Cancer is a leading cause of death in Israel. Thus, it is considered as a major health problem in that country. In treating cancer, palliative care plays an important part of the treatment regimen. It focuses on alleviating pain, nausea, insomnia and anxiety experienced by patients in the advanced stages of this disease. Since 2007, the Israeli Ministry of Health has approved the use of medical cannabis for the palliative treatment of cancer symptoms.
Israeli scientists published a study in 2018 where they analyzed the data routinely collected as part of the treatment program of 2970 cancer patients treated with medical cannabis between 2015 and 2017. They sorted out which types of cancer the patients had, what main symptoms that required therapy were and how severe the pain was for the patients. Then they evaluated the safety and efficacy of this therapy.
Majority of the patients were aged between 43.2 and 75.8 years old, with the average being 59.5 years old. Slightly half (54.6 percent) of them were women, and 26.7 percent of all the patients reported previous experience with cannabis.
A significant majority (51.2 percent) of the patients were already at stage-4 cancer based on the TNM staging system used to describe how much cancer has progressed in a patient's body.
The most frequent type of cancer the researchers encountered in the study was breast cancer, which was reported in 20.7 percent of the patients. It was followed by lung cancer at 13.6 percent, pancreatic cancer at 8.1 percent and colorectal cancer at 7.9 percent. Diverse types of cancer were reported for the rest.
Next, the researchers looked at the main symptoms of cancer for which medical cannabis was prescribed. Patients complained most of having sleep problems (78.4 percent). It was followed closely by pain (77.7 percent), then by weakness (72.7 percent). Nausea was experienced by 64.6 percent of the patients, while 48.9 percent of them complained of a lack of appetite. Those who complained of pain were already suffering terribly since the median for this cohort was already 8/10 on the pain scale. This means that the patients were experiencing from severe to the worst pain possible.
Nine hundred and two patients (24.9 percent) died and 682 (18.8 percent) stopped the cannabis treatment after six months of follow-up. Out of the 1,386 patients remaining, 1,211 responded to the study.
Almost 96 percent of the participants reported an improvement in their condition; 45 patients (3.7 percent) reported no change and four patients (0.3 percent) reported deterioration in their medical condition.
The scientists concluded that cannabis seems to be an effective, safe and well-tolerated option in the palliative care of cancer patients suffering from the symptoms, especially pain, brought about by the disease.
The highly positive effects of medical cannabis on cancer symptoms are encouraging other scientists to use it directly on cancer cells. A recent study suggests that purified extracts from whole-plant marijuana can slow the growth of cancer cells from one of the most serious types of brain tumors.
More studies like these open the door to the use of medical cannabis for the treatment of the symptoms of other diseases, like inflammation and seizures, as well as other diseases, such as addiction to prescription opioids. Hopefully, these studies also open the minds of people in government to the beneficial use of cannabis.