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Chemotherapy can cause several, sometimes debilitating, side effects. Studies have shown marijuana can make the adverse effects more manageable.
An Overview of the Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a category of cancer treatment that uses strong drugs, administered orally or intravenously. There are more than 100 chemotherapy drugs that are used in the treatment of cancer. The drugs prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body, slow the growth of tumors, and kill cancer cells. While chemotherapy can be effective against cancer, it does cause sometimes-serious side effects.
The side effects from chemotherapy develop because the chemotherapy drugs that attack cancerous cells also damage normal, healthy cells. Common side effects associated with chemotherapy are fever and chills, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, sore mouth, diarrhea, constipation, loss of appetite that can lead to anorexia, pain or difficulty with swallowing, swelling in the hands or feet, itching, shortness of breath, cough, and muscle or joint pain.
Individuals undergoing chemotherapy won’t necessarily experience all side effects and the severity of the side effects varies greatly from person to person. Most side effects will gradually go away after completion of the treatment.
Findings: Cannabis’ Impact on the Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Cannabis has shown to effectively reduce the nausea and vomiting that often occurs during and after chemotherapy treatments. Studies have found that cannabis is effective at treating the more difficult to control symptoms of nausea, as well as preventing anticipatory nausea in chemotherapy patients6. Other studies have found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis, is effective at reducing conditioned rejection and chemotherapy-induced nausea5.
Cannabis has also demonstrated that it can significantly reduce neuropathic pain, even in low doses8.
Cannabis can also help prevent weight loss and a loss of appetite in chemotherapy patients. THC has shown to significantly stimulate appetite in patients that have cachexia related to cancer4,7. In addition, patients undergoing chemotherapy and treated with THC have a larger appetite and report that food “tastes better”1.
Patients treated with THC have also been shown to experience a higher quality of sleep and relaxation1.
States That Have Approved Medical Marijuana for Chemotherapy’s Side Effects
Currently, nearly all states that have legalized medical marijuana have specifically approved it for the treatment of cancer and therefore chemotherapy. These states include: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire (also allowed for “chemotherapy induced anorexia”), New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.
Although the state of Maryland hasn’t approved medical marijuana to treat cancer, it has approved it for the treatment of nausea and chronic pain, two symptoms commonly associated with chemotherapy.
In addition, in Washington D.C., any condition can be approved for medical marijuana as long as a DC-licensed physician recommends the treatment.
Recent Studies on Cannabis’ Impact on Chemotherapy’s Side Effects
- Brisbois, T.D., de Kock, I.H., Watanabe, S.M., Mirhosseini, M., Lamoureux, D.C., Chasen, M., MacDonald, N., Baracos, V.E., and Wismer, W.V. (2011, February 22). Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol may palliate altered chemosensory perception in cancer patients: results of a randomized-double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot trial. Annals of Oncology, 22, 2086-2093. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/annonc/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/annonc/mdq727.
- Chemo side effects. (2015, June 9). American Cancer Society. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/chemotherapy/understandingchemotherapyaguideforpatientsandfamilies/understanding-chemotherapy-chemo-side-effects.
- Chemotherapy Side Effects Worksheet. (n.d). American Cancer Society. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@nho/documents/document/acsq-009502.pdf.
- Jatoi, A., Windschitl, H.E., Loprinzi, C.L., Sloan, J.A., Dakhil, S.R., Mailliard, J.A., Pundaleeka, S., Kardinal, C.G., Fitch, T.R., Krook, J.E., Novotny, P.J. and Christensen, B. (2002). Dronabinol versus megestrol acetate versus combination therapy for cancer-associated anorexia: a North Central Cancer Treatment Group study. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 20(2), 567-73. Retrieved from http://ascopubs.org/doi/abs/10.1200/jco.2002.20.2.567?journalCode=jco.
- Limebeer, C.L., and Parker, L.A. (1999, December 16). Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol interferes with the establishment and the expression of conditioned rejection reactions produced by cyclophosphamide: a rat model of nausea. Neuroreport, 10(19), 3769-72. Retrieved from http://journals.lww.com/neuroreport/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=1999&issue=12160&article=00009&type=abstract.
- Machado Rocha, F.C., Stefano, S.C., De Cassia Haiek, R., Rosa Oliveira, L.M., and Da Silveira, D.X. (2008, September). Therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting among cancer patients: systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Cancer Care, 17(5), 431-43. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2354.2008.00917.x/full.
- Nauck, F., Klaschik, E. (2004, June). Cannabinoids in the treatment of the cachexia-anorexia syndrome in palliative care patients. Schmerz, 18(3), 197-202. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00482-003-0277-z.
- Wilsey, B., Marcotte, T., Deutsch, R., Gouaux, B., Sakai, S., and Donaghe, H. (2013, February). Low-dose vaporized cannabis significantly improves neuropathic pain. The Journal of Pain, 14(2), 136-48. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3566631/.