When he was 14 years old, Justin Pearson made a promise to help save his dying mother.
And he meant it.
Lake Country resident Cheryl Pearson was misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2009. Three months later, doctors determined she didn’t actually have MS, but they were at a loss for what was causing her MS-like symptoms.
Justin told his mom to keep fighting and hold on, so he could work to become a doctor and save her.
After four years of steady decline, Cheryl was finally diagnosed with stage four ovarian Cancer.
She was given an "end of life" expectation of December 2013 — just five months notice.
After a tip from a family friend and a conversation with a pharmacist with the Canadian Cancer Society, the Pearsons experimented with cannabis oil to treat Cheryl’s pain and help with her sleeping.
At first, being a devout Christian and concerned about the plant’s negative stigma, she was against the use of the drug, but after her family’s extensive research into the efficacy of its use, she was eventually convinced.
Cheryl soon began aggressive chemotherapy, in conjunction with regular cannabis oil use. Months into her chemotherapy, she suffered an allergic reaction and sustained severe liver failure.
Her chemo was subsequently cancelled and her future looked bleak, but she continued to use cannabis oil with the blessing of her oncologist.
“They suggested that we travel, we love, we say goodbye,” said Chris Pearson, Cheryl’s husband.
He says the hospital had all but given up on her.
“We had a big argument about not giving up on my wife,” he said. “They phoned me and said ‘There’s 360 people waiting to be evaluated, there’s 82 spots. Your wife isn’t just at the back of the bus, she’s running behind the bus.’”
Just seven weeks later, the oncologist called to tell them they had seen dramatic improvement in the health of Cheryl’s liver, and a 25 per cent reduction in her two tumours.
By March 2014, Cheryl was officially in remission.
Chris is “100 per cent” convinced Cheryl’s success can be linked to her cannabis use and Justin’s experimentation with different strains.
The Pearsons had obtained a medical marijuana growing licence through Health Canada, and Justin was making the cannabis oil for his mom.
“There are so many strains and they have 2,000 different cannabinoids which can affect a person’s body in a different way … we really needed to button it down,” Chris said. “When we saw what was working for Cheryl, that was the one that we wanted.”
Using lab analyses to hone in on the exact chemical composition of strain they required, Justin was able to breed the ideal marijuana plant to treat his mom.
“He became somewhat of an expert,” Chris said.
Justin now attends UBC Okanagan in his fourth year of a biology program. He is working toward an honours degree.
Justin knew he wanted to help his mom with his research and decided to investigate how the chemical composition of marijuana changes as a plant matures.
Justin said this would allow growers to “selectively harvest their medication,” based on the needs of their patients.
He spent nine months trying to get approval for his research idea from UBC Okanagan, but was consistently turned down. The project was controversial and security would be required to protect his technically illegal plants.
“It is very difficult to get any sort of approval for the cultivation and research practices on cannabis, it’s essentially impossible,” said Justin.
After months of rejection, a chemistry professor, who had previously taught Justin, offered to take him on.
“This isn’t the way I normally take on research students, in this faculty we take on students to work on the projects we have ongoing and have funding for in our labs,” said Paul Shipley, associate professor of Chemistry at UBC Okanagan. “Justin has really driven this whole project by himself. He is doing the work off campus and his collaboration with me is on experimental design and data analysis and writing the whole thing up.
Due to the university’s policies, the growing and testing of the plants must occur off campus. The thousands of dollars needed for lab testing has come out of the Pearson family’s pockets.
Justin’s research project is due at the end of April. He will be presenting his research to the public on April 27, at the UBC Okanagan campus.
Cheryl’s battle is far from over. Chris says she has good days and bad days, and will have impaired motor function for the rest of her life.
But she is still going strong, two years after her doctor’s ‘end of life’ prediction.
Chris credits her defying of the odds to his son’s commitment to a promise he made years ago.
“I am a proud father that gets to sleep alongside of my beautiful wife thanks to a son that never, ever quit,” said Chris.