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Cancer patients enrolled in Minnesota's medical cannabis program showed significant reduction across all symptoms, a new study found.

The study, “Impact of Medical Cannabis on Patient-Reported Symptoms for Patients With Cancer Enrolled in Minnesota's Medical Cannabis Program,” published in 2019 in the Journal of Oncology Practice, focuses on changes in symptom severity reported by patients with cancer during their first four months of participation.

The proportion of patients achieving 30 percent or greater symptom reduction within the first four months varied from fatigue reduction (27 percent) to vomiting reduction (50 percent), with a smaller proportion achieving and maintaining both of those improvements, the study finds. However, 10.5 percent of patients reported adverse effects.

While 30 percent of study participants saw symptom reduction, 10.5 percent experienced adverse effects from cannabis use during cancer treatments. (Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)

“Medical cannabis was well tolerated, and some patients attained clinically meaningful and lasting levels of improvement,” the study concluded.

Minnesota's medical cannabis program was chosen because the program routinely collects patient-reported scores on symptoms.

Cancer patients in the program reported symptoms — anxiety, lack of appetite, depression, disturbed sleep, fatigue, nausea, pain, and vomiting — at their worst over the last 24 hours before each medical cannabis purchase.

Baseline scores on each of the eight symptoms were compared with the average symptom scores reported in the first four months of program participation, and scores were calculated as percent change from baseline, with patients achieving and maintaining at least a 30 percent reduction in symptoms reported.

“A significant reduction in scores was found across all symptoms when comparing baseline scores with the average score submitted within the first four months of program participation,” the study found.

Dr. Bonni Goldstein, medical director of the Canna-Centers Wellness & Education and a medical adviser for Weedmaps, has been recommending cannabis to patients since 2008.

“This study backs up what I see in my medical practice,” Goldstein said. “I have found that cancer patients using cannabis for symptomatic relief of the symptoms of cancer and for the side effects of cancer treatment find great success, especially when medically supervised by a physician who understands cannabis medicine.”

Dr. Bonni Golstein has been recommending cannabis to pediatric cancer patients since 2008 and said her patients report better appetite, sleep, and pain control and less nausea and anxiety. (Shutterstock)

Goldstein, who trained as a pediatrician, has focused her practice on treating children with advanced cancers with medical cannabis, the majority of whom she said have experienced an improved quality of life.  

“Parents report better appetite, less nausea and vomiting, better sleep, better pain control and less anxiety,” she said. “Many parents are amenable to giving cannabis to their children as these kids are on such toxic medications including chemo, opioids, anxiety medications and even sleeping pills. No parent feels good about pouring these chemicals into their developing child and they are looking for a natural alternative. Under medical supervision, cannabis is quite safe for these children and of course, we know there is no risk of fatality.”

Using marijuana to treat the effects of cancer and cancer treatments has been studied for a long time. In 1990, a  survey of American Society of Clinical Oncology members showed more than 44 percent of respondents reported recommended marijuana to control vomiting to at least one cancer chemotherapy patient despite it being broadly illegal for medicinal use.

Although THC had already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many of the survey respondents considered smoked marijuana more effective than legally available oral THC medicines available at the time.

The main symptoms reported by cancer patients were sleep problems, pain, weakness, nausea and lack of appetite. (Shutterstock)

More recently researchers looked at data from nearly 3,000 cancer patients treated with medical cannabis between 2015 and 2017.

The study, “Prospective analysis of safety and efficacy of medical cannabis in large unselected population of patients with cancer,” shows the main symptoms reported by the patients were: sleep problems (78.4 percent), pain (77.7 percent), weakness (72.7 percent), nausea (64.6 percent), and lack of appetite (48.9 percent).

After six months of follow up, 24.9 percent of the patients died and 18.8 percent stopped the treatment. Most of the remaining patients (95.9 percent) reported an improvement in their condition, 3.7 percent reported no change and 0.3 percent reported deterioration in their medical condition.

Cannabis as a palliative treatment for cancer patients seems to be well tolerated, effective and safe option to help patients cope with the malignancy-related symptoms. Click To Tweet

“Cannabis as a palliative treatment for cancer patients seems to be well tolerated, effective and safe option to help patients cope with the malignancy-related symptoms,” the study concluded.

These are among the reasons why Goldstein argues that access to a robust medical cannabis market that has numerous options for patients to choose from is important.  

“It is crucial for patients who are getting chemotherapy as severe nausea and vomiting to have access to flower or vaporizers for inhalation as often the nausea and vomiting symptoms will not allow a patient to take edibles — even sometimes sublingual tinctures are not tolerated,” she said. “Additionally, the availability of THC-rich cannabis, [cannabidiol] CBD-rich cannabis, and combination CBD+THC is also very important so that those who do not want intoxicating effects can still get relief.”