Medical marijuana can help cancer patients manage pain, reduce opioid use

HAIFA, Israel — Marijuana may be just what the doctor should order for countless cancer patients. Scientists from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology report that the use of medical cannabis helped a group of oncology patients improve their pain measures “significantly,” decrease other cancer-related symptoms, and cut down on opioid use. Additionally, researchers observed few if any-side effects as patients used the once-illegal drug.

All in all, study authors conclude marijuana is a legitimate pain relief alternative for cancer patients.

It’s very common for oncology patients to deal with pain, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. These symptoms weigh heavily on a person’s mind, all while undergoing various complex and often unpleasant cancer procedures. If permitted to spiral out of control, these feelings or afflictions (like anxiety and sleeplessness) can eventually contribute to a worsened prognosis.

“Traditionally, cancer-related pain is mainly treated by opioid analgesics, but most oncologists perceive opioid treatment as hazardous, so alternative therapies are required,” explains study author David Meiri, assistant professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, in a media release.

“Our study is the first to assess the possible benefits of medical cannabis for cancer-related pain in oncology patients; gathering information from the start of treatment, and with repeated follow-ups for an extended period of time, to get a thorough analysis of its effectiveness.”

Half the patients cut their opioid usage

The research team began investigating this topic after speaking with numerous cancer patients, all of whom were looking for alternative pain and symptom relief options.

“We encountered numerous cancer patients who asked us whether medical cannabis treatment can benefit their health,” adds study co-author Gil Bar-Sela, associate professor at the Ha’Emek Medical Center Afula. “Our initial review of existing research revealed that actually not much was known regarding its effectiveness, particularly for the treatment of cancer-related pain, and of what was known, most findings were inconclusive.”

Researchers recruited a group of certified oncologists capable of issuing a medical cannabis license to their cancer patients. Each oncologist referred some of their interested patients to the project and provided reports on their disease characteristics.

“Patients completed anonymous questionnaires before starting treatment, and again at several time points during the following six months. We gathered data on a number of factors, including pain measures, analgesics consumption, cancer symptom burden, sexual problems, and side effects,” Prof. Bar-Sela explains.

Besides less pain and improved symptoms, many also slowed their opioid use. In fact, just under half of all patients stopped taking analgesic medications altogether after six months of the medicinal cannabis treatment.

It may even improve the sex lives of some patients

Medical cannabis has been suggested as a possible remedy for appetite loss, however, most patients in this study still lost weight. As a substantial portion were diagnosed with progressive cancer, a weight decline is expected with disease progression,” Prof. Meiri reports. “Interestingly, we found that sexual function improved for most men but worsened for most women.”

There is still much to understand when it comes to cannabis and cancer. Moving forward, the research team would like to see further work conducted on these topics.

“Although our study was very comprehensive and presented additional perspectives on medical cannabis, the sex, age, and ethnicity, as well as cancer types and the stage of the cancer meant the variety of patients in our study was wide-ranging. Therefore, future studies should investigate the level of effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in specific subgroups of cancer patients with more shared characteristics,” Prof. Meiri concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Frontiers in Pain Research.


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