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 of 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 e-mails) 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 Giffford-Jones Professorship in Pain Control and Palliative Care at the University of Toronto Medical School.
So 37 years later? Now the Minister of Health of Ontario 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.