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Medical marijuana is helping cancer patients, Minnesota study finds

Marijuana plants
For the study, the researchers analyzed data collected from 1,120 cancer patients who enrolled in Minnesota’s medical marijuana program between July 1, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2017.

Taking cannabis may help reduce pain, nausea and other side effects associated with cancer and its treatment, according to a new study from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

Cancer patients enrolled in Minnesota’s medical marijuana program reported significant improvement in their symptoms within four months after they started taking the medication, the study found.

“It is encouraging to see this evidence that Minnesota’s medical cannabis program is helping cancer patients,” said MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm in a released statement.

“In addition to helping people with qualifying conditions, the program was designed to help advance scientific understanding of the treatment potential of cannabis,” she added. “These latest findings demonstrate that the program is making valuable contributions toward that goal as well.”

The study, which was published last month in the Journal of Oncology Practice, was co-authored with researchers from the Oncology Research Center at HealthPartners/Park Nicollet.

Eight symptoms tracked

For the study, the researchers analyzed data collected from 1,120 cancer patients who enrolled in Minnesota’s medical marijuana program between July 1, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2017. At the time of their enrollment, the patients were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the severity of eight symptoms: anxiety, depression, disturbed sleep, fatigue, lack of appetite, nausea, pain and vomiting.

The patients were given a 30-day supply of the cannabis, a prescription that could then be renewed. Each time it was renewed, the patients were asked to rescore their symptoms.

The study followed the patients for four months. During that period, a significant proportion of the patients reported a 30 percent or greater improvement in each symptom. Fewer patients maintained that level of improvement throughout the entire four months, but many did.

“The proportion who maintained 30% or greater improvement was lowest for pain (38.3%) and fatigue (39.0%),” the researchers write. “[F]or the other symptoms, it was closer to half, ranging from lack of appetite (48.2%) to vomiting (56.2%).”

The study also found that the use of cannabis appears safe. About 11 percent of the patients reported adverse effects from the cannabis treatments. The most common side effects were fatigue, dry mouth and increased appetite. Only 1.3 percent of the patients reported that the side effects were significant enough to interfere with their daily activities.

“Although cannabis may not completely alleviate symptoms, reducing the symptoms of patients with cancer from severe to moderate/mild levels may drastically improve quality of life,” the researchers conclude.

Improving quality of life

The study comes with several caveats. About a third of the patients did not return to refill their medical marijuana prescription at four months. For some of them, that may have been because the marijuana did not improve their symptoms — a factor that could have biased the study’s findings.

In addition, the study is unable to single out whether it was the cannabis or other treatments received by the patients that account for the improvement in symptoms.

“The data is promising, but we need thorough, high-quality research like this to continue in order to fully understand both the risks and potential benefits of medical cannabis,” said Dr. Dylan Zylla, one of the study’s co-authors and medical director of the Oncology Research Center, in a statement.

“Our patients with advanced malignancies often focus on quality of life,” he added. “Finding safe, effective, cost-efficient ways to help them manage symptoms is paramount.”

Zylla and his colleagues at Park Nicollet are currently completing a randomized controlled clinical trial — considered the gold standard of research studies — on how medical marijuana affects pain control and opioid use among patients with advanced cancers.

Preliminary results from that study are expected in June.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the new MDH study at the Journal of Oncology Practice’s website, although the full study is, unfortunately, behind a paywall.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 04/09/2019 - 12:56 pm.

    Since it’s not covered by insurance, medical marijuana easily costs $700 – $1,000/month and is way out the reach of people who need it.

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