She says she enjoyed the feeling that marijuana gave her the five or six times she smoked it at parties.
So the 43-year-old woman was totally unprepared for what happened when she took THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, as an experimental antinausea drug being given to 11 cancer patients at Georgetown University's Vincent T. Lombardi Cancer Research Center.
"I was terrified," she said. "I thought I was dying. When the chemotherapy (anticancer drugs) is administered (I) always feel some sensation in the veins which goes up to the elbow or the shoulder. But what I felt was a burning in all the veins of my body. It spread through my arms, across my chest, into my face, my tongue, down the other side of my body. My whole body felt like it was burning up.
"I felt that perhaps there had been a mixup in the drugs and it was different than what they'd been giving me before and it was killing me. Any noise I heard, I could feel. It just cut through me. I was terrified," the woman said.
"I thought my soul was floating out of my body and maybe this is what it was like to die. At the same time," she said, "I was aware I was in this experimental program and had been given a drug. And it didn't help with the nausea.
"One reason it may have been so bad is that control is very important to cancer patients who know they are going to die, because dying is the ultimate loss of control. When you feel you are losing control of your senses, it is very, very threatening," said the woman, who has breast cancer that has spread through the body.
According to Dr. John Macdonald, who is in charge of the Georgetown study, the woman and one other of the 11 patients have had unpleasant experiences with the marijuana that is being administered in capsule form.
"What we're doing is a study to try and see whether this is going to have any beneficial effect in moderating the nausea cancer patients get when they're in chemotherapy," Macdonald said. "One of the beneficial effects might be the munchies," the overwhelming desire to eat that often is experienced after somking marijuana.
"That's a study in itself that we're thinking of to see if there may be benefit in giving it to cancer patients just to keep their weight up. But now we're trying to see if it prevents nausea better than the standard antinausea drug (Compazine)," he said.
The Georgetown study is part of a national program at several cancer centers around the nation. A report of a Boston study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1975 indicated that some beneficial effect in apparent in using marijuana to prevent the nausea associated with chemotherapy.
The THC capsule are prepared for Georgetown by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which insists that the drug be stored in a locked box in a refrigerator bolted to the floor.
At this point in the study, the patients are aware that they are receiving the THC simply because it looks different than Compazine, but Macdonald said researchers are having Compazine prepared in a from similr to THC.
"The people on the study are required to come with someone to drive" them home afterward, said Macdonald, who said patients range in age from 18 to the mid-70s.
"Some of the patients who have been on the drug have definitely experienced a pleasant buzz," he said.