The use of cannabis, both recreational and medical, has undergone many years of scrutiny and challenge. Currently, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration has marijuana and its products listed as a schedule I controlled substance, therefore, under federal law it can not be prescribed, used or sold.
State by state the laws have been changing. For example, some states allow the use of medical marijuana (which requires a prescription from a doctor). Other states allow the use of recreational marijuana. Others have some variation of the two. And of course, there are some states that do not allow use or possession of marijuana of any kind.
Needless to say, the laws around marijuana can be confusing depending on where you live.
However, one thing is clear: cannabis has been shown to benefit some cancer patients.
What is marijuana?
Marijuana is the dried buds of the cannabis sativa plant. Within these buds, there are two compounds called cannabinoids that have been shown to have an effect on the body: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (often referred to as THC), and cannabidiol (CBD).
How might cannabis help a colorectal cancer patient?
The use of medical marijuana has been shown to help ease some of the side effects that result from a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment.
THC has been known to reduce pain and nausea, whereas CBD has been shown to treat anxiety. For cancer patients, there have been a number of small studies that support the use of medical marijuana for pain, nausea, increasing appetite, treating neuropathy, and reducing stress and anxiety. It’s important to note that the use of marijuana to treat and cure cancer has not been proven and is not recommended.
What about the stigma?
Many people feel a stigma around using cannabis. This could be due to the federal regulations, cultural norms or personal perspective.
However some survivors stay open:
“I never thought that I would be one to look to alternative therapies to manage my disease. But after 6 years of fighting this awful disease and learning more and more about different alternative treatment options to help me alongside traditional medicine, I’ve learned to be open to anything that will help my body heal.” – Melissa Bhar, Stage IV survivor, Fight CRC Ambassador
“I had to bring up the option of marijuana during an appointment. Medicinal marijuana was never offered however, my oncologist was extremely supportive once I brought it up. We had to abide by the state laws (Hawaii) and he provided every referral I needed to get my rx filled. Medical marijuana helped me with everything. I was able keep my food down, my appetite was consistent, nausea was almost eliminated and I was able to laugh with my friends. I’m 2 years post ileostomy takedown and I don’t have any cravings or drawbacks from medicinal marijuana. I wish I would’ve started using medical marijuana from chemo treatment #1” – Kenny Toye, Stage III survivor, Fight CRC Ambassador
“When dealing with cancer you are given several medications to deal with nausea and pain. For me, the multiple prescriptions became overwhelming, each having their own side effects. Cannabis turned out to be a great alternative. It comes in many forms for consumption and provides quick relief. Thankfully, I have not experienced any opposition when discussing alternative medicine with my medical team, and I felt supported in my decision to try cannabis to ease some of my side effects”. – Yasmeem Watson, Stage III survivor, Fight CRC Research Advocate
“When I was on Oxaliplatin I used it for sleep and nausea… I still use it for sleep but you have to be careful – some medical marijuana strains will keep you up while other will slide you right off into a gentle slumber”. – Kathy Oliver Stage IV survivor, Fight CRC Research Advocate
How to you take it?
Inhalation: smoking or vaporization
Ingestion: eating foods that are cooked with cannabis
Topical: using infused oils or lotions
Are there side effects?
Just like any other treatment, there are side effects to the use of cannabis.
The most common effect is the “high” that marijuana is known for. This sensation could cause paranoia and anxiety for some people. In addition, at this time, growing marijuana is not tightly regulated. Therefore it is hard to know what strain (or specific type) of marijuana a person is getting – and different strains have slightly different effects. (For example, one can make you sleep while another can make you more alert.) This means a person could react differently each time they pick up a new prescription if they are purchasing a different strain. Another negative side effect comes from smoking cannabis, which increases the risk of harm to the lungs.
What if I don’t have access based on my state?
There are two pharmaceutical drugs that are similar to medical marijuana and are approved in the United States for treating nausea and vomiting: Dronabinol (Marinol ®) and Nabilone (Cesamet ®).
Dronabinal is FDA-approved for the treatment of nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy. It is a synthetic form of THC and is taken by mouth as an oral capsule. Nabilone is also used to treat severe nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy, and similar to dronabinol, it is a man-made, synthetic form of cannabis.
While often times medical marijuana (made from a plant) has a negative stigma, these medical prescriptions (made in the lab) don’t, although they are more or less the same. Regardless, both deliver the cannabinoids which relieve many cancer patients of side effects.
For More Information:
Tabooty podcast: Medical marijuana
Fact Sheet: Alternative and Integrative Medicine