Cannabis has become an increasingly popular source of pain management for medical ailments. With growing frequency, patients with breast cancer are turning to cannabis to help them cope with symptoms and side effects. An online survey of 612 patients with breast cancer, led by Dr. Marisa Weiss, Pennsylvania-based chief medical officer at Breastcancer.org, found that 42% used cannabis to relieve their symptoms. Most patients with breast cancer (79%) reported using cannabis to ease pain and discomfort from chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. A total of 78% of patients used cannabis for pain relief, 70% used it to counter insomnia, 57% used it to relieve anxiety, 51% used it to relieve stress, and 46% used it to counter nausea or vomiting.
Despite the large number patients who gained relief from cannabis, only 39% felt comfortable informing their physicians of their cannabis use. Especially given that marijuana is not federally legal, fear grips many patients regarding the prospect of discussing cannabis use with physicians. Dr. Weiss suggests that patients want to avoid being judged, or worse, getting into trouble for simply trying to help themselves from a medical perspective. What’s more, many patients who did speak with their physicians left feeling disappointed by their doctors’ dearth of knowledge as to the benefits of cannabis for medical treatment.
This leaves many patients with few options other than turning to the Internet for cannabis information. According to Dr. Weiss, 67% of cannabis users obtained their knowledge of medicinal marijuana online. About 56% got information from family, friends, or “budtenders”—cannabis dispensary workers who are not pharmacists. Dispensary pharmacists educated 36% of cannabis-using patients, and alternative healthcare providers, like acupuncturists or chiropractors, informed 18% of cannabis-using patients. A mere 12% of cannabis-using patients obtained medicinal marijuana information from their physicians, and an even fewer 7% obtained that information from a nurse.
Kevin Boehnke of the University of Michigan’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center stresses that although marijuana use is legal for medicinal use, this does not eliminate the stigma, legal ramifications, and possible medical issues surrounding it. According to Boehnke, health professionals are often hesitant to discuss and suggest medicinal marijuana use with patients due to the lack of supportive data available.
Yet, many survey participants believed so strongly in the benefits of medicinal marijuana that nearly half of those who used cannabis to manage symptoms felt that it would also be an excellent option for treating tumors. Furthermore, over half of the patients reported continued marijuana use for wellness after treatment. An overwhelming 78% of participants somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that medicinal marijuana is best viewed akin to a plant-based medicine, and 71% somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that cannabis’ benefits outweigh its risks. Nonetheless, due to the stigma enveloped around marijuana use, 28% of participants somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that they feel uncomfortable discussing marijuana use with their physician.