Published: Sat, May 12, 2018
Medical | By Marta Holmes

Survey Says Oncologists Often Recommend Medical Marijuana, But Know Little About It

Survey Says Oncologists Often Recommend Medical Marijuana, But Know Little About It

Nevertheless, many go ahead and give its use their blessing, a national survey reveals. An overwhelming majority of oncologists don't actually know how medical marijuana can help, but a sizeable chunk clinically recommend it anyway.

Ilana Braun, chief of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Division of Adult Psychosocial Oncology in MA and lead author of the study, told Wired that despite this uncertainty, there at least "seemed to be clear consensus that medical marijuana is a good adjunct to standard pain treatment, so a good add-on medication".

"We can think of few other instances in which physicians would offer clinical advice about a topic on which they do not feel knowledgeable", Braun said.

As of the JCO article's publication date, 30 states and the District of Columbia had legalized use of marijuana for medical purposes, and all but one of the laws included cancer as a qualifying condition.

However, pot remains an illegal substance under federal law, restricting research opportunities into its effectiveness as a medical treatment.

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There is a lack of robust data regarding medical marijuana for oncologists to base clinical decisions and discussions with patients.

Researchers surveyed 237 oncologists around the country, asking about their beliefs, knowledge, and practices regarding medical marijuana. While a majority of doctors (80 percent) discussed marijuana with their patients, nearly half of them (46 percent) recommended it for cancer-related problems.

About 46 percent recommended its use, regardless.

Education: Less than 30 percent felt knowledgeable enough about medical marijuana to make recommendations. More research needs to be done so that doctors can recommend products with the proper knowledge.

A patient with leukemia, however, should be warned of a theoretical possibility of a fungal infection tied to cannabis use. In the 22 intervening years, however, no randomized clinical trial has investigated the utility of whole-plant medical marijuana to alleviate symptoms such as pain, insomnia, or nausea and vomiting in patients with cancer.

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The report found conclusive evidence that oral medications containing THC, the intoxicating chemical in pot, can reduce the impact of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

" [The findings] highlight an important need for expedited scientific trials checking out cannabis's prospective medical results in oncology ... and the need for education programs about medical cannabis to notify oncologists who often confront questions relating to medical cannabis in practice", the authors concluded.

There's substantial evidence that pot is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults, but it's not known if marijuana can help fight cancer pain in particular. Majority of the respondents viewed medical marijuana as helpful in managing pain and more effective in treating anorexia and cachexia, a cancer-related adverse event characterized by muscle weakness and sudden loss of weight.

But no rigorous studies in cancer patients exist. Jerry Mitchell, a medical oncologist at the Zangmeister Cancer Center in OH, said getting asked about marijuana is not surprising given the popularity of its byproducts.

"Oncologists are welcoming something that might have benefit outweighing harm in their toolbox, along with all the other things they already have", he said.

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'The big takeaway is we need more research, plain and simple, ' said Dr. Ilana Braun of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who led the study published Thursday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

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