Q&A with Santa Barbara woman Michelle Kendall who is making a film, “Schedule One,” outlining her successes and the inherent obstacles of treating cancer with cannabis.

Trailer for Schedule One documentary

Like many others who have been diagnosed with a serious illness, Michelle Kendall faced difficult decisions and a challenging outlook. She began feeling ill in 2015 and was diagnosed in 2016 with late-stage ovarian cancer. Her prognosis was grim. As a innate pragmatist, she turned to research to find ways to recover and to hang on to life. Her search brought her to the promise of medicinal cannabis and its cancer treating qualities. She was amazed when her tumor began to contract.

Now, still in treatment, she cannot NOT tell her story. She has a lot to share, and wants the medical and scientific communities to catch up. She poses the question: why is a valuable treatment still classified federally as a Schedule One Narcotic? Michelle hopes to have the short documentary wrapped in time for a premier at Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Q&A with Michelle Kendall

Q: Can you boil down the message of “Schedule One” to a couple of sentences? 

A: We have been systematically misled about cannabis. The real “Reefer Madness” in this story isn’t that cannabis holds a treasure trove of useful compounds, which in itself should be the story of the decade, but that cannabis has been vilified and placed in the most restrictive drug class for political reasons. This plant was used as a medicine around the world for 5,000 years.   The American Medical Association lobbied against having it removed from the US pharmacopeia in 1941. It has only NOT been medicine for the past 80 years. It has been proven safe. In the context of an incurable and intractable disease, like ovarian cancer, at what point is being too cautious “doing harm”? OK, so that wasn’t exactly a short summary, how about this. Cannabis kills cancer cells, but it’s very complicated.  We urgently need to remove Cannabis from Schedule 1 to allow science to figure it out.    

Q: When were you first diagnosed with cancer?

A: My first symptoms occurred in fall of 2015. Ovarian cancer symptoms are notoriously subtle and vague. Despite repeated doctor visits I was not properly diagnosed until February of 2016.  That is the tragedy of ovarian cancer, so many women go from having their symptoms dismissed to being diagnosed with a terminal disease overnight. I’m 47 now and have been fighting this for almost 4 years.   

Q: What was your specific diagnosis?

A: Ovarian cancer, High-Grade Serous Carcinoma, staged 3C during my debulking surgery.  I have done everything conventional medicine has to offer: I am finishing my third, six-month series of chemotherapy, recovering from my second major debulking surgery and had a 14-month course of immunotherapy. Women are living longer, but conventional medicine offers no cure, recurrent ovarian cancer is described as “invariably fatal.”

Q: What was your personal history with cannabis before going all-in for cancer treatment? 

A: I was cannabis naive when diagnosed. I can even say I never had the opportunity to “just say no” to cannabis all through high school and college. Unbelievable but true.

Q: What makes you a believer? 

A: I don’t have to believe, because I know. I have pored over the latest pre-clinical data. The science is robust, compelling and clear. Over 1,000 studies describe the four different ways cannabis can slow and kill cancer cells. The cellular pathways have mostly been elucidated, it’s hard to argue away chemistry. Cell and mouse models all point to promising results. Most importantly, I saw cannabis shrink my tumor while on no other chemotherapy agents. And of course I am not the first; thousands of patients have unexpected regression or stabilized disease on cannabis. I just returned from the CannMed conference, the preeminent medical Cannabis meeting, where I had the good fortune to hear Professor Raphael Mechoulam speak. Machoulam discovered THC and CBD.  He also discovered Anandamide and 2AG, the internal endocannabinoids that all vertebrates make. Work for which he was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Medicine. I was able to speak to Dr. David Meiri, who directs the Laboratory of Cancer and Cannabinoid Research in Israel. His lab is doing the incredible work of figuring out which cannabinoids work on which cancers. It is not about belief, the science is there.  

Q: What is your medicinal cannabis treatment dosage and product? 

A: Finding a dosing regime was a long slow process of increasing my dosage and trying various compounds. I am fortunate that my tumor marker was tested every three weeks, so I could use that information to finesse my dosing. I am now on a high dose full-plant extract, formulated with cannabinoids that have anti-tumor properties. I have also started juicing fresh cannabis and am planning a new regime of suppositories because both are ways to get more medicine with less psychoactivity.  The latest research shows different tumor types responding to different cannabinoids. So there is not one specific cancer killing formula. The cannabinoids from the plant are acting as supplements on each patients endocannabinoid system, so individual dosing is highly variable. I can not overstate how incredibly complex the cellular signaling pathways are. This is far from a simple one size fits all miracle cure. I have no idea if I will be able to keep myself in remission on cannabis, but without any other good options I will try.     

Q: What measurable improvements have you seen in your condition since your treatment began? 

A: After starting the high dose full-plant extract my tumor marker shrank 50 percent in seven weeks. That is as dramatic as any decline from a chemotherapy infusion. I was already scheduled for surgery in mid-May, so I didn’t have time to continue my experiment.  I wish I could have put myself into remission using only cannabis; it would have made a dramatic case study. I will continue my cannabis treatment after chemo ends and hope to keep myself in remission. And of course Cannabis has also helped with many of the side effects from Chemo.  I sleep well. Cannabis lotion reduces neuropathic pain in my feet. And Cannabis helps relieve anxiety from having a terminal diagnosis.       

How does the conventional medicine community view your cannabis treatment? 

A: The health care providers I interact with are very supportive of cannabis for palliative care, but are cautious of the curative potential without clinical trials. Doctors need data, which will never come if Cannabis stays locked behind Schedule 1. I have sympathy for doctors navigating the current medical and legal cannabis landscape. We are in an absurd and surreal situation, millions of people are taking cannabis every day yet science can’t study it!  I think the numerous conditions Cannabis can help actually hurt the reputation of this plant because it seems too good to be true. The diverse effects only make sense in light of the Endocannabinoid system (ECS), which was just discovered in 1988. Many practicing physicians do not even know it exists or have received absolutely no training on it. To this day there are only a handful of medical schools that include the ECS in their curriculum. The endocannabinoid system is comprised of CB1 and CB2 receptors found in most tissues of the body.  They act as a master regulator of other systems. Almost every disease results from something being out of balance, which is why cannabinoids can help with things as diverse as autism, cancer, MS, epilepsy, etc.      

Q: Have there been people in your support system or acquaintances that have discouraged cannabis treatment? Why? 

A: Initially, my parents and some friends were dubious, but I just kept sending them academic journal articles from Google Scholar.  I was skeptical too, but there comes a point when the evidence is overwhelming and compelling. I am known for being a level-headed and critical thinker. My husband, who is a science professor, jokingly calls me a hyper rationalist. After an initial phase of incredulity, everyone is on board. Now everyone is not only supportive but in awe. It’s hard to overstate how big a breakthrough cannabinoids and the regulation of the endocannabinoid system is for health care.

Q: How could access to cannabis improve for patients in your position? 

A: Not to diminish the challenges patients in many other states have but thankfully access in Santa Barbara is not difficult.  What I find most frustrating is that serious medical patients are struggling to medicate without the benefit of the full force of scientific knowledge.  The first paper to describe the antitumor properties of Cannabis was published in 1975. Imagine where we would be if the research had been embraced and well funded for the past 40 years.    

Q: What advice would you give somebody who has recently been diagnosed with cancer?

1. Some cancer types do NOT respond to cannabis at all. Do not stop proven treatments. 

2. Tell your oncologist if you take cannabis. Certain immunotherapies work on the same pathways as cannabis, so there are important drug interactions to be aware of. Some papers suggest certain tumor cells grow faster on cannabis. So check the literature carefully.    

3.  If your oncologist is unsure how to guide your dosing, call a well-respected cannabis clinician with expertise in cancer. 

4. Work with your doctor to set up a protocol of scans or blood tests so you can test various cannabis dosing.  

5. Don’t be afraid, start low and go slow. When I started taking cannabis Nancy Regan’s voice and that terrible image of a fried egg were haunting my thoughts; it felt very risky.  At the very least I know it is giving me more time, and just might save my life.