studying the effects of cannabis as an alternative treatment persist. “Even though there have been quite a few peer-reviewed studies, most of the evidence is anecdotal because of restrictions caused by marijuana’s schedule and status,” he explains. “As a result of its drug classification, research is essentially blocked so it can’t be studied like many other pharmaceutical drugs. Therefore, patients have to do a lot of their own research and experimentation, which puts a lot of pressure on them, especially since it’s not covered by insurance.”
Even in states where medical marijuana is legal, Dr. Buhmeyer maintains it’s up to the doctors. “Some physicians are hesitant to prescribe it or have patients try it,” he says. “Some states have protocols wherein cancer patients must first try opioids and, if they fail, then marijuana can be used.”
According to the American Cancer Society, in 2018, there will be an estimated 1,735,350 new cancer cases diagnosed and 609,640 cancer deaths in the United States. Further, researchers H. Nersesyan and K.V. Slavin (2007) found more than 50% of cancer patients are insufficiently treated for pain and about 25% die in pain.
“Melissa had a 0% survivability for 5 years after her metastasized diagnosis, and she lived just longer than 5 years. There is so much more we could be doing to help improve the quality of life of cancer patients, who should be free to use marijuana in accordance with their state jurisdictions without fear of federal interference and prosecution,” says Dr. Buhmeyer. “But we all have to do our part: medical practitioners should seriously consider prescribing it if medical marijuana is legal. Legislators should reschedule marijuana to less than a Schedule I drug to empower researchers. And researchers should examine the long-term effects and appeal to health policymakers to loosen legislative controls.”