A study out of Canada’s Research Institute at McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) reveals medical cannabis has the potential to safely and effectively alleviate pain in cancer patients. Additionally, it could help cut down on the number of medications, including opioids, cancer patients require.
Pain is a common issue for patients undergoing cancer treatment. 55% of those receiving treatment and 66% of those with advanced, metastatic, or terminal cancer experience it. While there are a number of conventional medications used for addressing cancer-related pain, some such as opioids can introduce their own set of problems including dependence. Even with the typically prescribed medications for pain management, one-third of patients still suffer from pain.
Dr. Antonio Vigano is a Cancer Research Program scientist at RI-MUHC, and is director of both the Cancer Rehabilitation Program and Medical Cannabis Oncology Program at the Cedars Cancer Centre of the MUHC.
“Our research demonstrates that regulated medical cannabis products can be safely and effectively integrated into cancer patient care,” said Dr. Vigano, who is senior author of recently published related study. “Within three months, the patients we observed experienced clinically and statistically significant reductions in pain scores, which were maintained for over a year.”
Dr Vigano also noted patients were able to decrease their pain medication usage over time.
One of the other interesting points to emerge from the study was products with a balance of the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) appeared more effective than those dominated by one or the other.
Encouragingly, significant decreases for worst and average pain intensity, overall severity of pain, and pain interference (pain that significantly interferes with quality of life) were seen at three, six and nine months.
While the use of medicinal cannabis isn’t without side effects, they appear to have been relatively uncommon and mild among participants. Of the 358 adults with cancer included in the study, 15 adverse events occurred in 11 patients – the most common being sleepiness and fatigue. 13 of those were non-serious and two were serious but not linked to medical cannabis. Just five patients discontinued medicinal cannabis use due to side effects.
The average age of participants was 57, and 48% were male. The most common cancer diagnoses included genitourinary, breast, bowel, lung, and blood cancer.
The findings were recently published in BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care and the researchers note they should be confirmed through randomised placebo-controlled trials.
This isn’t the first study indicating medicinal cannabis may be of benefit in the management of cancer. Among others, one from 2018 found it to be an effective treatment for the most acute symptoms such as pain.
As the RI-MUHC study suggests, it seems not all medicinal cannabis is equal. An Australian trial of cannabidiol oil use for palliative care patients with advanced cancer weren’t encouraging. But that only involved CBD and as the RI-MUHC study notes, a balance THC and CBD appears most effective.