LOS ANGELES- Cheryl Shuman is an activist and a survivor who's staring down her own mortality.
It has truly been a difficult road for the medical marijuana user.
Before she began her work to reform marijuana laws, Cheryl was known as the 'Optician to the Stars,' rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tom Cruise, Madonna, and Julia Roberts.
But now, as Cheryl battles cancer, she's afraid that a problem with her health coverage might mean a death sentence. It's another KTLA News exclusive: PRAYERS IN THE POT WARS.
"I went home to Ohio to die," Cheryl tells KTLA's Mary Beth McDade. "I went to the doctors, and immediately they did an ultrasound. They found tumors spread throughout my ovaries, my uterus, my bladder, and my colon."
"They told me I wouldn't make it past my birthday," Cheryl recalls. "It came, and I was still there, in the hospital, on an IV morphine pump, and on 27 pharmaceuticals, just to stay alive."
Cheryl had been well-known in Los Angeles, providing designer eyewear for Hollywood's A-list. But after Cheryl was diagnosed with her ovarian cancer, she fought a three-year battle in her childhood home of Ohio, surviving seven surgeries.
"I thought to myself -- I haven't died yet," Cheryl says. "There's no expiration tag on my toe that says I have to die. Frankly, if I'm going to be alive, I wanted to come home to California."
Back in California Cheryl found relief in her cancer battle by using medical marijuana. She became Executive Director of the Beverly Hills chapter of NORML, advocating the reform of marijuana laws. And she took a high-profile role at this past weekend's HEMPCON convention in L.A.
For Cheryl, medical marijuana has truly been a life-saver. "My decision gave me a choice between being a zombie, or sitting here with you, smiling, conversing, being able to walk, being able to talk," Cheryl says.
But only recently, Cheryl got some bad news: her cancer, which had all but disappeared, appears to have resurfaced.
"Unfortunately, on my last CATSCAN and MRI, they found another massive tumor, 11.8 centimeters on my liver," Cheryl says, "Into the gall bladder and stomach. They're inoperable."
To make matters worse, Cheryl says her doctor had concerns about her medical insurance coverage, because of her marijuana use.
"He asked the golden question," Cheryl recalls. "'Do you use cannabis?' I said actually yes, I'm a legal medical cannabis user. He said 'That's a problem, because your insurance won't approve further testing, and you're certainly not going to get on a liver transplant list, because cannabis is a 'Schedule One' drug, just like heroin.' I looked at him and said, 'You're kidding me!'"
Cheryl says her doctor told her that the hospital rejected a request for costly medical tests, citing an insurance coverage problem. So Cheryl fears that as a medical marijuana user, she's been placed in the same category as other 'Schedule One' drug users, like heroin or cocaine addicts.
"Until I can get my insurance company to approve the tests that I need, I don't know what's going on with my own body," Cheryl says.
KTLA News contacted Aetna, Cheryl's insurer. Spokesperson Anjanette Coplin told us they do not deny benefits to medical marijuana patients.
Coplin said, "We are mystified at the entire situation and don't know what caused Ms. Shuman to believe that we would not cover any tests for her based on the fact that she uses marijuana for medicinal purposes. We can't see any issues related to medical marijuana and coverage or payments for tests or transplants."
But right now the clock is ticking loudly for Cheryl. Without prohibitively expensive tests and possibly a liver transplant, her prognosis looks grim.
"I used to be afraid of dying," Cheryl says. "When they first diagnosed me as terminal, it terrified me. And then as time went on, I thought you know what, God? I'm still here. As long as i can keep it going, I believe that faith and hope and prayer, and reaching out and educating people -- I'm hoping it can save my life."
Cheryl realizes that for some, there's still a stigma attached to marijuana use. "We're not suggesting that everyone go out and smoke marijuana," Cheryl says. "We're asking for equal rights for medical cannabis patients. Let us have our insurance, let us be able to protect ourselves and our health. And it's my hope that as long as I can stay walking, talking, and am able to have the energy to spread word, I'm going to save people's lives. And I'm hoping it's mine first!"
After KTLA News reached out to Cheryl's insurance company, they contacted her to discuss her situation. KTLA will of course continue to follow her story, and bring updates to viewers and ktla.com readers.
In the meantime, Cheryl told us she's hoping to make use of her many celebrity contacts to stage a huge concert -- kind of a 'Weedstock' -- to educate the public about the new more mainstream-friendly face of the medical marijuana movement.
Prayers in the Pot Wars
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