Cannabis for Cancer: What the Evidence Tells Us

Since 1995, the U.S. death rate from cancer has dropped 23%.  We have more treatment options than ever before to help cancer patients live longer.  But along with cancer cells, these treatments can also kill day-to-day well being. According to the NIH, about half of all cancer patients experience nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatments. Over 90% report a big impact on their quality of life.  Although many anti-nausea drugs are now available, they often don’t work.  Only half of all patients on these drugs experience relief from their symptoms. Despite its illegality, many cancer patients turn to cannabis (marijuana) to ease their stomach. But does it actually help? A recent Cochrane review looked at the evidence on cannabis and chemotherapy-caused nausea and vomiting.

The reviewers identified 23 studies looking at the how effective cannabis was at reducing nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients. Most found cannabis to be more effective than a placebo (fake drug). Many also found it to be as effective as anti-nausea drugs. Overall, the review found promising evidence that cannabis can help. But cannabis side effects caused problems for many patients. Not surprisingly, patients using cannabis reported higher levels of dizziness, euphoria, and “feeling high”. A number of patients withdrew from the studies due to these side effects.

All of the reviewed studies were done between 1975 and 1991. In the early 1990’s, changes in drug laws led to a dramatic decrease in cannabis research. Since that time many new anti-nausea drugs have been developed. This means that the reviewed studies only compared cannabis to older, possibly less-effective drugs. Many of the studies also had design and reporting problems. The reviewers called for more high-quality studies comparing cannabis to newer drugs.

So if you are a cancer patient struggling with chemotherapy, is cannabis an option for you? If you live somewhere that medical or recreational marijuana is legal, the answer could be yes. However, this decision should only be made in partnership with your cancer care team. You also should consider how the side effects might impact your day-to-day functioning. The American Cancer Society offers an online guide to cannabis and cancer treatment. Like many medical organizations, the American Cancer Society has called for an easing of legal restrictions on medical cannabis research. With more research, we may identify new ways to use this ancient treatment to help improve well-being for millions of people now living with cancer.

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