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How Cannabis Can Help Cancer Patients

Around 1.8 million Americans1 are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2020. A diagnosis is often followed by surgeries and treatments that can be physically and mentally daunting for patients. 

Both cancer and its treatments can trigger relentless symptoms; nausea, pain, and anxiety are only a few of these side effects. Thankfully, cancer patients in many states access medical cannabis to help manage or alleviate these debilitating symptoms and side effects.

How cancer patients use cannabis

Medical cannabis is regarded as an add-on therapy to help manage two sets of symptoms: symptoms of the cancer itself, and the side effects of chemotherapy, radiation, surgery pain, and other treatments. Here’s some of the most common cancer symptoms and treatment side effects, and how cannabis can help:

Nausea and vomiting

Cancer treatments can be devastating on the gastrointestinal tract. The average chemotherapy patient takes several medications just to control nausea, and even that is often not enough to calm it. Medical cannabis can be a fitting complementary treatment for those cancer patients coping with nausea.

The impact of phytocannabinoids on nausea and vomiting2 is well-known and well-studied. In fact, nausea was the first area of study for cannabis in a pharmaceutical application, and Marinol, a commonly administered anti-nausea medication, is made from a synthetic version of the well known phytocannabinoid Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 

Cannabis is believed to be effective because phytocannabinoids impact serotonin production, a key part of your body’s nausea and vomiting process. Phytocannabinoids, along with endocannabinoids produced by the body, have been observed to modulate its release.

Cannabis can also impact anticipatory nausea3, a phenomenon tied to trauma or emotional experience. Some cancer patients experience anticipatory nausea as they arrive for treatment because of how terrible chemotherapy can make them feel. Medical cannabis can impact this type of nausea as well, as cannabis can help settle both an upset stomach and an uneasy mind.

Appetite stimulation

Scientifically, appetite stimulation is a tricky process to isolate and study because hunger is influenced by so many physical and psychological factors. However, appetite stimulation has been observed in cancer patients struggling to eat and hold down food.

One element researchers have studied at length is the neurotransmitter dopamine’s role in stimulating hunger cues. Endocannabinoid and phytocannabinoid activity on CB1 receptors, a receptor type in the ECS, is believed to stimulate dopaminergic neurotransmission.

Pain

Cannabis can be a powerful companion to a patient’s current course of treatment to manage pain, whether that patient is regularly taking over the counter pain relievers or is taking a prescription opiate. 

This is because endocannabinoids produced by the body play a role in quieting down pain signals sent from the brain to the area in pain. Endocannabinoids are made and recycled quickly, so phytocannabinoids sourced from cannabis, like THC and Cannabidiol (CBD), can supplement these molecules. This introduces more pain dampening molecules that bind to the endocannabinoid receptors for longer and are not recycled as quickly as the cannabinoids produced by the body.

Mental health

Patients carry a heavy emotional and mental burden through their treatment. The stress, anxiety and depression that’s often triggered by a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and impede on patients’ well-being.

Since endocannabinoids already play a role in modulating experiences with anxiety, medical cannabis can help cancer patients who are facing bouts of depression and anxiety related to managing the disease and its treatment. In addition to modulating neurotransmitters, phytocannabinoid interactions with CB1 receptors in the brain are believed to supplement and amplify the effect endocannabinoids already have on anxiety4. For example, THC’s activation of the CB1 receptor is believed to influence anxiety responses, although this could either quell or exacerbate anxiety. Always start with a small amount of cannabis and see how you feel before consuming more.

How is cannabis therapy determined?

Which products can help cancer patients feel better greatly depends on the cancer diagnosis, the treatment being prescribed, how symptoms are currently being managed, and whether or not surgery was necessary to remove cancerous masses. This information informs an initial medical cannabis consultation, and from there, the rest is based on patient feedback. 

The type of product will vary, too, depending on the symptoms. Some factors that will shape this cannabis product recommendation include:

  • A capsule won’t “stay down” if a patient is frequently vomiting. Inhalation may be a better administration method in this case.
  • For those with lung cancer, inhalation is not a good option. Edibles or capsules may be a better route.
  • Those with mouth sores from radiation may find tinctures soothing, whereas inhalation may irritate these sores.
  • Those with liver issues as a result of cancer or cancer treatment may want to avoid edibles and capsules, as those pass through the liver first. Inhalation or tinctures may be a better option.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be devastating to patients and their families alike. With so many treatment options that vary depending on the diagnosis, treatment options, the symptoms you’re experiencing, and more, no two medical cannabis journeys will look the same. However, with the right guidance from medical professionals and a medical cannabis dispensary pharmacist, the right products can be introduced to help make treatment more manageable.

Sources

  1. https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/common.html#:~:text=How%20Many%20People%20Are%20Diagnosed,the%20most%20common%20cancer%20diagnosis.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3165951/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26561338/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3808114/pdf/nihms518943.pdf
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