Nearly one quarter of cancer patients treated at the Seattle Cancer Center Alliance reported that they currently use cannabis to manage the physical and psychological symptoms of treatment, according to researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Washington state is one of eight states, and the District of Columbia, that have legalized cannabis for recreational use, which means that cancer patients in Seattle aren’t required to get a prescription in order to access the drug.
Many more states across the US have introduced laws allowing for medical cannabis, of which the side effects of cancer treatment are often listed as reasons for writing a prescription. According to the American Cancer Society, small studies have found that cannabis can help combat chemotherapy-associated nausea, and may also be effective at treating neuropathic pain. They also report that clinical trials have found that patients taking cannabis extracts require less pain medication compared those not given the drug.
As cancer patients have greater access to cannabis than ever before, the researchers sought to better understand current use patterns in this population. In their study – which was published today in the journal, Cancer – the researchers surveyed 926 cancer patients about their opinions of cannabis, as well as randomly tested their urine samples for the presence of a metabolite of THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
The researchers found that 74 percent of cancer patients surveyed wanted to learn more about using cannabis during treatment from their physicians, though they said they were more likely to get information from outside sources. The majority – 66 percent – of patients in the study also reported that they had used cannabis in the past.
“Cancer patients desire but are not receiving information from their cancer doctors about marijuana use during their treatment, so many of them are seeking information from alternate non-scientific sources,” said Dr. Steven Pergam, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Of the over 900 patients surveyed, 24 percent reported that they had used cannabis in the last year, with 21 percent of patients saying they had used the drug in some form in the last month. Pain and nausea were commonly-reported physical symptoms for which cancer patients reported using cannabis, while insomnia, depression and stress were common psychological symptoms.
Eighteen percent of cancer patients reported cannabis use within the past week, a result that was very nearly confirmed through the random urine testing. The THC urine test found that 14 percent of patients included in the study had likely recently consumed cannabis.
“We hope that this study helps to open up the door for more studies aimed at evaluating the risks and benefits of marijuana in this population,” said Pergam. “This is important, because if we do not educate our patients about marijuana, they will continue to get their information elsewhere.”