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Chemotherapy and Cannabis: Match Made in Heaven or Just Hype

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People undergoing chemotherapy in states where marijuana is legal are increasingly using the all-natural drug for relief. Proponents say that marijuana alleviates a wide range of chemotherapy side effects, including nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, and pain. Does the science agree? Here’s what cancer patients should know before incorporating cannabis into their own chemotherapy treatment, according to CancerWell.org.


Marijuana, CBD, and Cannabinoids
Marijuana and cannabidiol, or CBD, both come from the cannabis plant.

Marijuana is the flower of the cannabis plant. Marijuana contains a variety of cannabinoids, naturally-occurring chemical compounds. The most well known are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and CBD, which is non-intoxicating.

CBD may also be purchased as a standalone product. CBD is extracted from marijuana or industrial hemp plants to make CBD oil. Unlike marijuana, CBD oil doesn’t produce a high.

Cannabinoids in marijuana and CBD interact with cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system to produce therapeutic effects throughout the human body. That’s because cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 are found everywhere from the gut to the brain.


Is Cannabis Legal?
Medical marijuana is increasingly available, but it’s still not legal everywhere. As of 2019, 33 states have legalized medical marijuana and 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana for adults. However, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, complicating matters for some who would like to try it for relief.

CBD’s legal status is even less straightforward. While CBD products made from industrial hemp are federally legal as long as they contain less than 0.3% THC, some states have placed tighter restrictions on CBD products. Other states allow higher THC content in legal CBD products, and states with legalized medical marijuana allow CBD products regardless of whether they’re derived from hemp or marijuana.

Laws aside, any decision regarding medical cannabis should be made with a doctor’s approval. However, cancer patients may want to prepare for that conversation by researching their state’s laws and developing an understanding of cannabis terms so they enter their oncologist’s office ready for a productive discussion.


Cannabis and Chemotherapy: What the Science Says
While further evidence is needed, there is evidence to support the use of cannabis for managing chemotherapy side effects.

The strongest evidence is for controlling chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting with medical marijuana or THC-based drugs. Even patients who weren’t helped by standard antiemetic medications found success with medical cannabis. The success of THC in this arena has led to the development of two synthetic cannabinoid drugs, dronabinol and nabilone, to treat nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients.

Marijuana’s ability to stimulate the appetite is also well-documented and dronabinol, the active ingredient in Marinol, may be prescribed as an appetite stimulant. Patients in medical marijuana states may be able to consume medical marijuana directly for the same effects.

Treating cancer pain is one area where the results aren’t clear. While some studies have found THC or a THC-CBD combination known as nabiximols to be as effective as codeine at controlling cancer-related pain, other studies have found no such effect. And animal studies have found that CBD alone is effective at reducing inflammation and pain, but it remains to be seen if those results translate to humans.

The lack of strong evidence for cannabis’s therapeutic effects shouldn’t be taken as a sign that’s not effective. Legal restrictions have long made it difficult for medical researchers to study the effects of cannabis on human health, leading to a poor understanding of the drug’s potential by medical doctors. That’s not to say cancer patients can’t access medical cannabis, but they should prepare to be their own advocate.

Disclaimer: Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise, health, medicine or wellness program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.