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Marijuana can offer a wide range of benefits to patients with cancer, as a recent study from Israel found.
Most recognize medical marijuana to be helpful for cancer patients in some way or another.
Yet marijuana’s legal status has prevented researchers in many countries from providing thorough evidence. Instead, scientists are limited to studying the effects of chemicals isolated from marijuana (called cannabinoids), which misses the full picture.
Thankfully, cannabis research is taking off in Israel, where medical marijuana is legal. Just this year, a study involving 200 cancer patients found medical marijuana use led to “significant improvements” across all cancer and cancer treatment-related symptoms.
1. Nausea and Vomiting
Marijuana may be best known for its ability to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. It’s so effective that a pill form of THC (Marinol) has been approved by the FDA for treating chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting since 1985.
2. Weight Loss
Along with nausea, patients undergoing chemotherapy often find it hard to maintain normal weight. Thankfully, marijuana has been shown to not only relieve nausea, but stimulate appetite as well. For patients with cancer, marijuana can help improve food intake and prevent unhealthy loss of weight.
Cancer patients often suffer from mood disorders such as depression. While it’s no secret that marijuana makes users feel good, research seems to explain why. As many studies have found, chemicals in marijuana appear to have significant anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects.
Another well-known effect of marijuana is pain relief. And while its benefits seem to span a range of chronic pain disorders, studies show that marijuana can help reduce pain in cancer as well.
Patients with cancer often suffer from sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep. On the other hand, sleepiness is one of marijuana’s most commonly reported side effects. THC has also been shown to improve sleep in patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Cancer-related fatigue can also cause patients to feel sleepy during the day. Interestingly, marijuana seems to help patients combat daytime fatigue, while at the same time helping patients get to sleep at night. It’s multi-faceted effect on sleep may depend on the strain of marijuana and the balance of cannabinoids that they contain.
7. Sexual Function
Sexual dysfunction is a common, yet lesser known effect of cancer and cancer therapies. While findings are inconsistent, marijuana has a long history of use as an aphrodisiac, dating back at least 3,000 years to ancient India.
Chemicals in marijuana help regulate the digestive system and have been suggested as a treatment for a wide range of bowel disorders. While marijuana seems to help by reducing bowel movements in inflammatory bowel disorders, it appears to have an opposite effect in constipation.
Itching can be a side effect of various cancers as well as various cancer treatments. While the underlying causes of itching in cancer patients vary, marijuana seems to helpsome patients deal with this irritating symptom.
Perhaps the most promising (and controversial) benefit of marijuana in cancer is the treatment of cancer itself. While preclinical studies have long supported the ability of marijuana to kill cancer cells and stop the disease from spreading, the medical community points out that human research is lacking.
Why cancer patients turn to cannabis
Most of the study respondents said they used marijuana for physical and psychological symptoms.
Reasons included pain, nausea, upset stomach, and stress.
Some also reported using it for enjoyment.
Sometimes cancer patients simply run out of options, said Chin.
They’re given a variety of medications to combat symptoms and side effects.
“And when these don’t work, or they are too taxing on their system, they research cannabis as an option, legal or not,” she said.
According to Chin, cannabis is the only anti-nausea medicine that increases appetite, helps patients sleep, eases pain, and elevates mood.
Study authors point to the need for clinical trials to evaluate the role of cannabis in symptom management.
Marine Yanikian-Sutton, 39, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016.
Yanikian-Sutton, who is now in remission, told Healthline that she used marijuana while undergoing chemotherapy.
“It eased both mental and physical pain, and I could not have endured the pain without it,” she said.
Although it’s legal in her state, Yanikian-Sutton said that wasn’t a deciding factor.
“The deciding factor was the realization that the chemo meds are more poisonous and life threatening than the marijuana. I chose to ease the side effects produced by the chemo naturally, as opposed to taking more meds,” she said.
She didn’t take this step lightly.
“I researched it, discussed it with my oncologist, received sound advice as to which [strains] to use to ease which symptoms before I obtained the license necessary to purchase it,” she explained.
“In California, there are organizations that provide free marijuana to cancer patients, and I was one such patient,” added Yanikian-Sutton.
About 70 percent of study respondents who use cannabis reported inhaling or consuming it in food. About 89 percent used both methods.
Chin said patients are using tincture (sublingual), capsules, and vape.
“It depends on preference and/or the reasons why it’s being used. For example, vape is great for nausea. It takes away nausea within minutes. Patients may use sublingual [applied under the tongue] for sleep or pain, for an even longer extended relief. But the onset of action might be 30 minutes to one hour,” explained Chin.