SEP 28, 2017 5:39 AM PDT

Cancer Patients Less Shy About Marijuana


Proponents of marijuana often cite the medical benefits of this recreational drug. But how prevalent is marijuana use in the treatment and management of cancer symptoms? A new study reports that almost one-quarter of cancer patients have used marijuana in the past year to alleviate physical and psychological symptoms associated with their cancer diagnosis.

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Marijuana has been a popular drug long before it was legalized across several states in the US. This plant shows up in the archeological records 37 million years ago, and humans have been using this plant for various purposes 8,000 years ago.

Today, marijuana is mostly known for its psychoactive effects. This property is due to the cannabinoids found in the plant. Among these cannabinoids, the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the most well-known. THC works by mimicking the natural cannabinoids in the body to stimulate thinking, memory, pleasure, and spatial perception. Specifically, THC acts like the neurotransmitter called anandamide, which regulates hunger, sleeping, and pain relief. This is why users experience these proverbial symptoms upon marijuana exposure.

But aside from its recreational feel-good effects, researchers have found uses for marijuana in medicine, as the plant can relieve vomiting and pain for chemotherapy patients, reduce epilepsy episodes, and treat insomnia. This is due to marijuana containing at least 85 other cannabinoids besides THC, each with different effects on the body.

To understand how prevalent marijuana is in the medical community, researchers surveyed over 900 cancer patients at the Seattle Cancer Center Alliance. The findings were eye-opening:

  • 74 percent of patients wanted more information on marijuana use from their cancer care providers
  • 66 percent of patients had used marijuana in the past
  • 24 percent had used marijuana in the past year
  • 21 percent had used marijuana in the past month

Notably, marijuana use among this population of patients was related to management of physical and psychological symptoms of cancer. For example, patients reported using marijuana to alleviate nausea and pain associated with chemotherapy. Others smoked marijuana to cope with depression, stress, and insomnia.

The large percentage of marijuana use highlight the growing acceptance of marijuana for medical purposes. However, patients reported that they were more likely to get information from outside sources, rather than from their medical provider, despite wanting to know directly from their doctors.

"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. Pergam. He stressed that marijuana may be dangerous for some cancer patients or lead to unwanted side effects. "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. This is important, because if we do not educate our patients about marijuana, they will continue to get their information elsewhere."

Across the US, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana. Even if not fully legalized, over half of the states have laws that allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Still, the study highlights the need for increased awareness around the use of this drug for patients.

Additional sources: Wiley via Science Daily

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
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