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Despite the Stigma, Cancer Patients Look to Cannabis for Relief

Author: Greg Gorman

Cancer is the most feared disease among Americans and faced by many families every day. Currently, about 17 million Americans live with a history of cancer. Because of advances in cancer treatment, the number of survivors is expected to grow. Living longer with cancer history predisposes cancer survivors to long-term toxic impact of cancer treatment. Many cancer survivors often experience multiple symptoms. Some of the symptoms are poorly controlled and patients are looking for options, including the use of cannabinoids such as marijuana, to cope with poorly controlled symptoms.

For many years, Marijuana had a stigma long attached due to its promotion as a ‘gateway’ drug to other substances; however, social change and understanding have led to recent decriminalization throughout the country. As of November 2020, 35 states and Washington D.C. have legalized medical marijuana and 15 states and D.C. have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana— opening the paths to use marijuana. For example, laws passed in Massachusetts have made marijuana legal for people 21 years of age and older and for those using it for medicinal purposes. One of the many medical uses of marijuana include the treatment of pain. The promise of having pain or other symptoms eased is no doubt appealing to anyone in post-cancer recovery and experiencing pain and discomfort.

Producing evidence to help patients to navigate these new guidelines, Dr. Hermine Poghosyan, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at Northeastern University is conducting innovative and cutting-edge research. She earned a Master’s in Public Health and a PhD in Nursing with a focus in Health Policy. Poghosyan has specifically been studying marijuana use among adult cancer survivors and has noticed an increasing trend in marijuana use in cancer population. Her recent paper published in Addictive Behaviors showed that 9.2% of cancer survivors used marijuana over the past 30 days.

“Cancer diagnosis is among the most common qualifying conditions for medical marijuana in most of the US states with legal medicinal marijuana use,” Dr. Poghosyan said. “Yet, current data are limited about the prevalence of marijuana use among cancer population and what demographics are predominantly using marijuana and how” she said.

“Are they using recreationally? Medicinally?” Poghosyan discussed in a recent video interview. “How are they using it? Are they smoking it? Drinking it?”

Dr. Poghosyan’s findings showed that more men (11.5%) are likely to use marijuana than women (7.6%). Her research also showed that marijuana use varied by race/ethnicity among cancer survivors. For example, non-Hispanic Blacks have one of the highest rates of marijuana use (18.6%).

Poghosyan’s research shows that marijuana was mostly consumed by smoking. Though the most popular means of consumption, marijuana smoke may have just as many toxins as cigarette smoke and weakens the pulmonary function. However, smoking marijuana is different from smoking a cigarette. Marijuana smokers will inhale deeper compared to cigarette smokers and hold the smoke in their lungs for a longer period. This method, which is a faster way of getting the benefits than ingestion, brings more adverse consequences such as higher concentrations of tar. Poghosyan’s study also showed that cancer survivors who use tobacco or alcohol are more likely to use marijuana.

“Many (cancer) survivors experience multiple symptoms including fatigue, pain, sleep-disturbance, anxiety, and depressed mood” Poghosyan explained. “Many cancer survivors turn to marijuana to cope with consequences of poorly controlled symptoms. They view marijuana as beneficial for managing symptoms even though the current scientific evidence is insufficient about marijuana’s potential benefits.”

Dr. Poghosyan says it is important for clinicians to be able to advise cancer patients about possible benefits and risks of marijuana use or how to address marijuana use in a timely manner before they affect patients’ quality of life or functionality.

“Clinicians need evidence to engage in evidence-informed discussions with their patients who use marijuana or request marijuana,” she said. “Why do they use marijuana? How do they use it? My hope is clinicians will have more evidence that will help them to screen and identify high risk cancer survivors for marijuana use and help them to better manage their health.”

Poghosyan says more research is needed in the future due to an increasing number of states legalizing marijuana. She said there are more trials scheduled to investigate the benefits for multiple medical uses, though she is surprised more studies have not already been conducted given the number of cancer patients who already use marijuana.  In her paper, Dr. Poghosyan states, “Given that many cancer survivors use marijuana for medical reasons and that the current data on the therapeutic effects of (marijuana use) is insufficient, future research is needed.”

Poghosyan also has another paper, currently under review for publication, that looked at the impact of daily and non-daily marijuana use on cancer survivors’ mental health. On this paper, Poghosyan worked with Northeastern nursing students enrolled in MS Nurse Practitioner Program, Edward Noonan and Padmapriya Badri. Poghosyan, guided the students to follow the proper research guidelines and worked with them on developing the manuscripts. She hopes, when published, the results in this paper will shed additional light on the use of marijuana for symptom management.

 

Dr. Poghosyan’s work is focused on maximizing the health and well-being of cancer survivors and their family members. To learn more about Dr. Poghosyan’s work, visit her page on Northeastern’s website HERE.