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Medical marijuana use in cancer

Marijuana comes from the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa). Itis a mixture of dried and shredded leaves, stems, seeds and flowers. The main active ingredient in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Marijuana and substances that are made from it are called cannabinoids.

 

You may wonder about using marijuana to control the symptoms of cancer or side effects of treatment, mainly nausea and vomiting or pain. Currently, there is no definite scientific evidence to support using marijuana to manage these symptoms.

Claims about medical marijuana

Some people support making marijuana available as a medical treatment. They claim that it can help people cope with the following side effects. None of these claims have been scientifically proven.

Nausea and vomiting

Pill forms of marijuana are available for treating nausea and vomiting from cancer or its treatments. Many doctors feel that these pills are not as effective as other antinausea drugs or combinations of these drugs. However, marijuana pills are sometimes given to people if standard antinausea drugs do not help relieve these symptoms.

Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite (anorexia) is a common problem for people with cancer. Loss of appetite and weight loss (which is called cachexia when it is severe) often occur together. Marijuana can increase appetite in some people, so it may help treat loss of appetite and weight loss. To date, clinical trials studying marijuana’s effects on appetite or weight have conflicting results.

Pain

Some people claim that marijuana can also help relieve chronic (long-term) or severe pain related to cancer or its treatment. So far, research has not clearly shown that smoking marijuana helps relieve pain. However, some pain clinics give the pill form of marijuana to help manage chronic pain.

Medical marijuana in Canada

Marijuana is an illegal substance in Canada. In 2001, the Canadian government changed regulations to allow the “compassionate” use of medicinal marijuana. These changes allow eligible, seriously ill people access to marijuana for medical use through licensed producers in Canada. Researchers are still trying to find out if it should be used as medicine.

 

In 2013, Health Canada introduced new regulations regarding the use of medical marijuana in Canada. Under these new regulations, people must get a prescription from a doctor or nurse practitioner that allows the use of medical marijuana. Once they have this document, people can register with a licensed producer in Canada and order medical marijuana.

 

These new regulations allow people with cancer and their healthcare team to decide if they will include medical marijuana as part of their treatment plan.

 

For more information on medical marijuana regulations and use, go to Health Canada’s website.

Forms of medical marijuana

Medical marijuana is only available by prescription from a doctor or a nurse practitioner because it is a controlled substance. It is available as pills or cigarettes.

 

Marijuana pills are available as dronabinol (Marinol) or nabilone (Cesamet). These pills contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. They are taken by mouth (orally).

 

The cigarette form contains dried marijuana. People smoke the cigarettes to get the marijuana into their body.

Potential side effects and risks

Using medical marijuana, in either pill or cigarette form, may help you relax and give you a sense of well-being. However, marijuana can also cause unpleasant side effects, including:

  • problems with memory and concentration
  • sensory changes, including a lack of balance and slower reaction times
  • dry mouth
  • rapid heart beat
  • a rise in blood pressure

 

Although current evidence is limited, the Canadian Cancer Society believes that it is possible that smoking marijuana is a risk factor for cancer. The Society supports additional clinical trials and other research to look at the benefits and risks of using medical marijuana.

 

Talk to your healthcare team about using medical marijuana to help relieve symptoms of cancer and side effects of its treatment.

Research

Currently, clinical trials are studying the potential use and effectiveness of medical marijuana in relieving symptoms of cancer and side effects of its treatment. Researchers are also trying to find the best dose and way of giving medical marijuana so that it produces the best effect with the fewest side effects. They are also looking into longer-term harm from using medical marijuana and any potential harmful interactions it may have with other drugs used to treat cancer.

References

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We can give information about cancer care and support services in Canada only. To find a cancer organization in your country, visit Union for International Cancer Control or International Cancer Information Service Group.