A Primer on Medical Marijuana for Lung Cancer
- Why and how medical marijuana works
- The benefits of medical marijuana for lung cancer patients
- Why doctors advise caution when considering medical marijuana as a complementary therapy
- How to make sure you’re using it safely
From a medical standpoint, “there’s very little clinical data” on the topic, Dr. Edward Garon, a medical oncology and hematology specialist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, told SurvivorNet. “It is an area where there is some preclinical data, such as animal data, but not a lot of data on humans, that would be sufficient for clinical evidence for us to recommend it to people.”Read More
It is important to understand why marijuana can be so helpful for symptoms of cancer and its treatments. First, it’s both an anti-inflammatory and a pain reliever. “When you take plant-based cannabis, marijuana, you’re decreasing inflammation, and you’re relieving pain at the same time,” Dr. Junella Chin, an integrative cannabis physician in New York, told SurvivorNet.
Dr. Garon says, “In general, we have always advised patients diagnosed with lung cancer, not to smoke anything.”
That’s because, she explains, humans have a natural cannabis system that our own bodies create. However, when a person is in chronic pain, the endocannabinoid system’s natural pain relievers aren’t enough. “So when we utilize phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant, we are actually replenishing our body’s own cannabinoid system. By doing so, it helps us deal with pain and inflammation much more effectively.”
Benefits of Medical Marijuana for Lung Cancer
Medical marijuana can be a helpful tool in combating the negative side effects of both cancer and chemotherapy. These include nausea, loss of appetite, pain, and depressed mood or anxiety.
“Medical cannabis, if you think about it, it’s the only botanical medicine that can help nausea, increase appetite, decrease pain, and elevate mood,” says Dr. Chin, noting that a lot of people who are undergoing chemotherapy as part of their cancer treatment live in a state where medical marijuana is available and are using it for relief.
Some doctors will prescribe a generic version of marijuana, called Marinol, to treat these side effects. But Dr. Chin would rather use the real thing to help her patients. “That is much more effective in increasing appetite and decreasing pain for my cancer patients,” she says.
Why You Should Still Be Cautious
While there are a lot of potential benefits, there are plenty of reasons to still be cautious when considering whether medical marijuana is right for your lung cancer diagnosis.
Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, tells SurvivorNet, “I have no problem with patients getting marijuana from a reputable, licensed source as long as patients are open with their physician about what they’re taking, and making sure it doesn’t interact with any clinical trial drug that they’re taking or any standard therapy.”
Simply put, Dr. Garon says, “In general, we have always advised patients diagnosed with lung cancer, not to smoke anything.” Therefore, Dr. Comen advises that edibles are probably the preferred method.
“When it comes to marijuana, people have been using it for a very, very, very long time to help them. But people have also been hurt by marijuana,” she says. “I have no problem with patients getting marijuana from a reputable licensed source.”
Naturally, Comen’s top concerns are just that patients are safe, that they’re not doing any harm to their current treatment, and they’re not doing anything that will increase their risk of a future cancer.
“As long as patients are open with their physician about what they’re taking and making sure it doesn’t interact with any clinical trial drug that they’re taking, or any standard therapy,” she says, “I am open to patients taking whatever they need to feel better.”
Is Smoking Pot Linked to Lung Cancer?
Dr. Comen’s call for caution when it comes to smoking marijuana is important because so much research has yet to be done on the potential link between lung cancer and smoking marijuana. That’s mostly because smoking pot has long been widely illegal, and therefore hard to study.
SurvivorNet’s extensive review of the medical literature finds no high-quality scientific research establishing a direct link between smoking pot (or vaping it) and a risk of developing lung cancer.
“Given the expanding legalization of marijuana, and the anticipated wave of increased use, there is clearly a need to study the cancer risks of marijuana with the same rigor that has been devoted to tobacco smoke,” Dr. Joseph Friedberg, head of the division of thoracic surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told SurvivorNet. “Both types of smoke contain some of the same carcinogens, so the widely held belief that tobacco smoke causes cancer and marijuana smoke does not is inherently flawed.”
He adds, “Just as cigarettes come with health risk warnings, the risks of marijuana smoke need to be defined for users to allow them to make an informed decision about smoking pot.”
So weigh your options, exercise caution, and consult your doctor to decide whether medical marijuana is right as a complementary therapy for your lung cancer.