More Research Needed to Identify if Medical Marijuana Effectively Reduces Common Chemotherapy Side Effects

There is some low-level evidence that suggests medical marijuana or cannabinoids may reduce chemotherapy-related side effects in patients with cancer, according to data presented at a recent medical conference. However, experts note more research is needed to build on those findings.

Data presented at the recent Oncology Nursing Society’s 46th Annual Congress demonstrated that there is some low-level evidence to suggest that the use of medical marijuana or cannabinoids may reduce the common side effects associated with chemotherapy treatment in patients with cancer.

The results, according to study author Erica Walter, show that alternative therapeutic options — such as medical marijuana or cannabinoids — may be useful in patients who fail to respond to conventional treatments that help in reducing chemotherapy-related side effects.

“Our (study) is a result of a lot of interesting questions from cancer patients and families asking our nurses and providers about using medical marijuana for treating the side effects of their chemotherapy,” Walter, of the Lipson Cancer Institute at Rochester Regional Health System in New York, said during the presentation.

The most common side effects, according to Walter, that patients with cancer experience while receiving chemotherapy include nausea and vomiting, decreased appetite, anxiety and sleep disorders.

The researchers aimed to answer if the use of medical marijuana or cannabinoids are an effective treatment option for reducing these common side effects. They conducted a literature review of two medical journal databases and identified six articles that included data from adults with cancer undergoing chemotherapy from 2012 to 2018.

A consensus from the six article reviews demonstrated that cannabinoids were superior to placebo in reducing chemotherapy-related side effects and in general, similar to standard drugs used to treat nausea and vomiting alone or in combination.

There was low-level evidence suggesting that cannabinoids were associated with the improvement of nausea and vomiting attributed to the chemotherapy. Moreover, anxiety and sleep problems improved but were not considered statistically significant. The reviews also demonstrated that appetite in patients receiving chemotherapy increased slightly.

“Experts agree on medical marijuana's therapeutic potential, but call for more expanded research into its beneficial properties and stricter production standards,” Walter said. “Medical marijuana and cannabinoids may help alleviate some of the common side effects of chemotherapy, but it's unclear whether they're superior to traditional anti-emetics.”

There’s an increased risk of short-term side effects such as psychoactive effects, decreased concentration and loss of balance that need to be considered for patient safety, according to Walter.

“The choice for using cannabinoids should be tailored to each patient taking into account issues such as cost, regulatory policy and personal preference,” she said.

Walter concluded noting that further studies are needed to assess the potential use of medical marijuana and cannabinoids as well as to classify the effectiveness and the safety for each.

“Our unit will need to pursue educational opportunities on this subject as more of our patients are seeking out medical marijuana as a treatment option for their side effects,” she said. “Understanding the potential use and risks will be important to ensure the best outcomes for patients.”

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