Pubdate: Thu, 25 Aug 2016
Source: Lethbridge Herald (CN AB)
Copyright: 2016 The Lethbridge Herald
Author: Dr. W. Gifford-Jones
Page: B2


Why cancer patients will suffer to protect the lives of

How history repeats itself! Today, politicians are once again ignoring
the pain of terminal cancer patients. At the same time they are
shooting themselves in the foot by making illogical remarks about
pain. This human folly takes me back 37 years.

In January 1979, I wrote a New Year's resolution in this column to
petition the government to legalize medical heroin to ease the agony
of terminal cancer patients. I knew that heroin had been used in
English hospitals for 90 years, so why not have this painkiller
available in North America? But rather than being applauded for my
compassion, all hell broke loose.

One well-known cancer specialist labelled me "a misinformed
headline-seeking journalist." The Cancer Society argued that morphine
was as good as heroin "in most cases." It provided no alternative if
you were not one of the "most cases." Besides, it's a physiological
fact that heroin is more potent than morphine. The Royal Canadian
Mounted Police and The Journal of Hospital Pharmacy worried about
security. And doctors who damned the use of heroin had to admit they
had never used it. So much for scientific curiosity!

The volume of negativity around heroin was so intense I decided to
visit England and Scotland to get a first-hand look at how heroin was
used in these countries.

One of the most heartrending moments was when I visited the Great
Ormond Street Hospital in London where children were dying of cancer.
I asked why heroin was prescribed. The nurses replied, "They prefer
heroin as it eases their pain and gives them a fuzzy feeling." Surely,
I thought that was the least that could be done for them.

In London, I interviewed Scotland Yard detectives who told me there
was no problem with security. They and the drug officials in Edinburgh
said they had more important problems to worry about.

I discovered that heroin was the first medication emergency doctors
administered to heart attack victims, to relieve their pain and
anxiety. Doctors were also prescribing heroin to women with difficult
childbirth, and patients with severe burns. And family physicians told
me they always carried heroin in their bags in case they encountered
an accident where it was needed. In other words, all I had heard from
the medical establishment in Canada was untrue.

So what happened? On my return I wrote more columns about the medical
need for heroin. Finally readers who had lost a loved one and
witnessed their final agony sent me letters and money to promote this
cause. Eventually I delivered 40,000 stamped letters (not emails) to
the federal minister of health in Ottawa all demanding that
politicians legalize heroin for terminal cancer patients.

On Dec. 20, 1984, the minister of health announced the government's
intention to legalize heroin as a painkiller. $500,000 from readers'
donations then established the Gifford-Jones Professorship in Pain
Control and Palliative Care at the University of Toronto Medical School.

So 37 years later? Now the Ontario health minister has announced that
doctors will no longer be able to prescribe high-dose opioids to
either addicts or cancer patients. It's an asinine ruling that must be
challenged. Everyone must ask this question, "Why should a loved one
in final agony be denied high doses of opioids just because addicts
want to get high?" The lack of good sense remains the same. For
example, an official associated with this study remarked, "It is
reassuring that the vast majority of palliative-care patients will not
be impacted by this policy." Why would anyone make such a foolish
statement? Isn't there any empathy for others who will be impacted?

Families of the dying should vigorously protest when loved ones suffer
from inadequate painkillers. English specialists told me patients in
severe pain do not become addicted to painkillers and can be weaned
off huge doses quickly if remission of malignancy occurs.

It's hard to believe that cancer patients with a few days to live are
denied sufficient painkillers for fear of addiction. Today common
sense has become an uncommon commodity.
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