Medical marijuana can be a controversial subject. After all, it's not legal in all areas, and marijuana is associated with illicit drug use. However, a growing body of research has shown that in some cases, medical marijuana may help reduce symptoms of lymphoma, relieve side effects of treatment, and improve quality of life. Still, it’s not for everyone and comes with risks and side effects.
Members of MyLymphomaTeam have discussed using medical marijuana for lymphoma and all the factors that go into the decision to try it. “What do you think about marijuana?” asked one member. “Have any of you tried it? How would you feel about someone who does? Would you look at them differently?”
Someone else wrote, “I’m thinking about asking my doctor about medical marijuana. I’m in remission, but I still have bad anxiety and can’t sleep.”
“I might have to ask my physician for other means of pain management, i.e., medical marijuana,” another member said.
If you’re thinking about using medical marijuana to feel better with lymphoma, it’s important to understand all the ways it may help or hurt.
Medical marijuana, also known as medical cannabis, is marijuana that is used for medicinal purposes. Medical marijuana is usually derived from the cannabis sativa plant. Cannabis indica is the other main strain of marijuana.
Marijuana has two main active compounds — or cannabinoids — delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is also the psychoactive compound that causes intoxication or euphoria, the feeling of being high. Unlike many CBD products that may have very small amounts of THC, medical marijuana contains THC and will cause euphoria.
Medical marijuana is available in a variety of forms. Cannabis products include:
Researchers have found that both THC and CBD have potential benefits for a range of health conditions, including cancer symptom management, although research specifically on marijuana and lymphoma is limited.
Some studies are investigating how cannabinoids may kill or slow the growth of cancer cells in humans. Research indicates that THC has anti-inflammatory properties that may help regulate the immune system and inhibit tumors from growing. However, according to the American Cancer Society, people with cancer who choose to use medical marijuana should maintain their treatment plans or risk serious health problems. Medical marijuana is not considered a cure for cancer.
If you’re using medical marijuana or considering it, talk to your oncologist to be sure it’s appropriate for your particular condition.
Here are some of the ways medical marijuana may be helpful or harmful for people with lymphoma as complementary treatment to your standard cancer care. Although medical marijuana may help some people with symptoms associated with lymphoma, it’s important to know that marijuana can affect individuals differently. Furthermore, while some people may find that marijuana relieves a particular symptom, it may not work for someone else.
Moreover, some people experience unwanted side effects from using marijuana.
That said, the following are eight potential benefits and risks of medical marijuana.
Research has indicated that medical marijuana can help reduce some types of pain in people with cancer. Some people with lymphoma experience bone pain. In one oncology study of people with cancer, more than 48 percent of those who used marijuana experienced a decrease in pain, and around 45 percent reduced their use of opioid painkillers.
Peripheral neuropathy, nerve pain that can affect hands, feet, and legs, is a common chemo side effect. In a systematic review of 16 studies, marijuana was not found to significantly reduce neuropathic pain.
Yet, at least one MyLymphomaTeam member reported relief from nerve pain with the use of marijuana. “Medicinal marijuana works quite well on my peripheral neuropathy. Also lessens my restless legs and arms,” they shared.
Marijuana may help some people with insomnia and sleep disturbance, which often accompanies lymphoma due to uncomfortable symptoms and anxious feelings. One small study showed that 39 percent of people with sleep difficulties were able to reduce or stop prescription medications for sleep through the use of medical cannabis. Additionally, 71 percent of participants who completed the study reported improvement in sleep or symptoms related to a sleep disorder (e.g., improved psychological well-being).
“I use medical marijuana to sleep. I always get the indica strain. Works great,” said a MyLymphomaTeam member.
The indica strain has lower concentrations of THC, the compound that also causes intoxication.
Not all studies report positive effects of marijuana on sleep, and some results are mixed. In one study, sleep quality decreased with increasing use of cannabis edibles. However, in the same study, medium to high doses of CBD were found to improve sleep — more so in older people.
Although marijuana may cause drowsiness and help some people sleep, the drug has been found to relieve symptoms of fatigue, a common and debilitating symptom of lymphoma and its treatment.
In a study of 1,224 people who experienced fatigue, almost 92 percent experienced significant symptom relief and felt more energetic. The study showed that smoking marijuana joints (rolled marijuana cigarettes) was more effective for relieving fatigue than vaping or smoking in a pipe.
Marijuana, particularly the sativa strain, has been shown to effectively relieve nausea. A Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology study with 886 participants showed people who used marijuana for nausea felt better within five minutes, and symptom relief increased over time. Within one hour of use, more than 96 percent of participants experienced a considerable reduction in nausea.
Nausea, weight loss, and loss of appetite are common and debilitating symptoms of both lymphoma and lymphoma treatment. Some research has shown that THC may help stimulate appetite in people with cancer — though not necessarily as effectively as other treatments, like megestrol.
“I’m going to check into medical marijuana as many people have suggested it for nausea with chemotherapy. I can’t go on without eating or drinking,” a MyLymphomaTeam member said.
Marijuana, and THC in particular, are associated with an increase in anxiety. Intoxication from medical marijuana may be disorienting for some people and contribute to anxiety.
Anxiety and fear are common among people living with lymphoma and other types of cancer. If you’re prone to high levels of anxiety, marijuana may aggravate that symptom and should probably be avoided.
Use of marijuana increases the risk of orthostatic hypotension — dizziness with standing up — which can result in fainting or falling for some people, due to a drop in blood pressure. Marijuana can also increase heart rate, and some research indicates that it may also increase the risk of heart attack.
Marijuana has been shown to have an inconsistent effect on blood pressure associated with both increases and decreases in blood pressure. If you have a history of heart disease, be sure to talk to your doctor before trying medical marijuana.
A common side effect of marijuana is slower response and poor functioning, which can negatively affect several daily activities, causing risks such as:
“I’ve tried the medical marijuana oil, but that just wipes me out!” a MyLymphomaTeam member said.
Marijuana has been linked to a significant decrease in the effectiveness of immunotherapy drugs in late-stage cancer. If you’re taking immunotherapy drugs, it’s essential that you discuss medical marijuana with your oncologist before trying it.
Marijuana may interact poorly with other drugs. It’s also been linked to increasing the effects of the blood thinner warfarin. However, research has been inconclusive.
Always discuss potential drug interactions with your health care providers if you’re using medical marijuana.
Many, but not all, states in the U.S. have legalized medical marijuana. It’s usually distributed by state-certified dispensaries that are accessed with official medical marijuana identification cards. Some states allow approved individuals to grow specific amounts of medical marijuana for their own use.
Where it’s legal, medical marijuana cultivation, possession, use, and sales are governed by state laws that may vary considerably and typically have a limit on how much marijuana can be legally possessed.
The cannabis plant has not yet been approved on the federal (national) level by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for medical purposes. Only a few products containing cannabinoids are FDA-approved. These include:
Your doctor can advise you on your state’s regulation of medical marijuana if it has been legalized. Each state has a specific procedure for providing access to medical marijuana, which usually requires consultation with a doctor.
You can find more information about medical marijuana laws in your state through the Marijuana Policy Project.
MyLymphomaTeam is the social network for people with lymphoma and their loved ones. On MyLymphomaTeam, more than 15,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lymphoma.
Have you tried medical marijuana for your lymphoma symptoms or side effects of cancer treatment? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.