Updated on January 3, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Richard Koffler, MD, Board Certified Physiatrist
Many patients with severe cancer cases get chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells and keep them from spreading. While chemotherapy is one of the best treatment options we’ve found, it comes with troublesome side effects. Chemotherapy patients often deal with health issues like nausea, fatigue and a reduced appetite.
Medical marijuana can help patients manage some of chemotherapy’s side effects — it relieves nausea, stimulates the appetite and boosts energy. Having fewer issues makes it easier for patients to continue their chemotherapy, raising their chances of survival.
Researchers have explored using cannabis as a supplement to chemotherapy since as far back as 1981. Ungerleider et al. compared THC to a commonly used antiemetic to see how they treated chemotherapy-related nausea. They wanted to build off anecdotes suggesting marijuana could work as well as pharmaceuticals for nausea.
The team worked with 214 participants undergoing regular chemotherapy. One hour before chemotherapy, they received a dose of THC or the antiemetic. Then, they took a dose every four hours to make a total of four doses. This trial was a double-blind study, so neither the researchers nor the subjects knew what group a subject was in.
THC worked just as effectively as the pharmaceutical to relieve vomiting and nausea. Previous use of either drug did not affect the impact the medications had on the subjects. And while the THC caused some mild psychoactive side effects, the patients found no issue in continuing to take it.
In 1986, Dalzell et al. examined the use of nabilone as an alternative to pharmaceutical anti-nausea medication. Nabilone is a synthetic cannabinoid that had been recently developed, so they wanted to explore its potential. So, they looked at child patients undergoing chemotherapy.
A total of 18 patients took nabilone for one cycle of chemotherapy and a pharmaceutical for another cycle. They were randomly assigned one type of medication for one cycle and the other medicine for the other cycle. The patients, their nurses and their parents reported the effects of each drug.
In 12 cases, the patient and their parents preferred nabilone to the other drug. Only one case involved a preference for the pharmaceutical, and the five other cases had no opinion. Patients under two years old had at least three times less vomiting while taking nabilone. Nabilone caused side effects like sleepiness and dizziness, but these weren’t a deal breaker for the patients or their parents.
Scientists continued to look into medical cannabis’ anti-nausea effects in 2010 when Duran et al. wanted to observe medical cannabis’ benefits as a supplement to typical anti-emetics. Many patients still have to deal with nausea caused by their cancer treatment, making the experience difficult for them.
A total of 16 chemotherapy patients who couldn’t find relief from their nausea medicine took either a placebo or Sativex, a cannabis-based medication with both THC and CBD in it. Seven of the patients received Sativex, while nine took the placebo. The team noted the drugs’ effects and whether anyone taking Sativex had to withdraw.
Sativex worked very effectively to reduce the patients’ nausea and vomiting. Five of the seven patients who took it experienced a complete response, meaning they had no more vomiting and much less nausea. Only one Sativex patient had to withdraw from the study, and the drug caused no significant side effects.
Why not use a holistic solution for your chemotherapy side effects? Learn more about the ways chemotherapy patients benefit from using medicinal cannabis. To get individualized advice and a written recommendation, make an appointment with a cannabis-trained doctor. Our database of marijuana-friendly physicians can help you find the perfect medical professional.