There is nothing easy about cancer. From the moment of diagnosis and all the way through treatment, it’s a battle. Innovative new therapies are being developed every year to improve our chances of winning the battle, but the fight requires that we value and understand every tool in our toolbox.

Cannabis is one of the most interesting tools we have in the fight against cancer today, and is being researched more and more with great results. It’s important, however, that we look at the use of cannabis as a treatment objectively — neither letting societal stigma sideline it nor letting over-enthusiasm bewitch us into using a wrench as a hammer.

Another arrow in the cancer care quiver

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about cannabis, both for and against it. In the medical context, however, it’s vital that we focus squarely on what the supportable scientific data says. “Our goal is to use cannabis in a fashion that will quantifiably make a difference for cancer patients,” says Dr. Paul Daeninck, a medical oncologist and palliative care specialist with Cancer Care Manitoba and the University of Manitoba. “There’s clear evidence that cannabis and cannabinoids can have an effect on pain, decreasing the need for other pain medications and increasing quality of life for those suffering from pain. We have evidence that it can help with nausea, especially nausea secondary to chemotherapy. We also have some evidence, though it’s not the greatest yet, that it can help with appetite stimulation and preventing weight loss.”

These symptoms — pain, nausea, and a loss of appetite — are among the most prevalent in cancer and cancer treatments, and a remedy that can address all of them is incredibly good fortune. “It’s very useful to have cannabis as another arrow in my quiver, especially for patients who have advanced stages of the disease and haven’t been able to control symptoms effectively with other medications,” says Dr. Daeninck. “We’re definitely seeing an improvement in quality of life. We’re seeing people who can now tolerate chemotherapy and radiation treatments, where they couldn’t before.”

The science is still young

It’s still early days in the scientific study of the medical applications of cannabis, however, and research is ongoing. “Cannabis is a unique drug in that the clinical trials are taking place after people have already been using it for quite some time,” says Jackie Manthorne, President and CEO of the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network. “There are a still lot of unanswered questions.”

These questions are most pronounced regarding the potential merits of cannabis for treating not just cancer symptoms but cancer itself. “There is some evidence in preclinical studies with cancer cell cultures and animal models of cancer that when you apply cannabis or components of cannabis, you actually see some changes in the cancer cells,” says Dr. Daeninck. “All that is well and good in a Petri dish or in a mouse, but it has never really been translated to anything in humans. It’s really important that we do the studies and get the data, and then we can come back to patients and clarify those benefits.”

The watchword, then, is cautious optimism. And while we wait for the data to come in, there’s still an important conversation to be had about stigma and access. Living with cancer is already hard, and it would be tragic if misconceptions about cannabis were to keep patients from gaining access to something that could really help. “Many cancer patients think maybe they should try cannabis, but the stigma and access issues prevent them,” says Manthorne. “They may be afraid to approach their family doctors about it, or they may approach their doctor and be told no. The more we can educate doctors and patients that cannabis is an option, the better.”

And that’s just it. We’re learning more about cannabis every year, but one thing that is clear today is that there is a role for it to play in cancer care. We just need to be honest and open-minded about what that role is.