Managing Chemotherapy & Cancer with Medical Marijuana

When facing a life-threatening illness such as cancer, the most common form of treatment consists of chemotherapy. But chemotherapy comes with negative side effects that can make life very uncomfortable for patients.

Chemotherapy can have effects on the body that can include bone and joint pain, nausea and vomiting, anxiety and depression, insomnia, loss of appetite, inflammation, and neuropathy. While the use of marijuana for medical treatment is centuries old, its controversy as a useful medicinal alternative to other pharmaceutical treatments has limited the progress of its acceptance. So far, there are 29 states plus the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana for medical use1.

Chemotherapy side effects relieved by Medicinal Cannabis

  • Bone and Joint Pain – Cancer-related chronic pain can be relieved by the cannabinoid compounds in marijuana known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). These compounds have been shown to be effective for relieving pain in clinical trials2. Marijuana works in a similar way to opioids, which are the strongest type of pain relievers3, but is not as addictive.
  • Nausea and Vomiting – A major side effect of chemotherapy in cancer patients is nausea and vomiting. Although there are many types of medications on the open market that can help relieve these symptoms, the synthetic cannabinoid Dronabinol (Marinol®)has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment4. Also approved is Nabilone (Cesamet®), another synthetic cannabinoid that works like THC. It’s taken orally, and provides relief when other drugs don’t5.
  • Anxiety and Depression – Along with the physical stresses on the body caused by debilitating chemotherapy treatments, cancer patients can develop anxiety and become depressed over the realization of the disease and the repetitive rounds of chemotherapy they must undergo. An increasing number of oncologists are coming around to view medical marijuana as a viable option for helping their patients manage the mood swings and emotional stress of cancer and chemotherapy6. Cannabis contains CBD (cannabidiol), which is a natural antidepressant and anti-anxiety substance7.
  • Insomnia – A very beneficial side effect of cannabis is its ability to stimulate drowsiness. In patients battling a life-threatening illness like cancer, the stress and worry alone can easily lead to restless, sleepless nights in addition to the other negative side effects of chemo treatments. But, there are particular varieties of cultivated cannabis strains that encourage drowsiness more than others. Strains categorized as indicas or Kush may have sleep and calming capabilities8. And research on the THC compound in cannabis has shown its effectiveness in helping people enjoy faster, deeper and sounder sleep9—especially necessary for replenishing vital energy and stamina.
  • Appetite Loss – There have been over 28,000 reports completed through research worldwide that support the effectiveness of medical marijuana in stimulating the appetite10. Appetite loss due to chemotherapy treatments is rooted in the effects on the senses. Patients can lose their sense of taste and smell or even be repulsed by the smell of food, which in turn affects weight and nutritional intake. The synthetic version of the cannabinoid THC, Marinol, mirrors one of marijuana’s most effective chemicals, and has shown to improve the sense of taste and smell of food in cancer patients11. Cannabis can plug into receptors in cells that help spread the hunger hormone ghrelin, leading to positive responses to food12.
  • Inflammation – Managing cancer-causing inflammatory pain that can be stubborn to relieve can lead to inadequate treatment by opiates, antidepressants, and drugs that fight convulsions. Much of the chemo-induced inflammation is gastrointestinal, as cancer cells attack many vulnerable parts of the body. The introduction of medicines containing cannabinoids is a unique and bold move in studying and understanding how cannabis has the potential of being more effective than other medications. THC is one of the most researched and studied component of cannabis13 and has played a leading role in treating and relieving inflammation resulting from chemotherapy. Other studies are occurring with greater frequency.
  • Neuropathy – A complication that results from both chemotherapy and other treatments for cancer is neuropathy, also known as nerve damage in medical terms. It afflicts the hands and feet with tingling, weakness, numbness or burning discomfort. Cannabis has strong record of relieving pain associated with neuropathy (Jensen, Chen, Furnish & Wallace, 2015) (Baron, 2015) (McDonough, McKenna, McCreary & Downer, 2014)14. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are two primary cannabinoids that are a product of cannabis.

While cannabis comes in a variety of forms for many different uses and purposes, it is undoubtedly gaining more attention as a legitimate option for persons suffering the side effects of chemotherapy from major diseases like cancer.

More and more patients and doctors are seeing medical marijuana’s benefits. Medscape and WebMD conducted a poll in 2014 that found over three-quarters of physicians and eighty-two percent of oncologists regarded cannabis as having corrective and remedial benefits, and should be presented as an alternative treatment15. Medical marijuana is becoming a way for patients to take some control over their illness.

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