Cannabis for Palliative Cancer Care

By: Elena Schmidt October 15, 2019 • 6 minutes

According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 5 men and 1 in 6 women will develop cancer in his or her lifetime. Most will survive, but 1 in 8 men and 1 in 11 women will die from the disease. This global health crisis affects millions of people who must fight for their lives while they suffer from severe cancer and treatment-related symptoms. Worldwide, cancer patients seek alternative options to feel better and improve their quality of life.  

Cancer treatment often consists of a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. These are life-saving protocols, but they can also cause unwanted symptoms such as sleep problems, pain, depression, and nausea. While prescription medication can help ease the symptoms, this same medication can also cause compounded side effects that can be worse than the symptoms they’re intended to treat. Now more than ever, patients need access to alternative options. 

As of today, 33 states have legalized medical cannabis and all but 3 states explicitly list cancer as one of the approved medical conditions. That means that millions of suffering Americans can access and consume cannabis to treat their cancer-related conditions. Great news! But what does the data say about cannabis’ safety and efficacy? 

The team at Tikun Olam Israel has been treating medically approved cancer patients for more than 10 years with recorded success. In order to share our results with the world, we focused on 2,970 cancer patients who received our medical cannabis between 2015 and 2017. 51% of patients were at Stage 4 and the average pain score was 8 out of 10 before treatment began. In 2018, the European Journal of Internal Medicine published the study’s promising results.

Key Improvements*

  • 96% of patients reported an improvement in their symptoms 
  • 36% of opioid users stopped taking the drug altogether 
  • 35% of patients decreased overall medication use
  • 2.4X more patients reported a “good or great quality of life” after six months

*Based on a six-month follow up survey 

Study Methods

Prior to treatment, a certified nurse reviewed each patient’s medical history, medication use, habits, quality of life, current symptoms, and demographics. The most frequent types of cancer were breast, lung, pancreatic, and colorectal. Based on the review, the nurses prescribed each patient one or more of the following medical cannabis varieties: Midnight, Tikun’s ~12% CBD & THC strain, Avidekel, Tikun’s CBD-rich strain, a THC-rich indica strain, or a THC-rich sativa strain. Patients most commonly ingested the medicine via oil, flower, or capsule.  

After six months of treatment, 1,211 patients were eligible for follow-up and responded to the questionnaire, where they noted side effects, satisfaction, symptom relief and changes in medication use. 

NAUSEA & VOMITING
Cancer alone can cause nausea and vomiting but these are also common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. One of the most common reasons that cancer patients turn to medical cannabis is to prevent this persistent discomfort. 

Tikun Patient Results
91% reported an improvement in nausea & vomiting 

SLEEP DISORDERS
Sleep disorders are extremely common in cancer patients largely due to the restlessness created by chronic pain, high-stress, and general discomfort. Cancer patients often struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or experience sound rest—a major issue which can persist during and after treatment. We wanted to know if Tikun’s cancer patients could sleep more soundly using one of our prescribed strains. 

Tikun Patient Results
88% reported improvement in sleep disorders & restlessness 

DEPRESSION
According to the British Medical Journal, clinical depression affects up to 20%  of patients with cancer and another 10% experience anxiety. Depression is not only mentally and emotionally taxing; it is also linked to lower survival rates. What’s more, antidepressants can worsen cancer symptoms and negatively interact with chemotherapy drugs. Cannabis on the other hand has no known interaction with chemotherapy and can provide much needed relief. 

Tikun Patient Results
84% indicated relief for depression & anxiety 

PAIN
Approximately 70% – 90% of patients with advanced cancer experience significant pain. In our 2018 study, the majority of our patients reported an 8+ (out of 10) pain intensity despite taking pain relievers such as opioids. Opioids are powerful, but they are also extremely addictive and come with a host of debilitating side effects. Our study shows that cannabis can be a safe, and effective alternative. 

Tikun Patient Results
91% reported a reduction in high pain intensity 

MEDICATION USE
Cancer patients are on a variety of medications to combat disease and treatment-related symptoms including sedatives, corticosteroids, anti-nausea meds, opioids, and other pain relievers. These medications are often addictive, ineffective and potentially unnecessary in cases where cannabis is safe and natural alternative. 

Tikun Patient Results
35% of patients decreased overall medication use
47% stopped taking opioids or reduced their dose

The Future

According to cancer.gov there are no ongoing or previous human clinical trials that prove cannabis can directly cure or treat the disease of cancer. Randomized human clinical trials with statistically significant results are required to make this connection. That said, it’s important to review what lab, animal, and preclinical studies have to say about cannabis and cancer. These studies serve as the basis for future research, which may fundamentally change cancer management in the future.  

Non-human clinical cannabis research suggests that cannabinoids—like THC and CBD—may yield anti-tumor effects through mechanisms such as cell death, inhibition of cell growth, and inhibition of tumor metastasis. In other words, cannabinoids may kill cancer cells, prevent them from growing, and stop them from spreading to other parts of the body—at least in test tubes. Moreover, cannabinoids appear to kill tumor cells but don’t affect non-cancerous cells. This a huge contrast to chemotherapy, which not only kills cancer cells but also damages normal cells throughout the body.  

In 1975, the first-of-its-kind cannabis study showed in vitro (via test tube) that THC inhibited the growth of lung tumor cells. Since then, several studies have shown that when cannabinoids interact with chemical receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system, the process stimulates a stress pathway that kills cancer cells. Most of the research has focused on liver tumors, but other studies have shown a similar activation in the brain, mammary gland, uterus, pituitary gland, testis, and pancreas. 

Interestingly, CBD may have anti-cancer effects regardless of its interaction with the endocannabinoid system. In vitro and animal tests have both shown that CBD may have a preventative cancer effect by protecting DNA from oxidative damage, boosting endocannabinoid system function, and reducing cell growth. 

These studies provide a solid foundation of evidence for scientists to extend research into human clinical trials. We look forward to what the future holds. In the mean-time, cannabis care for cancer symptoms is changing people’s lives for the better and the team at Tikun is honored to be at the forefront of this cutting-edge clinical research. 

Want to read Tikun’s entire study? Check it out and let us know if you have any questions at askthedoc@tikunolam.com.