A comprehensive assessment of the benefits of medical cannabis for cancer-related pain found that for most oncology patients, pain measures improved significantly, other cancer-related symptoms also decreased, patients reduced the consumption of painkillers, and the side effects were minimal.
Published in Frontiers in Pain Research, these findings suggest that medicinal cannabis can be carefully considered an alternative to the pain relief medicines usually prescribed to cancer patients.
Pain and depression, anxiety, and insomnia are some of the most fundamental causes of oncology patients’ disability and suffering while undergoing treatment therapies and may even lead to worsened prognosis.
“Traditionally, cancer-related pain is mainly treated by opioid analgesics, but most oncologists perceive opioid treatment as hazardous, so alternative therapies are required,” explained author David Meiri, assistant professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology.
“Our study is the first to assess the possible benefits of medical cannabis for cancer-related pain in oncology patients; gathering information from the start of treatment and with repeated follow-ups for an extended period, to get a thorough analysis of its effectiveness.”
Need for alternative treatment
After talking to several cancer patients looking for alternative options for pain and symptom relief, the researchers were keen to test the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis thoroughly.
“We encountered numerous cancer patients who asked us whether medical cannabis treatment can benefit their health,” said co-author Gil Bar-Sela, associate professor at the Ha’Emek Medical Center Afula. “Our initial review of existing research revealed that not much was known regarding its effectiveness, particularly for treating cancer-related pain, and of what was known, most findings were inconclusive.”
The researchers recruited certified oncologists who were able to issue a medical cannabis license to their cancer patients. These oncologists referred interested patients to the study and reported their disease characteristics.
“Patients completed anonymous questionnaires before starting treatment and again at several time points during the following six months. We gathered data on several factors, including pain measures, analgesics consumption, cancer symptom burden, sexual problems, and side effects,” said Bar-Sela.
An analysis of the data revealed that many outcome measures improved, with less pain and cancer symptoms. Notably, the use of opioids and other pain analgesics is reduced. Almost half of the patients studied stopped all analgesic medications following six months of medicinal cannabis treatment.
“Medical cannabis has been suggested as a possible remedy for appetite loss. However, most patients in this study still lost weight. As a substantial portion was diagnosed with progressive cancer, a weight decline is expected with disease progression,” reported Meiri.
He continued: “Interestingly, we found that sexual function improved for most men but worsened for most women.”
Meiri would like future studies to dig deeper and look at the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in different groups of cancer patients.
“Although our study was very comprehensive and presented additional perspectives on medical cannabis, the sex, age, ethnicity, and cancer types and the stage of cancer meant the variety of patients in our study was wide-ranging. Therefore, future studies should investigate the level of effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in specific subgroups of cancer patients with more shared characteristics.”