Patients of all sorts turn to medical cannabis to manage difficult to treat symptoms. However, research into one disease area is more promising than ever: cancer. Medical cannabis has officially earned a place in oncologic care, whether it is federally illegal or not. Here’s why more doctors than ever are integrating cannabis into cancer care.
Doctors opening up to cannabis for cancer
Though doctors in the United States still cannot research or legally prescribe cannabis (they can only recommend it), oncologists are more open to the medicinal herb than ever before.
As a 2013 poll indicates, as caregivers, many doctors feel that is it is their ethical responsibility to alleviate a person’s suffering to their best ability.
76 percent of doctors surveyed approved of using medical cannabis to ease suffering. The poll included 1446 professionals in total. In a more recent survey, which was presented at the 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting, researchers found that 90 percent of pediatric oncologists would support medical cannabis use for pediatric cancer.
The survey included 311 respondents from cancer care centers in three states with medical cannabis programs. A primary reason for recommending medical cannabis is for symptom management.
A wealth of anecdotal data and a handful of human studies have found that the plant can drastically reduce the harsh side effects of chemotherapy, which include neuropathy, nausea, and vomiting.
In 2016, a Jerusalem study found that medical cannabis was effective in 90 percent of patient cases. The study followed 399 medical cannabis consumers over a two year period. 79 of which were cancer patients.
After trying cannabis, patients reported improvements in pain, nausea, anxiety, appetite, and an improved general sense of well-being after consuming the herb.
Integrating cannabis into cancer care
Though cannabis research is stifled due to federal restrictions in the United States, many international research teams are looking into the plant’s potential as an anti-cancer agent and a symptom management tool.
Rodent research has found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive in cannabis, has an anti-proliferative effect in some types of cancer, and may halt the growth and development of tumors.
Unfortunately, trials of the herb’s anticancer effects in humans have yet to be completed. Yet, many doctors are taking advantage of the well-known fact that cannabis reduces pain, stimulates appetite, and quells nausea and vomiting.
Clinically, I have observed that many cancer patients benefit from adding cannabis to their pain regimen. […] Many [patients] have successfully weaned themselves down or off their opiate dose by adding cannabis to their regimen.
In another review written by Abrams and well-known cannabis and cancer researcher, Manuel Guzman of the Complutense University of Madrid, the doctors explain that medical professionals should seriously consider using cannabis as an adjunct therapy with opioid pain medications. They explain,
If cannabinoids and opioids were shown to be synergistic in a larger follow-on controlled clinical trial, it is possible that lower doses of opioids would be effective for longer periods of time with fewer side effects, clearly a benefit to the patient with pain.
Other professionals highlight the benefit of the spiritual relief that cannabis provides many patients nearing the end of their life.
In yet another recent paper, Sunil Kumar Aggarwal, an MD and Ph.D. from the MultiCare Auburn Medical Center and the MultiCare Institute for Research and Innovation, summarizes the many known benefits well, writing,
Integrating [cannabinoid integrative medicine] into oncologic palliative care promises to improve overall health-related quality of life, to further relief from distressing symptoms and spiritual suffering, and to bring hope to patients and facing terminal illness.
All in all, it’s clear that medical professionals have opened up to the healing powers of cannabis. Now, doctors, policy makers, and researchers need to figure out how to best integrate these therapies into regular practice.
However, until the federal government changes its tune on cannabis policy, many patients may never get the opportunity to fully explore the vast potential of the cannabis plant.