Well Being: How medical marijuana can make a difference

Posted: August 11, 2014

Sam Rennix could be forgiven for assuming that the worst was behind him after triple-bypass surgery in 2010. Then, last summer, his throat became sore, like something was stuck in it.

Unlike many men, Rennix, who lives in Springfield, Delaware County, and is manager of Wolfe Pool Supply in Narberth, doesn't hesitate to see a doctor when something's amiss with his health. Perhaps it's because he's married to an intensive-care nurse and knows all too well that procrastinating can turn a curable problem into a death sentence.

An endoscopic examination of his throat, and a later CT scan, showed that Rennix had a cancerous tumor on his left tonsil and a suspicious lesion beneath his palate on the right side of his mouth. Smoking often causes throat cancer, but Rennix has never had a cigarette touch his lips, he says.

His doctor at the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center prescribed radiation. Over six weeks last fall, Rennix underwent 32 radiation treatments. A new technique - proton-beam radiation - enabled specialists to zap the tumor more precisely, but Rennix still experienced burns on his neck and face and inside his mouth. He developed thrush, and his tongue was so ulcerated he couldn't swallow. He had to use a feeding tube.

Rennix, 61, weathered the ordeal with his usual spirit. In February, a PET scan showed the cancer gone.

Rejoicing was dampened, however, by the radiation's side effects. His damaged salivary glands were minimally functional. Worse, he had no sense of taste - "eating a filet mignon was like swallowing cardboard and paste" - and no appetite. The mere thought of food nauseated him. Pills to quell the nausea were ineffective. Except for liquid nutrition supplements and protein shakes, he wasn't eating. As a result, his weight was dropping at an alarming rate - three pounds per week. In 2010, he had tipped the scale at a porky 229 pounds, an all-time high. He was not happy about the way he looked and felt. Now his weight was plummeting, heading toward 160 pounds.

"I was dying," he says.

Last spring, friends and his two grown sons urged him to try marijuana to stimulate his appetite. Rennix was game, and after experimenting with several strains of cannabis, found that "Sour Diesel" seemed to do the trick. With a butane-powered vaporizer that bakes the marijuana, he is able, after a couple of hits, to eat a solid meal. Since then, Rennix has conditioned his stomach to tolerate a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. He relies on vaporized marijuana to develop an appetite for supper. Recently, he's been able to taste food on the tip of his tongue.

Although many states, including New Jersey, have approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, Rennix knows that he is breaking the law in Pennsylvania, at least for the moment (several state legislators are pushing to change the law, in concert with a rising national trend).

Many case studies show that medical marijuana helps with a broad range of symptoms of cancer care, including reducing spasms, pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, and improving mood and stimulating appetite, says Suzanne Miller, director of behavioral medicine at Fox Chase Cancer Center. Miller is also on the board of the Compassionate Care Foundation in New Jersey, which has a permit to dispense medical marijuana and where researchers are collecting data about its efficacy for managing pain.

"Medical marijuana has wonderful properties, and there's a desperate need for clinical trials to demonstrate when it works, for whom it works, on what it works, and the appropriate dosage levels and modalities," she says. "I'm hopeful that it will be approved soon in Pennsylvania so we can use it to help patients at Fox Chase Cancer Center."

Having experienced its health benefits, Rennix is unafraid to publicize his use of marijuana.

"We need to legalize it in Pennsylvania," he agrees, "so people aren't criminals who are helping those in need medicinally."

Because the drug is illegal here, Rennix can't be sure that the particular cannabis he needs will be available. He can't go to a dispensary and buy some Sour Diesel. That frustrates him.

But Rennix is far from bitter. In fact, he says, "I'm blessed. I'm one of the luckiest men in the world." His friends, customers and family have been solidly supportive. He is especially grateful to his wife, Michaelle. "She's my rock," he says. She describes her husband now as "euphoric."

Because of his weight loss, - he's now at 157 pounds and holding - Rennix no longer takes medication for high blood pressure. He is more energetic and able to be more physically active. To build muscle, he is lifting weights. For cardiovascular health, he works out on an elliptical trainer and a stationary bike. Recently, he cycled to his son's house and back, a round trip of six miles.

In his athletic prime, Rennix played soccer, ran the quarter-mile, and set records in the long jump. Now, with his self-esteem rejuvenated, he envisions participating in sports again, perhaps masters track or a senior softball league. Or touring Ireland with Michaelle on bicycles.

"All is good. I'm doing great. I feel like I'm the happiest person. I'm able to do things I haven't been able to do in 30 years."

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column.

Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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