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2023 Study: Medical Cannabis Use by Australians with Cancer

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Medical Cannabis Use by Australians with Cancer Study

An October 2023 study entitled "Stigma, Risks, and Benefits of Medicinal Cannabis Use Among Australians with Cancer" that was published on Research Square investigated "how Australians with cancer rationalise their medicinal cannabis use despite its risks."

A photo of Sydney, Australia.
Do Australian cancer patients benefit from cannabis?

The study reported that ten participants were involved in the scientific investigation. The cohort group was comprised of an equal number of women and men and featured a mean age of 50. On average, the participants had received their cancer diagnosis about five years prior. The group featured cancer of the bowel and breast, Hodgkin lymphoma, oesophagus and skin cancer, stomach cancer, and thyroid cancer.


Medical Cannabis Use by Australians with Cancer Results

Medical Cannabis Use by Australians with Cancer. Most of the participants had tried marijuana recreationally during their youth, but began using it medicinally only after beginning chemotherapy, undergoing surgery, or experiencing the metastasization of their cancer.


Cancer-related Symptoms Treated

Medical cannabis was employed in the treatment of a number of cancer-related symptoms, including:

Two of the participants believed that cannabis possesses tumor blocking qualities. "I...believe that [cannabis] has had something to do with my cancers shrinking," reported one participant.

A microscopic image of cancer cells.
Cancer patients may benefit from marijuana

Medical Cannabis Use by Australians with Cancer Conclusions

Medical Cannabis Use by Australians with Cancer. The study reported the following conclusion:


"Patients who use cannabis medicinally for cancer rationalise their use by asserting its superiority over pharmaceutical alternatives, highlighting perceptions of greater effectiveness and fewer side effects. They emphasised cannabis' perceived natural qualities, contrasting descriptions of 'synthetic' or 'processed' pharmaceuticals. This preference rejects natural bias, a tendency to view 'natural' drugs as better and safer than synthetic drugs.


"Natural bias may be detrimental if a prescribed treatment plan is not followed, which was observed among participants moderating prescription medication when navigating how much cannabis to take, or bringing cannabis into hospital because they dislike pharmaceutical medication.


"Cannabis was frequently neutralised by users emphasising the harm of other substances, particularly alcohol, which has been observed elsewhere."

"Preference for the natural qualities of cannabis thus presents potential safety issues among this population, particularly when not discussed with healthcare professionals (HCP). HCP can mitigate natural bias by providing safety and e cacy information of synthetic versus natural medications to patients. Equipping HCPs to provide such information is urgent, but requires addressing a knowledge gap hindering integration of medicinal cannabis in practice.


"Cannabis was frequently neutralised by users emphasising the harm of other substances, particularly alcohol, which has been observed elsewhere. Participants downplayed cannabis in comparison to alcohol by highlighting that stigma and legalities associated with the former were disproportionate to the risk posed by the latter.


"Preference for the natural qualities of cannabis thus presents potential safety issues among this population."

"Research has indicated that cannabis effects driving less than alcohol but where blood ethanol levels accurately indicate risks, correlations to cannabis is unclear. Comparison to other substances may be problematic if these minimise safety implications of medicinal cannabis. This highlights a need for dissemination of safety information for all consumers, including the majority who are currently accessing medicinal cannabis illegally.

Cannabis growing in a commercial garden.
Cannabis in a commercial garden.

"Similar to other research, participants distanced themselves from those who purportedly abused cannabis to legitimise their own behaviour. Distinctions of problematic users were characterised by notions of dependency, unnecessary use, and antisocial behavior. However, identifying necessary versus problematic cannabis use appeared arbitrary, as highlighted by the participant who condoned their family member’s recreational use by describing them as 'functioning and healthy.'


"Ironically, participants seemed to contribute to a discourse of cannabis being potentially problematic, thereby perpetuating stigma."

"Attempts to disentangle oneself from problematic cannabis use highlights its pervasive stigma. Ironically, participants seemed to contribute to a discourse of cannabis being potentially problematic, thereby perpetuating stigma.


"Our study highlighted considerable risk associated with medicinal cannabis due to ongoing stigma and access barriers. Cost of legal medicinal cannabis was an issue, a barrier cited elsewhere. Out of pocket costs associated with medicinal cannabis use may contribute to nancial toxicity, which is frequently experienced by people with cancer and seriously affects health and wellbeing.

A small pile of cannabis flowers.
Cannabis for cancer

"Participants felt compelled to source cheaper illicit cannabis, introducing legal and safety risks. The purity and potency of illicit cannabis is uncertain, and it may have suboptimal benets by containing mostly THC, little CBD, and contaminants. Participants were also exposed to safety risks by navigating medicinal cannabis independently, as HCP were uninformed, offered little guidance, or were not consulted. Accounts of HCP indifference and even dismissal in this study raise concerns about patient safety, as does participants' navigating use through trial and error.


"The purity and potency of illicit cannabis is uncertain, and it may have suboptimal benets by containing mostly THC, little CBD, and contaminants."

"As in other research, the lack of guidance from HCP likely reinforced the importance of informal support networks, and the need to undertake independent research. Participants in our study generally fared well with use, highlighted through few reports of adverse events and the majority recommending medicinal cannabis. However, their heavy reliance on informal networks and independent research introduces misinformation risks. This highlights a need for robust safety and e cacy data that HCP can utilise to guide medicinal cannabis users, and a need to facilitate open patient-provider communication to minimise potential harms."


View the original study.

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