Can Medical Marijuana Ease the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?
Breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy worry about side effects, such as nausea and loss of appetite. Medical marijuana may help women living in states where this is a legal option.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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As more states legalize medical marijuana, we're learning that, for breast cancer patients, it might help ease some of the side effects of cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. Medical marijuana isn’t legal everywhere, even for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s prescription. However, pharmaceutical companies have developed medications based on the active chemical compound in marijuana, and these medications are legal and FDA-approved for use.
“There is scientific evidence that the main active ingredient of marijuana can relieve nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy,” says J. Hampton Atkinson, MD, co-director for the Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego. That primary ingredient is a cannabinoid called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC (cannabinoids are the chemical compounds in cannabis, or marijuana). The two FDA-approved medications based on THC are dronabinol (Marinol) and nabilone (Cesamet).
Dr. Atkinson adds that, although many people who take marijuana for their symptoms report positive results, the majority of people with breast cancer get the best relief from traditional pharmaceuticals. The more commonly prescribed treatments for chemotherapy side effects are serotonin receptor (5 HT3) antagonists such as ondansetron (Zofran) and the newly available P/neurokinin-1 (NK1) receptor antagonists such as aprepitant (Emend), says Atkinson. If these approaches fail to control side effects, then the pharmaceuticals based on THC (or medicinal marijuana, where it is legal) are an option.
However, warns Atkinson, the dose necessary for these medications to be effective can lead to side effects of their own — side effects that can affect quality of life. You may experience dizziness, anxiety, mood swings, sleepiness, and a host of other concerns.
People who use medicinal marijuana often argue that they don’t have these types of side effects, as long as they stick to a minimal dose. And research suggests that THC is better absorbed through smoking a marijuana cigarette than in an oral form. The problem is that marijuana quality varies and you might not get consistent symptom relief.
States That Have Legalized Medical Marijuana
While the commercially available THC medications can be legally prescribed everywhere, patients who use medicinal marijuana are protected by state law in only 13 states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. Even in those states, once you have a prescription, a doctor cannot legally tell you where to go to fill it. Patients usually have to find a medicinal marijuana supplier through word of mouth. Also, you’ll have to check in first at your local health department to get a card that validates you as a medical marijuana user.
Ten other states and Washington, D.C. have laws that support medicinal marijuana use, but offer no legal protection to patients who fill a prescription for it. Regardless of state law, marijuana use remains a federal crime, although individuals who have a prescription for medicinal marijuana are almost never prosecuted.
Marijuana as a Tumor-Fighter?
Beyond alleviating chemotherapy side effects, the possibility exists that cannabinoids can fight cancer. Research in this area is ongoing, but appears hopeful, at least for some types of cancer. However, this does not mean that smoking marijuana actively treats breast cancer. In fact, the early research results are mixed for breast cancer: Some studies have shown that cannabinoids successfully slow tumor growth and other research suggests that they encourage tumor growth. More studies are needed to determine the effect of cannabinoids on cancer cells, including breast cancer.
Video: What Is Medical Marijuana Used to Treat?
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