Landon Riddle, 4, is held by his mother, Sierra Riddle, this past April at their home in Colorado Springs, where they moved so that Landon could become a member of the state medical marijuana program. (Brennan Linsley, Associated Press file)

Parenting: Cannabis among tough choices in family’s battle with cancer

Every morning, 4-year-old Landon Riddle takes two capsules of cannabis-infused oil — down the hatch, usually with breakfast. It is as routine as it is controversial. In the face of her son’s extreme (read: extremely bad) reaction to his prescribed chemotherapy, Sierra Riddle sought an alternative treatment for Landon’s cancer and found cannabis.

Is it even legal to give a child medical marijuana? Could a parent go to jail for that? As it turns out, it is legal, 100 percent legal. As of April 30, 2014, the most current date statistics are available, 307 of the 116,180 current medical marijuana card holders in Colorado are under the age of 18.

Landon’s initial chemotherapy treatments for T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia had been successful and destroyed the growth of leukemia cells in his chest. However, just because the initial mass was gone did not mean treatment was over. The standard (and rarely deviated from) protocol for his cancer is explained by the American Cancer Society:

“When leukemia is diagnosed, there are usually about 100 billion leukemia cells in the body. Killing 99.9% of these leukemia cells during the 1-month induction treatment is enough to achieve a remission, but it still leaves about 100 million leukemia cells in the body. These also must be destroyed. An intensive 1- to 2-month program of consolidation treatment and about 2 years of maintenance chemotherapy helps destroy the remaining cancer cells.”

But after nine months of treatment, Landon was not showing signs of improvement — in fact, he appeared to be getting much worse.

As Sierra recounted: “Landon was in a small percent that do that bad with chemotherapy. … (The doctors) were not taking Landon into consideration.  It even got to the point that they wanted to increase one of his medications, solely so they could see the toxic side effects for themselves.”

Among all the back-and-forth between the doctors and the Riddles, Landon was simply wasting away.

His grandmother Wendy recalled that time. “He lost 50 percent of his body weight — all of his muscle — was basically in a wheelchair, the neuropathy in his legs was so bad,” she said. “They were like, ‘No, we are not stopping this, we are going to kill the cancer.’ ”

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Photographs of Landon during this period are shocking and heartbreaking. Constantly sick, being passed out in almost every photo and vomiting uncontrollably had become the norm for him. This was not living, and it certainly wasn’t the vision Sierra had in mind when she pondered her child’s possibilities in life.

But that is how chemotherapy works. It’s designed to destroy the cells in the body that are splitting rapidly, as is typical with cancer cells. As chemotherapy targets the rapidly-splitting cells in the body, there are other side effects along the way.  Many chemotherapy patients lose their hair because those cells are constantly growing and multiplying and are consequently affected by the chemo/cancer war. In this case, the chemotherapy was killing Landon more quickly than it was killing the cancer, and Sierra wasn’t going to let that happen. He was only 2 years old.

Parenting: Cannabis among tough choices in family’s battle with cancer
Landon Riddle at play in May 2013. (Via Facebook)

Enter cannabis.  Wendy got an email from a friend suggesting she look into cannabis for Landon. Wendy’s initial reaction? “You have got to be kidding me. You are insane. I cannot believe you sent this to me!”

Having worked with drug addicted youth for decades, Wendy was not willing to hear it. But after a few weeks she’d cooled down and decided to do some research.

“Unfortunately, he got sicker and sicker and sicker,” Wendy said. “He went for six weeks without eating. I mean, we were getting to the point where he was dying. You know at that point you really becoming willing to look at anything.”

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As with any medical treatment, the decision to integrate medical marijuana shouldn’t be taken lightly, as research is still limited. According to the American Cancer Society, “There is no available scientific evidence from controlled studies in humans that cannabinoids can cure or treat cancer.”

Wendy spoke to Dr. William Courtney in Californa, who advocates the health benefits of raw cannabis juice. He assured her that while marijuana may not treat Landon’s cancer, it wasn’t going to hurt him. Sierra had witnessed what she saw as her son’s slow death for long enough and she was determined to try the more naturally based treatment.

So, Sierra and her mother Wendy built a dual residency, shuttling between Utah and Colorado, where they now reside full-time in a sleepy, RV-lined neighborhood in Colorado Springs. In early 2013, Landon joined the medical marijuana red card holders of Colorado and his mother began to treat his cancer with cannabis. He also adhered to an almost 100 percent organic diet. And while Sierra’s choice to additionally medicate Landon with marijuana didn’t seem to ruffle feathers too much with his doctors, her decision to refuse administering Landon’s at-home chemotherapy treatments definitely caught their attention — and subsequently that of Child Protective Services.

“At the time, I thought the same as everyone else,” Sierra said. “They can’t force me to do something I don’t want to. When I told (the doctors) that I took him off of that and we were just doing natural treatments, CPS was at my house.” Sierra said there were threats of Landon being taken away.

In the United States, if you are a minor and diagnosed with cancer you will be doing chemotherapy.  Not participating in the treatment plan is not an option. Most parents don’t question the treatment plan. But most kids don’t have as adverse a reaction to the treatments as Landon did.

The Huffington Post picked up the story as Sierra was forced to put Landon back on chemotherapy treatments. And then — she stopped again.

“(Landon’s doctors) know I haven’t been giving him the at-home chemo, which is 98 percent of the treatment plan, and so the other 2 percent was just the IV chemo every thirty days,” Sierra said. “They told CPS Landon would be dead in less than three (months) without those medicines.”

Sierra remained adamant in her feelings. “So, obviously they lied,” she said. “That’s the most obvious thing.”

The past 13 months have been life-changing — in the best way.  With components of marijuana as his main treatment, Landon is thriving. He can eat, he can play and he can do what a 4-year-old kid should be doing. His shaggy hair is a far cry from the baldness he experienced during regular chemo. He is every bit a rambunctious little boy, something Sierra could have only dreamt about months before.

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It’s hard to reconcile the pictures of him at death’s door and the enthusiastic kid he is now who just wants to run around and roughhouse. The two images don’t seem to be the same person. And it’s the difference of a little over a year with less chemotherapy, a mostly organic diet and the introduction of cannabis.

The Riddles still don’t know why the doctors didn’t want Landon off his chemotherapy treatments when his body, in particular, wasn’t responding well to it. Wendy does have some suspicions.

“Basically (the doctors) take his blood results upon diagnosis, they punch it into a computer that is programmed and designed by pharmaceutical companies because all they do is drug therapy. And it spits out a protocol of what drugs, how often, how many time a week per his blood work and his weight,” Wendy said. “The doctor doesn’t even develop his treatment plan. The pharmaceutical companies that make billions and billions of dollars off childhood cancer, they’re the ones that develop the treatment plan, basically. It’s what’s FDA approved and that’s what they have to follow.”

As I write this article, Landon is cancer free and is no longer scheduled to have chemotherapy. Sierra even recently shared with Team Landon supporters July 28 that there is a tentative date to get the surgically implanted port in his chest removed.

Whether you believe the chemotherapy Landon had cured him, or that the cannabis he has utilized during the last half of his illness did the trick, the end results are the same: Landon is alive and well and beaming with life.

When Landon stays cancer free for five years total, he will officially be considered in remission. Sierra reflected on how that day will feel.

“Just not having to watch him get sick …” she trailed off, “Not watching him get sick …” and then she refocused: “That’s honestly going to be the best part. That we don’t have to deal with that anymore and he can actually start healing more and moving on with his normal life. That’s the most important thing — that Landon continues to have a normal life.  A healthy life.”

Keep up to date with Landon’s progress at the Offer Hope For Landon Facebook page.

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