Cancer Survivors Have Less Marijuana Use Than Those Without a Cancer History

Cancer survivors were less likely to use marijuana than their counterparts who never had cancer, according to recent research.

Despite the growing legalization of marijuana across the United States, one study showed that cancer survivors are less likely to use cannabis compared to those without a history of cancer.

“That was a little bit surprising,” said study author Bernard Fuemmeler, a professor and Gordon D. Ginder, MD chair in Cancer Research, and associate director of population science at Massey Cancer Center, at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, in an interview with CURE®.

“We were thinking that … given the changing landscape and more acceptability of cannabis use, that maybe cancer patients were more likely to be also involved, at least at the same extent, but not lower.”

Comparing Marijuana Use

The study, included data collected at four points between 2013 and 2018 from the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health, showed that 8% of cancer survivors reported cannabis use within the past year compared with the 15% of those without a cancer history.

Across four points in time, Fuemmeler and his fellow researchers — including lead study author Dr. Elizabeth Do, also at Massey Cancer Center — found that approximately 3.8% of cancer survivors versus the 6.5% of those without a history of cancer reported ever using marijuana.

Of note, recreational marijuana is legalized for adults in 19 states plus Washington DC, while medical marijuana is legalized in 36.

“We did two things. One, we wanted to look at just the percentages of people who were reporting past-year cannabis use among those who had cancer and those who did not. And then we wanted to also follow these groups of people over time, analytically, to look at the factors that might predict engagement for cannabis use, had they not reported earlier cannabis use,” Fuemmeler said.

Why Cancer Survivors May Use Less Cannabis

Fuemmeler speculated that there may be multiple reasons behind cancer survivors having lower cannabis use.

“They are probably more likely to have regular medical checkups; they're more likely to be involved in their medical care compared to people in the general population. So they may be getting counseling on management of symptoms that they might be having, for which people might use cannabis. For example, pain … they may actually be getting treated for their pain, and so they're not in need of searching out other alternative medications,” he explained. “Physicians also may not be choosing to prescribe alternative medications like cannabis at this point, because of the lack of evidence whether or not it's any better than what (they) would normally prescribe.”

Fuemmeler also noted that the stigma that still surrounds the use of marijuana could be pushing cancer survivors away from the substance or is keeping them from reporting the use of it. Attitudes seem to be shifting, though.

The landscape is changing in terms of the decriminalization and legalization. … and it's becoming more normalized in a way people are becoming more accepted,” Fuemmeler explained.

For those patients thinking of engaging in cannabis use, he recommended speaking to health care providers.

“The general thing is if you're going to use cannabis and you’re a cancer patient, that you're talking to your physician about it, and it's nothing to be shameful of … there's sort of an individual science you can engage with (as well): Is it helpful? Is it hurtful? Is it going to be something that's going to alleviate those symptoms? Or is it going to make some of the symptoms worse? Or is it going to add additional symptoms that you don't really want? So I think taking it in a measured way, working with your physician, or your provider, or provider's team, to see whether or not that's going to be useful (is important),” he explained.

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