Many cancer patients are using medical marijuana — but few are telling their doctors

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Medical marijuana is becoming a very common remedy for patients dealing with the symptoms and side-effects of breast cancer treatment. Despite the growing acceptance of cannabis use, a new study finds few patients are actually letting their doctors know they’re consuming the once-illegal drug.

A team from Lankenau Medical Center finds over four in 10 adult patients with breast cancer (42%) are using cannabis to help relieve the symptoms of the disease and its treatment. These symptoms typically include pain, insomnia, anxiety, stress, and nausea or vomiting.

Among those using marijuana, 79 percent say they used it during their cancer treatments — including radiation therapies and surgery. However, study authors find just 39 percent of these patients discussed using marijuana for medical reasons with their doctor.

The survey asked over 600 patients about their cancer treatments and history with marijuana. Among those using cannabis products, three in four say it was very or extremely helpful in relieving their various symptoms.

Do doctors have enough information about medical marijuana?

Nearly half the poll (49%) using the drug to relieve the side-effects of breast cancer treatments believe medical marijuana could effectively treat the disease itself. Despite this belief among patients, researchers say many physicians feel they lack the knowledge to properly discuss marijuana use with cancer patients. The team adds that increasing the medical community’s knowledge about this topic is vitally important because most U.S. states with a medical cannabis program now include cancer as a qualifying condition.

The study finds half of patients have searched for information on medical marijuana. The most common resources they turn to are not doctors, but websites and other patients. In fact, researchers say doctors actually rank very low on the list of cannabis info resources patients use.

“Our study highlights an important opportunity for providers to initiate informed conversations about medical cannabis with their patients, as the evidence shows that many are using medical cannabis without our knowledge or guidance,” says lead author Marisa Weiss, MD, of Breastcancer.org and Lankenau Medical Center, in a media release.

“Not knowing whether or not our cancer patients are using cannabis is a major blind spot in our ability to provide optimal care, and as healthcare providers, we need to do a better job of initiating informed conversations about medical cannabis with our patients to make sure their symptoms and side effects are being adequately managed while minimizing the risk of potential adverse effects, treatment interactions, or non-adherence to standard treatments due to misinformation about the use of medical cannabis to treat cancer.”

Dr. Weiss urges cancer patients to never use cannabis as a complete replacement for traditional cancer treatments.

The findings appear in the journal CANCER.

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