Medical Marijuana for Cancer

Herbs and plants were the original treatments for many illnesses and injuries people faced. As such, cannabis or marijuana use dates back centuries. It popped up in Western medicine in the 19th century as a means of relieving pain, inflammation, and spasms.

Today, marijuana use can spark some serious debate, even when considered for medical use only. But regardless of how you feel about its use, more cancer patients are turning to marijuana for a number of reasons.

Marijuana is not legal for use everywhere and researchers have their own concerns about potential side effects. For some patients, however, the benefits can be invaluable as they go through treatment. Patients with mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos, typically face a grueling treatment plan, and some have turned to medical marijuana to help cope.

Why Patients Turn to Marijuana

These days, more patients have come forward lauding the benefits of medical marijuana as an asset during their cancer treatment to help cope with side effects. For those with mesothelioma, since the cancer is so aggressive they often face an equally aggressive treatment plan that can take its toll on the body. Being able to manage these side effects is an important part of mesothelioma patients’ care plan to ensure the treatment is as effective as it can be.

Many patients decide to use medical marijuana to manage their pain. Some researchers have likened medical marijuana to the use of opioids, the strongest pain reliever. Medical marijuana may help ease moderate to severe pain, and may even act as an anti-inflammatory for some patients. In some cases, it may also help with nerve damage or neuropathy. Neuropathy is a common side effect of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, resulting in numbness, tingling, or a burning sensation.

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Other patients turn to marijuana to help with the nausea and vomiting that may occur from chemotherapy. It can potentially help increase patients’ appetites who are experiencing anorexia or cachexia, unintentional weight loss, as a result of their cancer or treatment plan.

Patients may also find sleep and anxiety relief from marijuana usage. Many patients experience sleep disorders as a result of anxiety, pain, or the medications they’re taking. Rest is a very important aspect of cancer treatment, and for some patients marijuana has proved invaluable in helping them relax and sleep better.

In general, patients who use and benefit from marijuana say it allows them to have a better quality of life and stay more positive. Long-time mesothelioma survivor Stephen Jay Gould believed keeping a positive attitude is essential in fighting cancer. He used medical marijuana to cope with the nausea caused from his treatment. He credited the drug for helping him stay optimistic during his treatment, and thus become a survivor.

Marijuana usage itself can have some side effects depending on the strain used and how much patients consume. Some patients might experience dizziness, paranoia, hallucinations, slowed digestion and increased heart rate.

Studies Around Marijuana and Cancer

Research around the medical uses of marijuana for cancer patients is generally limited. There have been a number of preclinical or laboratory studies, as well a limited number of clinical trials involving marijuana as a means to reduce some treatment side effects.

Preclinical studies have looked into potential antitumor effects of marijuana and its influence on cancer side effects. A few studies have suggested its use could help inhibit tumor growth, and possibly even kill cancer cells while protecting the body’s normal cells, although this evidence is inconclusive. Other similar preclinical studies observed the use of cannabinoids, a resin from cannabis plants, with cells of specific cancer types including breast cancer and liver cancer. These studies showed the plant helped protect normal cells, while killing cancer cells in the body.

Clinical studies around its use have so far mainly focused on how it may help with symptoms or cancer treatment side effects. These trials have looked into cannabinoids’ influence on nausea, stimulating appetite, pain relief, anxiety, and sleep. Researchers saw mixed to positive results in their studies and stated further study would be required.

While many cancer organizations, like the American Cancer Society, don’t have a particular stance on the use of medical marijuana, they encourage continued study to see how it might benefit cancer patients.

Regulations Around Marijuana Usage

According to federal regulations, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and LSD. These substances are so classified under the justification that they can warrant human dependency and are deemed to have no current medical uses.

But acceptance among the states is on the rise. California became the first state to allow medical usage upon the passage of Prop 215 in 1996. In more recent years, more states have been passing their own laws allowing marijuana for medical use only. Currently, 29 states as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have comprehensive public medical marijuana programs. To be considered a “comprehensive plan,” the regulations typically include:

  • Protection from any criminal penalties for possession and use of marijuana for medical reasons;
  • Marijuana access through home growth, dispensaries, or select other methods;
  • Allows a variety of strains, including those above a low THC level; and
  • Allows smoking or vaporization of various marijuana products.

Another 17 states allow for "low THC, high cannabidiol (CBD)” products for limited medical situations. Recently in Montana, a new bill was introduced that could limit patients’ access to medical marijuana. The state currently does not allow dispensaries, requires patients to have an ID card, and limits usage to certain medical situations. Should the law pass, it would be difficult for mesothelioma and other cancer patients to obtain medical marijuana from small providers.

The laws among all these states that allow some sort of usage vary, so patients will need to learn the specific regulations for where they live.

Regardless of any personal feelings around marijuana use, medical marijuana has had a positive influence for some cancer patients. With time, there will likely be more studies to better learn about its effects and any potential benefits.