A recently published survey in the Journal for Clinical Oncology asked 237 oncologists from across the country their opinions regarding marijuana use for cancer patients. Currently, 29 states list cancer as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.
80% of the oncologists surveyed said they’ve discussed medical marijuana with their patients, according to NPR. Nearly 50% of the oncologists do recommend medical marijuana for their patients. Of those recommending it, according to study author Dr. Ilana Braun, about half have sufficient knowledge about the efficacy of medical marijuana for cancer patients.
Dr. Braun said, “Unfortunately, at this time, the evidence base to support medical marijuana’s efficacy in oncology is young. So, often oncologists are borrowing from clinical trials for other diseases, or extrapolating from evidence on pharmaceutical-grade cannabinoids.”
The survey didn’t ask the oncologists about pharmaceutical-grade cannabinoids like synthetic THC or CBD products, they were only asked about non-pharmaceutical marijuana (what is available at medical marijuana).
Patients are more likely to approach doctors about using medical marijuana. Dr. Jerry Mitchell, an oncologist, said he is approached by patients a few times a week. Dr. Mitchell said, “This is a product that is well-known. It’s a product that cancer patients think will help them, and they’re going to ask their doctors about it, which is what they should be doing. They should be advocates for their own health.”
Dr. Mitchell practices in Ohio and is on the Ohio Medical Cannabis Advisory Board. Patients must approach him as he cannot initiate the conversation since dispensaries are not open in Ohio yet.
Stage 4 pancreatic cancer patient and Illinois resident, Larry Lenkhart, undergoes chemotherapy treatments. For about 10 days afterwards, he deals with bouts of nausea, stomach cramps and severe pain. His oncologist did not hesitate to recommend him to join Illinois’ medical marijuana program.
Lenkhart said, “Chemo feels like the worst flu you’ve ever had – just ongoing an ongoing.”
It requires a bit of trial-and-error to determine the right product, strains and dose to treat symptoms since many oncologists lack the information and knowledge to offer suggestions to their patients. Finding the right dose seems to be the biggest struggle.
Lenkhart said, “The dosing part is what you have to really fiddle with,” but “it [marijuana] makes an unbearable situation bearable.”
When it comes to treating pain, Dr. Mitchell said, “You’ve got opioids, which clearly have problems. You’ve got nonsteroidals, which can work but are sometimes not effective for substantial cancer pain. Well, that’s all we have in our toolbox. And if that’s the case, then you have to back up and say, ‘Well, perhaps I’m okay with anecdotal evidence.’”
In the survey, about two-thirds of the oncologists responding agreed that medical marijuana is useful when in combination with traditional treatment options.