USA TODAY NETWORK - When John Dress went to the eye doctor in February, he was mostly concerned with what style of frames to get.
He didn't expect to find out he has a rare cancer that could threaten his life and would wind up costing him his job as he searched for a cure or treatment.
Dress, 53, had spent 11 1/2 years working as a civilian aircraft technician for AECOM, a contractor that maintains helicopters at Fort Campbell.
But that trip to an optometrist and then to eye specialists changed his life. He was diagnosed with ocular melanoma.
The malignant tumor strikes only about 2,500 adults in the U.S. every year, according to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation. He was told his was a "very aggressive" type 2 melanoma that is expected to metastasize to his liver within five years.
That could be a death sentence.
But Dress isn't waiting for that to happen. When he couldn't find answers through traditional medicine, he learned all he could about cannabidiol, or CBD oil, an over-the-counter supplement.
Most CBD oil is made by extracting the compound from the stem, stalk and leaves of a hemp plant. It can contain a very small amount of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, unlike THC oil, marijuana oil and cannabis oil, which contain more.
In 2014, Tennessee passed a farm bill that removes industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana. But the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 considers marijuana and hemp to be the same plant, even without the THC, which gives users the high associated with marijuana. Federally, marijuana is considered a schedule 1 drug.
So, while it is legal in Tennessee to grow, make and sell CBD oil, federal laws could put a stop to that because they technically override state laws.
CBD and hemp oils can be found sold openly at several stores around Clarksville. And Dress hopes it could be the answer to his medical crisis.
"You'll try anything within reason," he said.
CBD oil offers him hope
Dress said the oil he gets doesn't have enough THC to make him remotely intoxicated. It's not "medical marijuana" but "medical CBD," he said.
The theory is that CBD oil can decrease the cellular activity of his tumor or eliminate the cancer completely. For him, it's worth a try and better than doing nothing but waiting for his liver to be damaged.
"This kind of product — anybody can buy this," he said. "You don't have to get a prescription."
Because of his cancer, he takes more than someone who may use it as a dietary supplement. But even then, that's only a few drops a day.
The oil is also touted by hemp growers and some patients as a way to relieve pain without getting high, to deal with anxiety and possibly to fight cancer, among other uses.
Dress said he has noticed a major lessening of his everyday aches and pains.
But the FDA does not approve of CBD oil for medicinal use. And while it is legal to buy the supplement locally, that doesn't mean the user is free of consequences, as Dress soon discovered.
Drug test positive
When Dress was selected for a random drug screening in August, his first in 11 years working for AECOM, he passed the instant test. But the specimen was sent off for additional testing and came back positive for cannabis, he said.
He said he was promptly fired, even though he tried to explain his situation to anyone willing to listen. Dress tried contacting the company's medical officer, but that didn't help. He found himself suddenly facing a cancer battle and unemployed.
The medical officer, he said, "obviously had it in his head that I was smoking marijuana," Dress said. "It's extremely frustrating. I'm not doing anything wrong. It doesn't get you high."
AECOM did not respond to requests for comment.
Dress doesn't have a legal recourse in the state of Tennessee, regardless of whether the drug test was valid.
Kenneth Merriweather, a Clarksville attorney who is not involved in the case, explained that Tennessee is a "work at will state." That means employers don't have to justify ending someone's employment, whether it's for chewing gum or taking CBD oil.
There are exceptions for various types of discrimination, but none apply in this case.
"If it's against a company's policy, your employer can fire you," he said. "They don't need any excuse. They can let you go."
Dress' family had recently moved to Trenton, Kentucky, to be closer to his job at Fort Campbell.
He was afraid he wouldn't be able to find another job, but he was hired to work on small jets for a company in Nashville.
Dress could have let everything go at that point, but he wants others to be protected from being fired over using CBD oil. He is writing to lawmakers in hopes they'll do something to make it easier for people to get the treatment they need.
Growing in popularity
Tree of Life owner Yvonne Chamberlain said more and more people are turning to CBD oil, which she has been stocking in her Clarksville store for about seven months.
"CBD is a popular natural supplement in the store along with tumeric, ginger and elderberries to name a few," she said.
"The general population is, collectively, looking for more natural solutions to their everyday ailments," she said. "CBD has been proven to be a good natural alternative for many of our customers."
Like any treatment, she said, it's not the right choice for everyone.
"What we hear most from our customers is that they want something that will relieve their symptoms, not cause counter-indications or side effects and is not addictive," Chamberlain said. "CBD has offered this to many customers who were struggling with side effects from prescription medications."
She said the oils have worked well for many repeat customers.
The future for Dress
Dress went through radiation and is having laser treatments for the tumor in his eye. He recently had a PET scan after doctors saw a spot on his liver. The scan was inconclusive, so for now they'll continue to monitor his liver.
Additional treatments would be required if the cancer metastasizes, but he wants to keep that from happening.
Dress doesn't suffer from the pain of many cancer victims and considers himself lucky.
His family, which includes his wife, Tiffany, and their combined 10 children, have had to adapt to some changes. Diet is a big one, and the whole family eats much healthier now.
Dress said his co-workers at Fort Campbell rallied around him.
"This is not an illicit drug," he said. "The industry doesn't want to change their tests. The industry of drug testing is behind the times."
He thinks pharmaceutical companies also have something to gain by lobbying to keep natural products out of the market.
Despite all of the challenges in his past, he refused to let it get him too down.
"There's truly so much and many family and friends to be thankful for in the midst of a trial like this," he said.
He said God has blessed him with a wonderful family and a new job.
"So many have had it much worse," Dress said. "We are hopeful and thankful for this treatment and this new way of looking at nutrition and pray they will make a positive impact in not only stopping this cancer in its tracks, but eliminating it altogether."
Reach Reporter Stephanie Ingersoll at firstname.lastname@example.org or 931-245-0267 and on Twitter @StephLeaf.
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