Cannabis has many promising uses for pain management and emerging research suggests that it can be a useful tool for cancer patients. Although cannabis is still categorized as a Schedule 1 substance by the federal government, cancer care providers and patients have found promising results using cannabis-based medicines.
According to the American Cancer Society website, THC which is responsible for the “high” feeling brought on by smoking or ingesting cannabis can help combat nausea, reduce inflammation and relieve pain. It can also help increase appetite in patients undergoing chemotherapy and promote more restful sleep. THC can help relieve and manage these common and uncomfortable side effects of cancer and cancer treatment, according to a 2017 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
In addition to managing side effects, there is promising evidence to support that THC can act as an antioxidant and, in some cases, inhibit tumor growth. A study by UCLA calls for more in-depth research on the therapeutic applications of cannabis including, effects that may be therapeutically useful, including antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, anti-pain, anti-tumor, anti-psychotic benefits.
There are currently two FDA-approved cannabis-based drugs for use by cancer patients. Both drugs are used to treat nausea and vomiting – two very common and disruptive side effects of cancer treatments. While some of these treatment options have been FDA-approved since the 1980s, they have not become common knowledge until recently.
Dronabinol contains a synthetic form of THC and is taken by mouth, in a gelatin-based capsule. It is used to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy and to increase appetite in patients with HIV/AIDS. Dronabinol contains a man-made version of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol which is just one of the over 60 cannabinoids found in cannabis.
Similarly, the active ingredient in Nabilone is a synthetic form of THC which has been proven to be effective in treating chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Nabilone is generally prescribed when other drugs have not worked, according to information of Drug Bank. Originally approved by the FDA in 1985, the drug was not marketed widely in the U.S. until 2006.
Another promising cannabis-derived drug for cancer patients is Nabiximols. The active ingredient in this mouth spray is a whole-plant extract with THC and cannabidiol (CBD). It’s not yet available in the U.S. but has been used in Europe and Canada to treat cancer-pain and muscle spasms from multiple sclerosis.
While oncologists cannot legally prescribe cannabis, many health providers have discussed the benefits of cannabis with their patients and are aware of this promising option. According to an article published in ASCO Post by practicing oncologist, Donald I. Abrams, more than 80 percent of oncologists surveyed discussed medical cannabis with their patients. Of the 400 oncologists surveyed, nearly 200 recommended medical cannabis as an option for patients.
But, the catch is that fewer than 30 percent of oncologists surveyed felt knowledgeable enough about cannabis to make recommendations.This statistic suggests there is an urgent need to investigate the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for cancer patients and other populations.