Over the past couple of years, more and more American doctors have begun advocating for the benefits of medicinal marijuana. They witness their patients enduring round after round of incapacitating chemotherapy, nauseated to the point of vomiting and so weak they are unable to walk. On top of these conditions, patients often feel obligated to rely on numerous prescription drugs to combat the side effects of chemo—drugs that cause more side effects, and warrant even more drugs. A patient can end up taking a dozen medications when all is said and done. And these medications don’t even address the psychological strain that cancer patients are battling every hour of every day.
A Medscape and WebMD poll recently discovered that 82% of oncologists support marijuana as a form of treatment. Not only does cannabis combat the physical stresses of cancer, but also anxiety, depression, and loss of appetite. Currently, the drug is approved for medical use in nearly half of the United States as well as the District of Columbia. Partial or last-resort cannabis treatments are an option in over a dozen additional states. The common thread is that most cancer patients who gain permission from their physicians to try medical marijuana affirm that it works, and works well. Patients miss fewer days of work and feel happier. In addition, they report an improved desire for food, as marijuana is the only anti-nausea remedy that actually boosts appetite, according to the oncology and hematology chief at San Francisco General Hospital, Dr. Abrams. He goes on to assert that prescribing one medication—cannabis—is much more efficient and effective than prescribing multiple drugs, which may combine in such a way as to create negative physiological reactions in the patient. A professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Dr Kligler, believes that plenty of research affirms the harmlessness of cannabis, as long as the dosage is right. Why would any physician want to withhold a treatment that is so productive and so safe, and could transform the experience of cancer patients on a large scale?
A 2013 article published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine documents that after a double round of phone interviews with cannabis-using cancer patients in Israel, the majority of the 131 study participants claimed that the marijuana helped them, while only four percent complained that their symptoms worsened. A similar article presented in JAMA examined the results of almost 80 studies on cannabinoids focusing on multiple factors, such as nausea and vomiting, appetite, and chronic pain. This evaluation demonstrated that out of the 6500 patients involved, most reported a decrease in unfavorable symptoms in comparison to patients using a placebo. But the study also revealed that the cannabinoids’ influence on nausea and vomiting was minimal, and even that the marijuana caused vertigo and hallucinatory episodes. Researchers warn that in any study of cannabis use, patients can show bias depending on their feelings about marijuana, or mix up what they think are the effects of the drug with the effects of their traditional prescriptions. As with all studies, nothing is 100% accurate or provable.
As of now, experts are familiar with only two cannabinoids out of the nearly ninety that at least one breed of marijuana plant, the sativa plant, contains. These two cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). From knowledge of these two chemicals has come synthetic cannabinoids, Marinol and Sativex, to treat chemo-induced nausea and vomiting as well as symptoms related to AIDS. While Marinol is FDA-approved, Sativex, a mouth spray to relieve MS-associated pain that is currently on the market in Europe and other countries, has yet to be. The effectiveness of a drug like Sativex is questionable according to the results of one study, but the pharmaceutical company that makes it continues to run trials. The tough part about understanding how marijuana works is that it is a fairly intricate plant that seems to profit the body in a myriad of ways. Researchers would have an easier time articulating why and how cannabis reduces side effects such as nausea and vomiting if it were a drug specifically contrived for that purpose. Much about marijuana appears to be ideal for cancer therapy, but the drug is still not an exact science.
Physicians have begun to realize the palliative benefits of cannabis. Unfortunately, funding for palliative care in general is scarce. If money for pharmaceutical research is available, it is targeted for treatments that will modify a particular disease. But experts are starting to understand that cannabinoids can help people to forget things…including pain. And since nausea is a reaction of the central nervous system, cannabinoids can alleviate it successfully. All in all, both physicians and patients are coming around to the concept of marijuana as a therapy worthy of investigation and respect. Even the presidential administration has decided to lighten some of the limitations on medicinal marijuana research. The truth is that the drug gives patients control over their suffering. It improves their quality of life, and infuses them with the psychological, emotional, and physical strength they need to keep fighting for their health.