The Iron Man and the secret he hid in his garden shed
Michael Thatcher treated his cancer with cannabis oil, and Nicky Larkin was so impressed by the results, he made a film about it
The mug of tea was warm in my hand as I stood in a pensioner's shed, surrounded by cannabis plants. The ramshackle grow-house was completed by an electric fan, an extension lead, and a few lights. This surreal scene had become a regular occurrence over the past two years, since I first met Michael Thatcher.
A cancer-sufferer for over a decade, he'd recently been told his illness was stage four - terminal. It began in his prostate, spread to his bones, and had finally reached his spine. At 75 years of age, the prognosis was bleak. But Michael didn't want to know.
I've always been terrified of cancer, to the point of hypochondria. Every time I feel the slightest twinge, find a lump, or see a mole, I start making plans for chemo. I think about cancer so much, I'll probably give myself cancer - just by worrying about it all the time.
But unlike me, Michael Thatcher didn't seem to worry about cancer at all - and he was riddled with it. Our first meeting was exactly two years ago. I had been offered a distribution deal for a documentary. I was told about this retired businessman who lived out the road that I should talk to before I signed anything.
He didn't look like a businessman. The room he brought me into was full of his paintings, prints and sculptures. His face was long and thin, and he spoke slowly and deliberately like a man with no tolerance for nonsense. His accent was a strange posh-English/midlands-Irish hybrid.
He pored over my paperwork and suggested a few changes. He talked about his illness, and his theories on the pharmaceutical industry. He gave me a book of his poetry. He drank several cups of tea. But he never mentioned what he had growing out in that shed . . .
A few weeks later, I met him again, and this time he let me in on his secret. He said he wanted to make a film. He wanted to show the world there were alternatives to the pharmaceutical industry. He wanted to give people hope where no hope existed. He said he felt duty-bound. Then he drank some more tea.
I didn't know what to think. Was this just a scared old man, frantically battling his looming mortality? Or was this a man who thought he had the answer? He certainly wasn't your typical stoner.
He was a retired hairdresser who'd been heavily involved with Labour Party politics in the UK. The fact he'd never smoked a joint in his life made him all the more credible.
He had done all the research, and seemed convinced his cannabis plants would save him. Yet it was easy to be cynical.
So he grew his plants, made his oil, and started his treatment - taking one pellet of the cannabis oil orally before bed each night.
Six months into his cannabis oil treatment, Michael Thatcher was a different man to the frail figure I'd first encountered. He was four stone heavier. His face had filled out, he looked younger - his whole appearance was completely different. This he attributed to his cannabis oil, which had reacquainted him with his long-lost appetite.
But he said the biggest difference was the relief with his prostate. Like most prostate-cancer sufferers, he experienced difficulty urinating, and was awake several times a night. Once he started using the oil, he said all of his muscles down below relaxed, allowing him to urinate freely, and get a good night's sleep.
So eating and sleeping properly, The Iron Man, as we'd taken to calling him, went from strength to strength, being filmed all the way. He continued his oil treatment through the spring, getting fitter and stronger as the evenings grew brighter and longer.
Summer came and as we filmed Michael planting roses in his garden, I wondered what state he'd have been in if he'd accepted the offer of chemo, twelve months previously. I wondered if he'd even be alive? Would he have been out planting roses in his garden in the sunshine, or weighing 16 stone?
In the back of our minds there was always the lingering worry of repercussions - the horrific thought of a garda raid. Loose lips sinking ships. But Michael wasn't afraid of the legal consequences, his only worry was his oil being taken from him. He refused to accept the idea of anybody being persecuted for trying to save their own life.
But Michael's mission was always bigger than just saving his own life. He wanted to find a solution for his whole family - most of who carry the BRCA cancer gene, which leaves them hugely prone to developing the disease.
The Iron Man seemed to be winning his battle. He had surpassed all conventional medicine's expectations. He'd defied the bleak prognosis he refused to even acknowledge. But then after 18 months of constantly improving health, he went downhill very rapidly.
He died at home in Coolderry in early April. Michael was laid out in the same room I first met him in. His paintings, prints and sculptures were stacked away this time. His face was, once again, long and thin, like that first time I'd met him.
And now it's all over, I keep asking myself one question: What would I do in his situation? I have no doubt that cannabis oil changed Michael Thatcher's quality of life. I feel it's beyond dispute - you can see the change in his appearance as the documentary progresses.
But would I be brave enough to put all my trust in the oil, or would I run screaming for chemo?
Only time will tell.
'The Iron Man - the Michael Thatcher Story' premieres as part of the OFFline Film Festival on October 8, see facebook.com/MichaelThatcherFilm for details