Marijuana keeps Craig Rodgers alive.
With his muscular physique and energetic, fast-talking personality, the 36-year-old Las Vegas resident seems the epitome of health — except for the banana-size scar on the left side of his head.
Rodgers was on a good career track as a trade-show organizer until 2006, when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Now he's a passionate advocate of medical marijuana, lives on government disability, and earns a few extra bucks making candles that look like brains.
He was one of several patients who attended a conference in Tucson last month regarding the use of marijuana in medicine.
Rodgers was fishing in Canada when the first seizure struck. He was rushed from the backcountry to a hospital, but doctors didn't find the cause until three months later, after another seizure. The diagnosis is seared in his memory.
"Your tumor is here," his doctor told him while pointing at an x-ray of his head. "You're going to die."
Rodgers was given 18 months to live. Surgeons were able to remove about 80 percent of the tumor in 2007 and told him it probably would come back. They also put him on a chemotherapy regimen, which was when he "got involved in cannabis." He'd tried it a few times in his late teens and early 20s, but this experience was different.
"I took two puffs, and it was incredible," he says. "It made me feel well."
Every day, he smokes a little and eats more. Pot eases his stress and helps him sleep. It helped with the nausea that comes from the chemo drugs he's taking: "I even gained a couple [of] pounds." It helps with the "mild" pain he feels in his head. And, he says, it keeps him from having seizures.
Even more than that, Rodgers believes strongly that the pot has extended his life by slowing growth of the cancer.
The proof, he says, is that he's still alive, five years after his surgery. Still, the cancer did return and Rodgers had another surgery in December. This time, he was told there could be no more operations and that he had three years to live.
Pot, he feels, may be his best chance to beat the odds. He grows seven plants under Nevada's medical-pot law. Besides cooking pot into "edibles," making pot tea, and smoking marijuana occasionally, he also takes pot oil in pill form and turns raw weed into juice, which is rich in cannabidiol (CBD), the second-most-abundant active compound in marijuana behind delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
No hard evidence proves whether pot helps Rodgers' cancer. The possibility exists, nonetheless.
THC and CBD have been found in scientific studies to shrink tumors and inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
THC and other cannabinoids, including CBD, "can act as direct anti-cancer agents in multiple types of cancer" both in laboratory cultures and in the human body, according to a 2010 article in the medical journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics. The article goes on to relate that a study showed THC and CBD were successful in treating glioblastoma, the same type of cancer that Rodgers has.
That study, conducted by researchers at California Pacific Medical Center Research and the University of California-San Francisco, was conducted in a lab and not on humans. It revealed that the combination of THC and CBD is more effective at fighting cancer than either compound alone, a finding that suggests the marijuana plant's ingredients and oils may work together to produce beneficial medical results.
"With the growing evidence showing cannabinoids are effective inhibitors of multiple types of cancer, it is likely that additional clinical trials will be carried out," wrote the authors of the California study. "Combination treatments with cannabinoids" may improve the results of such future trials.
The study didn't address questions that would be important for Rodgers' self-medicating experiment, such as how much marijuana he'd have to consume and how best to consume it to treat his cancer.
Without scientifically valid evidence, all he can do is have faith that marijuana is reducing his tumor, or at least preventing it from getting worse.
"I hope for that every single second of my life," he says grimly.
For millions of patients with cancer, chronic pain, and other maladies, the potential benefits of marijuana can't be discounted.
Many consider marijuana a wonder drug, and the list of ailments that scientists say it benefits is long.
Pot helps more with some things, like nerve pain, appetite stimulation, and nausea, and less with others, such as glaucoma. It's shown at least the potential to help with a wide range of maladies, from Parkinson's disease to arthritis.
More people use the drug these days. One survey based on self-reported information shows that 17.4 million Americans admitted using weed in 2010, up from 14.4 million in 2007. The modern medical-marijuana movement apparently is responsible for the increase.