"You have cancer." These three words were all too familiar to Dr. Elizabeth Grace, an oncologist working in Boston. Her life was dedicated to treating cancer patients as well as doing research to try and find a cure for the disease. Her specialty was in lung cancer, the uncontrolled growth of cells within the lungs. Despite this, Elizabeth was a closet smoker who fancied a cigarette during every break from work.
A normal day for Dr. Elizabeth started with a cup of coffee and a smoke at 3:30 AM, a yoga session with her German Shepard dog, Mollie, and a quick shower by 4 in order to make it to work for rounds before 4:30. Living in the middle of downtown meant that she never had to drive to work but it was only a short walk away.
"Good morning, Dr. Burke." Elizabeth said as she walked into her office. Dr. Burke, while not an oncologist, worked with Elizabeth on many of her experiments. His expertise in pharmaceutical drugs and alternative medicine made him invaluable to the hospital and to Elizabeth's patients.
"Ah, good morning, Elizabeth!" Dr. Burke said. "You seem to be in a good mood today."
"Yes sir! Charlotte, the woman with the cancer in her left lung, had her final chemotherapy treatment last month. With any luck, her scans today should show that she is cancer free." Elizabeth had been treating Charlotte for three years. She first came in to see Dr. Elizabeth when she was forty-two years old after she went to see her doctor for what she thought was either a respiratory infection or pneumonia. Her level of white blood cells was extremely high, which meant that her body was fighting something and further investigation was necessary. After ruling out things like a virus or an infection, Charlotte's doctor recommended that she see Dr. Elizabeth. It was February 9, 2013 when Charlotte got her lung cancer diagnosis.
Elizabeth began to make her rounds checking on each of her in house patients. This ranged from performing tests, administering IVs and chemotherapy drugs, and just asking them how they are doing. It is common for a patient to just feel like another experiment when going through treatment of something like cancer, but Elizabeth always makes sure to make her patients feel like a friend.
When she entered Charlotte's room she was already being prepped for the day by a nurse. Her blood had already been drawn from the port leading to her heart and was ready to be sent for analysis. The only other test Charlotte had for the day was a CT scan, or a computed tomography scan. These scans require the patient to lie still for extended period of time while the scanner rotates around the body producing multiple x-ray like images until a complete picture of the body is formed. "Have you already given her the dye?" Elizabeth asked regarding the dye that gets absorbed into the body to make the different body parts visible to the scanner.
"Yes. She drank it about an hour ago." The nurse responded as she continued flushing Charlotte's port with a saline solution in order to prevent blood clots.
"Perfect. Well then Charlotte it looks like you're ready to go! Hopefully this is the last time we ever have to do one of these." Elizabeth led Charlotte back to the room where the scan was performed and positioned her on the table.
Hours later, the results were in. Charlotte's scans were cancer free.
The success of a patient able to be released from hospital care was reason for celebration. However, Elizabeth knew that one patient was a small victory compared to the thousands of others in the world suffering from the same condition. Instead of celebrating, she refocused herself on research after, of course, sneaking up to the roof for a smoke. She was careful to not let her colleagues know about this part of her life because smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer and Elizabeth knew this but could not resist the habit that she picked up at a young age. To keep from revealing her secret, she always carried gum and her favorite perfume.
Elizabeth's main topic of research was in the possible medicinal benefits of cannabis, more commonly known as marijuana, Mary Jane, pot, weed, bud. Her main focus is on the effects of the two most common chemicals in cannabis, THC and CBD. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that, when detected by cannabinoid receptors in the brain, can cause the user to feel happy, energized, and at the same time, relaxed. CBD, cannabidiol, is a non-psychoactive chemical in marijuana that acts very well as a pain reliever. While marijuana is not legal for recreational use in Massachusetts, it was legalized for medicinal purposes in 2012.
The next morning, Elizabeth got up and went through her normal routine a little slower than normal. As she arrived at work, Dr. Burke took notice of her sluggish behavior. "Are you feeling alright, Doctor? You've been half asleep all morning."
"Yes, I'm fine. I just haven't been sleeping well lately." She knew this was a lie. She just had no excuse for why she was feeling the way she was.
Through the rest of the day she began to feel a tickle in her throat that led to a dry cough. She thought nothing of it and kept working as normal.
To her surprise, her symptoms did not go away with time. However, she did nothing to treat them and did not change her daily routine at all, even her smoking. Weeks later, she could rarely even go a day at work without having to leave early because of fatigue and risk of spreading germs from her cough to patients with already weak immune systems from the chemotherapy they were undergoing.
By noon the next day, Elizabeth was already exhausted from her shift. Her lunch break consisted of a ham sandwich, Cheetos, and a ring pop followed by three cigarettes on the roof. When she returned to one of her patients, Dr. Burke was already in the room. "This has not been proven as any sort of cure for cancer, however, it can help you cope with the symptoms" he explained.
"What are you guys talking about?" Elizabeth asked with a hoarse voice and a cough.
"I was informing Melissa" a newly diagnosed lung cancer patient "of the alternative options for treatment other than chemotherapy and radiation. She hasn't decided whether she can afford traditional treatment and, frankly, we don't know if her ninety-two-year-old body can withstand chemo and radiation."
"The side effects are just so harsh!" Mrs. Melissa said. "Fatigue, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, bone pain. I just can't take it."
"Well, Dr. Burke, can I ask what you were recommending?"
"Of course. I recommended that she try medicinal marijuana. The least it can do is help her to manage her symptoms."
"He's right, Melissa." Elizabeth added. "My research here at the hospital has primarily been on the benefits of medicinal marijuana ever since it was legalized four years ago. And-" she was interrupted by a coughing spell that left the others in the room in shock and concerned for her wellbeing.
"Dr. Elizabeth are you alright?" asked Dr. Burke. "Do you need to be excused?"
"No I think I'll be alright." Elizabeth noticed a metallic taste in her mouth. She looked down at the hand she used to cover her mouth and saw a few drops of dark red blood. "Actually, I do need to be excused." She walked out of the room, making sure no one saw the blood, and hurried to the closest restroom. She ducked under each stall to make sure she was alone. Once confirming this, she took a look at herself in the mirror and noticed that the blood was not only on her hand, but covering the inside of her mouth and throat.
The room was spinning and one word was running through her head; cancer. Disbelief. Petrified. Maybe it could be something else or maybe I cut my mouth, but there's no way I have cancer. Elizabeth knew the risks of smoking, but it was something she thought would never happen to her. Her hands clenched the edge of the sink, hoping it was just a nightmare she'd soon wake up from. She squeezed her eyes shut trying to hold back the tears, but there were too many. When she opened her eyes she saw a single teardrop fall, almost in slow motion, and shatter on the bathroom floor.
Picking up her head, she takes a hard look at herself in the mirror. This can't be happening…. No, it's not cancer Elizabeth. She knew what she had to do, but she didn't want to admit it. So many thoughts raced through her mind, uncontrollably. I need tests now. She wiped the blood from her face and the running mascara under her eyes on a paper towel she got from the dispenser. A knock at the door.
"Dr. Elizabeth, is everything alright?" It was Dr. Burke.
"Yes, I just have a little bug. I'll be right out!"
She walks through the door, trying to hide from Burke her obvious bloodshot eyes from crying.
"I think I'm going take off for the rest of the day, whatever it is had hit me pretty hard this afternoon and I don't think I should be around patients today"
"Yes, everything is okay!" Elizabeth yells as she runs off towards the next hall over where Dr. Olivia Grey's office is.
Dr. Grey is the head oncologist at Boston Medical Center and quite amazing at what she does. Dr. Elizabeth has looked up to her as she was a couple years ahead of her in medical school where they became close. She rounds the corner in almost record time. Her almost too familiar steps seem foreign this time. 16 paces down the hall, third door on the left. She turns to see Dr. Grey's smiling face in the doorway.
"Oh, Elizabeth! I was just headed out to a meeting an—" She notices her bloodshot eyes. "What's wrong with you, tell me."
"I-I-I…" She couldn't even get the words out.
Olivia swiftly grabs her and swoops her into her office. She sits her down, afraid of what she has to say next. They had been friends since medical school, but almost never did she see Elizabeth show her emotions like this. Elizabeth was always the one who wanted to be the strong rock form everyone else, but at this point she looked like she was a fragile, abandoned child sulking in the rain.
"Your meeting though?"
"I'm the attending oncologist in this place, I can post-pone a meeting. Now tell me what is going on with you."
Tell me what is going with you. The words circled in her head as if they were a noose about to wrap around her neck. She pulls herself together and looks Olivia straight in the eyes.
"There's a little of the Elizabeth I know. What is going on?"
"I have a confession I need to make. I've been smoking cigarettes for a while now and I think they've caught up to me"
"Elizabeth, what are you saying to me? When did you start smoking? Why have you never told me—" She cuts her off.
"Olivia! Listen to me. I have been smoking for a long time and I'm coughing up blood. I need to run tests and I can't run them on myself, I need you to do it. I don't want anyone to know about this either."
"I don't understand why you've never told me this, but of course. We'll go get a CT scan right now. Let me call and cancel the meeting."
The next several hours were a complete blur for Elizabeth. She was put into a CT scan machine right away. The feeling of being on the other side of her work was uncomfortable and terrifying. She watched as the machine went in circles around her. The results were in and read immediately. Elizabeth turns the corner into Olivia's office, but there was no smile greeting her this time. She sits down and prepares of the worst, but hoping for the best.
"Elizabeth, I don't know how to tell you this, but it's on your lung. I've never seen anything like this. It has metastasized into this tumor that is something I couldn't even imagine. You have 1 year maximum. Liz I can't lose you." She starts bawling.
The worst nightmare of all nightmares. She was around it every day of her life and never once thought it would get her. That night, she went through her entire house and threw away every cigarette and lighter, she was done lying to herself. The next days she stepped back into her office, Dr. Burke immediately followed behind her closing the door.
"I know what is going on and I can help you."
"Who told you?" She furiously answered back.
"That's not important, what is important is that I can help you. I've been working on a side project. It's medicinal marijuana, but with a little twist. You know marijuana has studies out that the cannabinoids THC and CBD slow growth of cancer cells, but I've added this natural plant concoction to it that kills the cells and its growth is hindered. I call it WH420. What do you say?"
"Honestly, I'm willing to try anything." The desperation in her voice was evident. "But first, you have to tell me. What it is?"
"I have crossbred a cannabis plant with a water hemlock."
"Water Hemlock as in the deadly plant?" It was clear that she was no too comfortable with messing around with something that has proven its ability to kill people.
"Yes, but Elizabeth, I see it as our only option." Dr. Burke added. "It hasn't been tested on anything other than rabbits and no one else even knows the project is going on. I wanted to perfect it before telling anyone so I don't risk someone finding the answer before me." His face was turning red and he began to pace the floor.
"But this could kill me?" Dr. Elizabeth inquired.
"So could cancer."
Dr. Elizabeth saw his point and realized that, with how far her cancer has progressed, she won't survive without a cure. "I'll do it" she said.
"Great! I'll send you my address and you can meet me at home tonight."
It was 9 o'clock when Dr. Elizabeth pulled into Dr. Burke's house. It was nothing like she expected. Far from the city with even a rustic feel. The white wooded siding was chipping all over and had holes from some kind of insect or bird, Elizabeth wasn't sure. Maybe I'm at the wrong house. For this was no way a respected doctor such as Dr. Burke would live. Just as she turned to get back in her car, Dr. Burke stepped out of the front door.
"Well are you coming in or not?" he asked with a smile.
Once inside, Dr. Burke led Elizabeth to his basement. She entered a room that was white from floor to ceiling with fluorescent lights illuminating every inch. In the middle of the room there was a table with a variety of greenery on it. Dr. Elizabeth recognized that the primary plant Dr. Burke was growing was the "Blue Dream" variety of marijuana. She also recognized a number of water hemlock plants. However, at the end of the table there were a few plants unfamiliar to Elizabeth, so, she made an assumption. "Is that it?" she figured that was the plant he had hybridized.
"Yes ma'am!" he jubilantly answered. "This is WH420." He stroked the plant as if it were his own young.
"So how does it work?"
"Well," Dr. Burke started. "The main toxin in the water hemlock is cicutoxin. When hybridized with the cannabis, the toxin binds to the cannabinoids CBD and THC within the bud. Then, as vapor from the bud is inhaled, the cicutoxin attacks only the cells in the lungs that are rapidly dividing. These are the same cells that CBD and THC have already proved to slow the growth of." Dr. Burke was speaking so enthusiastically that Elizabeth could hardly keep up. "The toxin kills the cancerous cells, the cannabinoids slow additional growth and also provide symptom relief for the patient in the form of a pain killer, antidepressant, and muscle relaxer."
"You seem to have thought of everything," Elizabeth said. "Let's try it."
"Like I said, it has only been tested in rabbits but it was successful. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this, Doctor?"
"I don't have a choice."
Nodding in agreement, Dr. Burke carefully harvested some of the flowers of the WH420 plant. He then led her back upstairs into his living room and plopped down on a dusty, mud-colored couch. "Have a seat."
Elizabeth sat next to him with caution. She had been a tobacco smoker for most of her life but had never drifted into the world of marijuana even though it was something she prescribed her patients regularly. "So is it just like smoking a cigarette?"
Dr. Burke laughed. "Not at all actually. Cigarettes have to be lit and are pretty hard on the lungs. This device right here," he pulled out a bag fastened to a black base, "is called a vaporizer. Very common among medicinal users." The vaporizer had a triangular shape with button on the front. The bag was screwed on with a round piece that connected it to the vaporizer base. Dr. Burke began to grind up the harvested WH420 bud and placed the leafy remnants into a tray on the back of the vaporizer. "So what's going to happen is that the coils in the base will heat up once I turn it on and vaporize the contents in the tray." Elizabeth was fixed on his every word. "Then, the vapor will fill up this bag and I'm going to screw it off and then you will breathe it in nice and deep."
"How will we know if it works?" Elizabeth asked with a worried tone.
"Well, the cicutoxin only takes about fifteen minutes to have a harmful effect. So, if you're still her in half an hour, we might just be successful."
Dr. Burke turned the vaporizer on and they both watched as the bag inflated with vapor. Elizabeth had a knot in her stomach that would only go away if the treatment was successful. Dr. Burke unscrewed the cap and handed Elizabeth the bag. She took her first deep breath of the vapor and exhaled. Her whole body was shaking with nerves. Second breath. Exhale. Third breath and the bag was empty. "Now what?" she asked.
"Now, we wait."
A minute passed though it seemed like an hour. Then two. Then five. Elizabeth was beginning to feel somewhat lightheaded and asked for a glass of water. Her eyes were also extremely bloodshot and her pupils dilated. Ten minutes in and she was so relaxed, she didn't even care if it worked or not.
"How are you feeling?" Dr. Burke asked. "Any nausea, headache, tingly fingers?"
"Nope. I feel great." Elizabeth had a smile so big that it forced her eyes to squint to the point where she couldn't see. "Hey guess who I am. 'I'm waaaaaaay up, I feel blessed,'" she sang.
Dr. Burke couldn't help but laugh at her Drake impression.
Another five minutes and they would be in the clear. As time expired, Dr. Elizabeth was still alive and feeling better than ever. The experiment was a success in the fact that it did not kill her. However, whether or not it would save her life was still in question. "We'll have to continue experimenting to find out if WH420 will have a great enough effect to cure you." Dr. Burke was very hopeful of this. "I want you to meet me here every night and we will do a CT scan once a week at the hospital to track your progress."
Elizabeth nodded and then proceeded to fall asleep on the couch. When she woke up of sober mind, she drove herself back to the city.
Every day for the next week she met Dr. Burke at his house for her medication. When it was time for her firs scan since starting the treatment, they were both on edge. She had her whole life to lose and Dr. Burke was on the brink of the biggest scientific breakthrough in decades.
When the results were read to be analyzed, neither of the two could breathe. Dr. Burke pulled her results up on the computer and they both began sorting through the pictures in search of a change in the amount of cancerous cells in her lung.
"Is that what I think it is?" asked Elizabeth.
Dr. Burke, with a smile on his face, nodded and said, "Elizabeth, I think we just found a cure for cancer."
The images of her lung showed that the size of the tumor had gone from one of a softball to a golf ball. Results like this had never been seen before, especially not so quickly. Tear began to stream down Elizabeth's face and Dr. Burke shouted and took her in his arms. In this moment, Dr. Elizabeth was truly so far "up" that she felt blessed.