IAN KIRKWOOD: Medical cannabis advocate Susannah Patch loses her life to breast cancer

IN August 2014 I wrote a news article about an Awaba woman, Susannah Patch, who was dosing herself with cannabis oil and crediting it for the remarkable progress she had made in fighting her breast cancer.

BETTER TIMES: The image of Susannah Patch, then in remission from cancer, published with the original August 2014 article. Picture: Jonathan Carroll.

BETTER TIMES: The image of Susannah Patch, then in remission from cancer, published with the original August 2014 article. Picture: Jonathan Carroll.

The article travelled widely, as can be the case in this digital world. All this time later, I am still fielding requests from people wanting to get in touch with Susannah, or to find a supply of cannabis oil.

Now, it’s time to write a follow-up article. The follow-up I dreaded, the one I hoped I would never have to write. But I have had to, because, in the end, cannabis did not beat Susannah’s cancer. And nor did conventional treatment.

After a relapse that began last year, Susannah died on Easter Monday.

She was 46 years old.

The death of anyone before their time is a blow to those left behind, but Susannah was one of those people who attracted others, and in going public she had become something of an underground inspiration for those involved in the clandestine battle of cannabis versus cancer.

Medical cannabis has been in the news a lot these past few years, and the NSW government is not the only administration around the globe experimenting with the plant. When I first began writing about medical cannabis, I thought its only use was as an anti-pain, or anti-nausea, agent. This is what the NSW government trials are about.

It took me some time to realise the pain-relief side of cannabis was only the introduction. Online you will find masses of literature claiming that cannabis can cure cancer, and not only cancer, but a range of other medical conditions that are otherwise in conventional medicine’s too-hard basket.

Given the Hunter’s history with cancer con-men – my former colleague Greg Ray and his pursuit of fraudster Paul Perrett springs to mind – I ensured I had official comment, and the article included links to some scientific papers on cancer and cannabis. Most of this evidence came from trials with cells in test tubes, and with mice. They indicated that some of the active ingredients in cannabis – substances called cannabinoids – appeared to have anti-carcinogenic properties. The general idea was that further research could be beneficial.

Then, last December, I met a visiting US oncologist, Ezekiel Emanuel, an architect of America’s “Obamacare” health insurance reforms. Emanuel was scathing about medical cannabis, describing it as a dishonest backdoor way of legalising recreational cannabis.  He was pointed, too, on the worth of rodent trials on human cancer treatments: “It’s easy to cure cancer in mice,” Emanuel said. “It’s a lot harder to cure cancer in people. So, do the trials on people, and then we can talk about it.”

For what it’s worth, Susannah Patch believed that cannabis helped keep her cancer in remission for as long as it was. A friend said “it gave her hope” in the face of a terminal prognosis in 2011. The medical cannabis lobby says diet and lifestyle are important components of the treatment and they insist that many of the people they are in contact with are outliving their doctors’ predictions.

I know the world is full of people promising miracle clues, but can it be that hard to establish, once and for all, whether cannabinoids have a role cancer treatment? I think we owe it to Susannah, and to other cancer victims - past, present and future. 

And to conclude, Susannah’s funeral is at Ryhope today, Saturday, April 2, at 11am. May she rest in peace.