Cancer patient’s message: Medical marijuana really does help

By JOE NICKELL of the Missoulian

Roger Chalmers, suffering from late-stage cancer, smokes marijuana last week in the bed where he is confined in his Ninemile Valley home. “The marijuana is by all means the only good thing that has come along to help me out,” says Chalmers. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Partway up the Ninemile Valley west of Missoula, in a house tucked in a fold of the wooded mountainside, Roger Chalmers lies in a dim, shuttered bedroom, awaiting the end.
His skin is ashen, his beard white, his face slack. A small, rectangular plastic controller rests in his lap, its attached wire snaking to a rack behind him where hangs his “pain bag” – a sack of the powerful painkiller Dilaudid, which slowly, mercifully drips into his abdomen via two tubes, damping the red-hot pain caused by the late-stage cancer that has spread from his kidney into his back, his hip, his shoulder, his bones.
But there’s still another fire in Chalmers’ belly, one that he doesn’t hesitate to enunciate the moment a newspaper reporter walks into the room where he will likely die.
“I hate to see this great state fold underneath us veterans again,” he says, his voice urgent yet as soft-edged as a yawn. “Not that it’s exclusively a vets’ issue; but it’s been a touch-and-go kind of experience with the medical marijuana here in Montana. One day it’s sanctioned, one day it’s not. The country backed out from us before, and now they’re doing it again. I’d like to see our state get behind the issue like it cares; because marijuana is truly the only thing that has really helped me get through.”
Thirteen months ago, at the very time when concerns over the exploding growth of the medical marijuana industry were becoming a hot-button political issue in Montana, Chalmers was diagnosed with renal carcinoma. By then, the disease was in its so-called fourth stage – the most advanced stage before death.
Ten chemotherapy treatments later, Chalmers has reached the end of his treatment options. He won’t get better.
He only hopes to live out his remaining days in relative comfort in the “little dream castle” he shares with his wife, Ada Marie, and an assortment of affectionate pets.
About 140 miles east of here, Montana’s state legislators are gathered in Helena, considering bills that would either repeal the voter-approved law that legalizes the medical use of marijuana, or severely curtail the industry that has sprung up to serve Montana’s 28,000 registered medical marijuana users.
While that game of political football plays out, Chalmers can’t even make it to the sidelines. His strength sapped, he hasn’t walked in a month.
Yet, if voters who passed the medical marijuana initiative in 2004 had any mascot in mind when they cast their ballots, it was surely someone like Roger Chalmers, a man who served his country dutifully for 10 years, who has no interest in getting high but rather just wants to peer through the veil of pain and sleep through the night a little while longer.
“The marijuana is by all means the only good thing that has come along to help me out,” he says. “It puts the lights out at night for me where this other drug (Dilaudid), we’re still struggling with it. Marijuana helped me get my appetite back.
“I’m out after this stage,” he says, his eyes scanning slowly, blankly, back and forth. “It’s taking me apart piece by piece. It’s terrible to have to point out how do you hurt, where do you hurt, are you hurting today? The constant answer is, ‘yes,’ I hurt. And in knowing that things are going to be turned upside down, it just makes it worse.”
Even before he was diagnosed with cancer, Chalmers was no stranger to the medical benefits of marijuana. That’s because, for decades now, he was no stranger to the chronic maladies that are most effectively treated with medical marijuana.
It all started for him back in the early 1970s, when he was still in the Air Force, serving as a weapons control officer in Korea during the Vietnam War.
“I was out working on the runway, and they issued us flight frames – these partially dark glasses,” he recalls. “When I put those on, I could tell right away there was something going on with the light and being relieved of it. After that, I couldn’t not be in sunglasses.”
After consulting with doctors, Chalmers was diagnosed with glaucoma, a disease that causes painfully high fluid pressure in the eyeballs. Untreated, glaucoma can eventually lead to blindness.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Chalmers met with a base doctor who quietly suggested he try marijuana to relieve the pressure in his eyes.
“At first I was like, you’re shitting me,” he recalls. “So one day, I came in for an eye pressure reading and he took me home to his house for a quick lunch and we smoked. When I went there, the pressures in my eyes were 11 and 13. When he took the pressures after, they were like three and five. I was like, wow, that’ll save my sight. So I started using marijuana right there.”
Despite receiving some relief by using marijuana, Chalmers’ eyesight slowly deteriorated over the years. After his 10-year stint in the military, his disability left him unable to work a regular job. He made his way for some time as a guitarist.
He met Ada Marie in the winter of 1980, while living with his brother in Polson. She was the keyboardist in a band called Country Gold, and was looking for a second guitarist.
“Word got around that there was this good guitar player in town, so I chased him down and we started working together,” she recalls with a sweet smile. “Been together ever since.”
As the years went on, Roger began to suffer from another painful malady, gout. It, too, responded well to treatment with marijuana.
To be sure, he tried the prescribed treatments from doctors – ocular drops for the glaucoma; other medicines for the gout. Only the marijuana helped.
“The marijuana has saved my sight, without a doubt,” he says. “I wouldn’t have as much sight as I do now. The ocular drops, they didn’t seem to do anything. They were willing to try all these other weird drugs on me; why wouldn’t they be willing to try the marijuana?
“With having all those things and then the cancer, it fits like a T – the classical definition of the medical marijuana use,” he continues. “It’s kind of hard to believe one person could have all these things. It’s shocking to me.”
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