How Cannabis May Impact Cancer Patients
- Country music legend Willie Nelson, 90, is known for his cannabis use, although he’s since made life changes including to his drinking and smoking habits aimed at improving his health and overall quality of life.
- A new study finds that people who smoke cannabis tend to have higher amounts of toxic metals such as lead and cadmium in their blood and urine. These metals are known to cause brain development, and heart and kidney problems. Cadmium is also known to cause cancer.
- SurvivorNet experts such as Dr. Raja Flores who says smoking cannabis can be linked to lung cancer and its smoke may contain the same carcinogens as cigarettes.
- Despite its risks, some cancer patients use cannabis to help alleviate their symptoms or side effects associated with chemotherapy which may include nausea and pain.
- Cannabis users diagnosed with cancer are encouraged to share their smoking habits with their doctor.
Country music legend Willie Nelson, 90, is known for his cannabis use over the years but people who smoke marijuana (also called cannabis, pot, or weed) regularly could be exposing themselves to toxic metals in their bodies according to a new study.
Nelson is known for iconic hits like “On the Road Again,” and had a notorious reputation for drinking and smoking but he’s since scaled back or cut out those habits altogether in his later years.Read More
Lead exposure could impact children’s brain development and can cause high blood pressure, and heart and kidney problems in adults. Cadmium, meanwhile, is “known to cause cancer and targets the body’s cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Like the tobacco plant, the cannabis plant is a hyper-accumulator of metals,” said Katlyn McGraw who is the study’s lead author and a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.
“The plant absorbs metals from the soil and then deposits them in the leaves and the stems and the buds, so when the marijuana is smoked or inhaled people might be inhaling those metals,” McGraw continued.
While smoking poses many health risks including for some cancers, some cancer patients have turned to cannabis to help with their recovery. About 40% of breast cancer patients use cannabis, according to a 2021 study, and most patients who use the drug report doing so to relieve symptoms associated with treatment, such as pain, anxiety, insomnia, and nausea/vomiting.
However, a month-long study between December 2019 and January 2020 that surveyed people with a self-reported breast cancer diagnosis claimed cannabis helped them manage their symptoms. About 75% say the drug is “extremely or very helpful” at relieving their symptoms. And about 57% say they have found “no other way” of relieving their symptoms.
Despite the claims cannabis may benefit some cancer patients, many experts we spoke to urged against it including Dr. Raja Flores who is the Chairman of the Department of Thoracic Surgery for Mount Sinai Health System.
“As someone on the front lines, who sees this every day, I’ve seen lung cancer caused by marijuana that is incredibly aggressive,” Dr. Flores tells SurvivorNet.
“There is no real good population-based study that looks at marijuana smoking and that has had enough time elapsed to show it’s associated with lung cancer, [but] I’ve seen it. I’ve seen multiple, multiple cases of it. I see it every day,” Dr. Flores says.
Another issue doctors see when trying to measure lung damage from marijuana use is how often people smoke it. It could be possible that smoking pot is just as harmful as smoking cigarettes, but pot smokers tend to experience fewer symptoms because they usually smoke less often.
“Marijuana smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as cigarette smoke, but not all of them,” Dr. Peter Shields of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center says.
“Conceptually there would be an increased risk, but this is not clearly established from the available scientific studies, and as important, the dose needed to measurably increase risk is not known.”
Dr. Flores warns millions of dollars are being invested into the cannabis industry thus marketing campaigns may emerge claiming cannabis is completely safe.
“There is a lobby out there that is trying to say that marijuana is better than drinking, that it’s safer, that it doesn’t cause cancer, and that you should do that,” Dr. Flores says. “They’re both bad.”
The Impact of Cannabis on Cancer
- 5 Tips on How to Use Cannabis For Cancer; 40% of Breast Cancer Patients Are Using it to Relieve Symptoms From Harsh Treatments
- FDA Warns that CBD May Be Harmful — Should People Using Medical Cannabis Be Worried?
- New Harvard Research Finds A Chemical In Cannabis Can Help Fight Pancreatic Cancer
- New Study Suggests Cannabis Plants May be Able to Absorb Cancer-Causing Heavy Metals — Authors Warn About Dangers to Cancer Patients
Why You Should Tell Your Doctor If You Use Cannabis
In the United States, many states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical marijuana/cannabis programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Recreational marijuana use is legal in 19 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Guam. Cannabis remains illegal on a federal level.)
WATCH: More on medicinal marijuana.
Although some experts disagree with cannabis use, SurvivorNet understands it is legal in parts of the country and there are some medicinal uses for using it. If you are using cannabis, Dr. Brian Berman, professor of family community medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says users should tell their doctor about their smoking habits.
“I think that you should always tell whichever therapy we’re talking about, you should always inform your oncologist and your physician this is (using cannabis) what you’re doing,” Dr. Berman tells SurvivorNet.
Each state has its own requirements for obtaining a medical marijuana card. If you live in a state where medical marijuana use is legal and you think it might be the right treatment for you, start by talking to your doctor.
“Medical cannabis, if you think about it, is only botanical medicine that can help nausea, increase appetite, decrease pain, and elevate mood,” Dr. Junella Chin, an integrative cannabis physician in New York tells SurvivorNet.
Dr. Chin says she often sees patients seeking relief from the side effects of chemotherapy which may include nausea, pain, decreased appetite, and depression. She says some physicians prescribe Marinol, or synthetic cannabis, to treat these side effects. However, she believes using the actual cannabis plant is much more helpful when used to relieve symptoms.