BETHEL — First, it was testicular cancer. Then tumors were found in his lungs.
And when those had finally shrunk — thanks to an aggressive chemotherapy and radiation — Brian Tomasulo learned that the cancer had spread to his brain.
After collapsing at work one day in May 2014, the Newtown resident was rushed to the hospital, where he had surgery to remove an egg-sized tumor from his frontal cortex.
The surgery was successful, but when Tomasulo woke up, he had a whole new set of challenges to deal with.
“I didn’t have thoughts in my brain,” he said. “I didn’t know what things were. I didn’t know what my phone was. I had to relearn how to do everything, how to talk, how to do one-plus-one… At 33 years old, that was very frustrating.”
Tomasulo would soon find an improbable medicine to help him cope with the “brutal” days after the surgery. He decided to try medical marijuana.
Tomasulo, a personal trainer who resumed work a few months ago, was one of the first patients at Bethel’s Compassionate Care Center, the first and only medical marijuana dispensary in Fairfield County.
Tomasulo now says marijuana not only helps him with the pain and anxiety, but has stopped his tumors from growing.
“This is just a different way of killing the cancer,” he said. “It’s a better way that makes me feel good, not tired, not groggy.”
‘Saving lives every day’
A year after the center opened its doors, an increasing number of patients have seen similar results, business owner Angela D’Amico said.
“We’re saving lives everyday,” she said. “Every day there’s another tear that comes down my face.”
The facility on the corner of Garella Road and Route 6 is one of only six medical marijuana dispensaries in Connecticut. There are also four licensed marijuana growers in the state.
Studies have shown that cannabis can slow the growth and/or kill certain types of cancer cells growing in laboratory dishes, but there is not enough evidence that marijuana helps control or cure the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.
Still, more and more cancer patients have seen their tumors stop growing after using medical marijuana.
“The proof is in the pudding,” D’Amico said.
Another one of her patients is Orange resident Michael Mizzone, 53, who has ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He said marijuana has reduced his anxiety and muscle cramping, and has improved his blood circulation and appetite.
Mizzone was diagnosed with the disease in December 2013. After doing extensive research into medical marijuana, he became a regular patient at the Bethel facility as soon as it opened in September 2014.
“I was skeptical at first, as most people are,” he said.
Unlike many ALS patients, Mizzone can still walk, exercise and drive.
Who gets medical pot?
There are 11 debilitating medical conditions approved by the state Department of Consumer Protection for treatment with medical marijuana, including cancer, Crohn’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Connecticut’s program has more than 6,700 patients, with at least 1,600 of them in Fairfield County.
At the Bethel dispensary, the number of patients has more than tripled since the first weeks of business, D’Amico said.
Those patients must have state-issued cards authorizing them to use medical marijuana; otherwise they can’t go in the building without state approval.
When the business first opened, D’Amico only offered the marijuana plant — or flower. Now there are more than 70 different items, including capsules, oils, edibles, e-cigarette liquids, breath strips and other products.
D’Amico said such products are increasingly popular because many people don’t want to smoke the plant.
“As the patient gets more and more educated about cannabis, they switch away from the flower,” she said.
Her oldest patient is a 90-year-old woman with cancer who uses cannabis oil for pain relief.
Tomasulo mostly uses the oil, which he puts under his tongue for headaches, but he sometimes smokes marijuana for faster relief. He uses oil with higher CBD levels in the morning and a higher THC level at night.
CBD, or cannabidoil, can help treat seizures, reduce anxiety and counteract the “high” caused by THC.
Bethel resident and former U.S. Marine Dan Gaita, who uses medical marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder, said he used to take 13 pills a day. Now he takes only one.
Gaita criticized the “naysayers” who oppose medical marijuana and prevent marijuana programs from expanding and reaching potential patients.
“People need to educate themselves,” he said. “They are still operating off of information that was put out by church groups in the ‘70s.”
Last spring, Bethel zoning officials took several steps to control any potential expansion of the marijuana business in town. The Planning and Zoning Commission approved a one-year moratorium on applications for new medical marijuana dispensaries, marijuana-growing centers, expansion of the existing facility and new recreational marijuana establishments.
D’Amico, who said she has no plans to expand the building, is planning a “Cannabis 101” presentation for the public to learn about medical marijuana. In the meantime, she said, Bethel residents are welcome to get a tour of the dispensary.
“I welcome everyone in Bethel to come into our facility and see the face of medical marijuana,” she said. “We service amputees, quadriplegics… This is no joke here. This is the wave of the future.”
D’Amico said she has about 300 patients who were able to stop using opiates when they started using medical marijuana.
“The pharmaceutical industry is killing our country,” she said. “They prescribe oxycodone as if it’s candy. We are slowly getting hundreds of patients off pain management and off sleeping pills.”
Her facility also offers holistic care, including yoga, meditation, reiki and massage.
“We don’t just treat the body,” she said. “We do nutrition, we treat the mind, body and spirit.”