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Survey: Nearly One-Third of Cancer Patients Use MJ, Most Say Symptoms Improved

A new survey, conducted by researchers affiliated with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and published in the journal Supportive Care in Cancer, sought the perspectives of 1,258 cancer patients to find out more about their relationship with cannabis as it pertains to their cancer symptoms. 

“To characterize cannabis use among cancer patients, we aimed to describe 1) patterns of cannabis use across multiple cancer sites; 2) perceived goals, benefits, harms of cannabis; and 3) communication about cannabis,” authors note in the study abstract.

How Do Cancer Patients Use Cannabis, and Is It Effective?

The survey looked at patients with nine different cancers treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center between March and August 2021. Respondents completed an online or phone survey asking about their cannabis use, attitudes and communication surrounding cannabis. 

Researchers used multivariable logistic regression to estimate the association of cancer type and cannabis use, adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics and prior cannabis use.

All respondents resided in states where the use of medicinal cannabis for cancer is legal, and 31% said that they used cannabis products following their diagnosis, ranging from 25% for lung cancer to 59% for testicular cancer.

“Characteristics associated with cannabis use included younger age, lower education level, and cancer type. In multivariable analysis, compared to lung cancer patients, gastrointestinal cancer patients were more likely to use cannabis,” the study notes.

Researchers also said that cannabis use in the year prior to diagnosis was “strongly associated” with cannabis use after diagnosis. Most cannabis users reported that they used it to assist with sleep (48%); followed by use for stress, anxiety or depression (46%); and pain (42%). Among those who used cannabis to improve symptoms, 70-90% reported improvement, while less than 5% said that any symptom worsened.

Consistent with previous data showing a reluctance to disclose cannabis use with healthcare professionals, only 25% of respondents said they discussed their cannabis use with medical providers.

Despite Lack of Oncologist Involvement, Cancer Patients Find Relief Through Cannabis

In the study’s conclusion, authors note that the survey shows that cannabis use among cancer patients is common across sociodemographic and clinical populations, with cannabis often being obtained independent of oncologists. Authors note that “oncologists and other members of the oncology team are uniquely positioned to provide education about the harms and benefits of cannabis use specifically for cancer patients,” adding that this context is “especially important” when it comes to “inconclusive and often conflicting evidence.”

“Interventions to improve cannabis education and communication need not target oncologists who treat specific cancers, as cannabis use appears consistent across multiple patient characteristics,” the authors concluded. “… To improve decision making about cannabis use during cancer care, research is needed to determine benefits and harms of cannabis use.”

Continued Evidence for Cannabis as Treatment for Cancer Symptoms

Cancer patients using cannabis to aid in symptom relief is nothing new, though the body of research surrounding cannabis as an effective treatment for symptom relief is still growing. That said, the available findings show promising outcomes for treating cancer-related symptoms. 

A May 2023 study found that medical cannabis is a safe and effective treatment for pain caused by cancer when combined with other drugs. Researchers concluded that medicinal cannabis is “a safe and complementary treatment option in patients with cancer failing to reach adequate pain relief through conventional analgesics, such as opioids.” The study found that medicinal cannabis significantly reduced pain in particular.

Another study, published in 2022, similarly found that cancer patients who used medicinal cannabis reported less pain and that cannabis reduced their need for powerful opiate painkillers. The study also found that cannabis was well tolerated and reduced other cancer-related symptoms.

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