Angela Bryan had been researching cancer prevention for several years and had recently embarked on a study of cannabis consumption among cancer patients. However, in 2017, her professional and personal lives unexpectedly converged when she received a breast cancer diagnosis.
Expressing reluctance towards using opioids to manage her post-surgery pain, Bryan sought the opinion of her doctors on the medicinal use of herbs. Thankfully, her doctors were understanding of her request. But, Bryan, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at CU Boulder, noted that they could not provide any guidance due to the lack of available data on the subject.
Looking ahead six years, a small yet innovative study has emerged to address the void in information. The study reveals that cancer patients who employ cannabis to alleviate their symptoms experience improved sleep, less pain, and unexpected benefits.
These patients experience enhanced cognitive abilities after a few weeks of consistent usage. Bryan, who is the senior author of the study, considered herself fortunate to have some understanding of this phenomenon, as most patients do not. She stated that when experiencing intense pain, thinking becomes challenging. We discovered that after using cannabis for an extended period to alleviate pain, patients’ cognitive function improved.
Recently published in the journal “Exploration in Medicine” on April 26, the study is one of the initial examinations of how dispensary-bought cannabis affects cancer symptoms or chemotherapy side effects. It additionally provides insight into the broad spectrum of products cancer patients have used since the legalization of marijuana in most states.
Easy Medical Access
Studies indicate that up to 40% of cancer patients in the United States utilize cannabis, but just a third of doctors feel confident providing advice. Research on this subject is also challenging due to federal legislation prohibiting university researchers from distributing or possessing cannabis for research purposes. Exceptions include if it is government-issued or pharmaceutical-grade.
Due to this regulation, most research has solely examined prescription medications such as dronabinol or nabilone, generally recommended to manage nausea. Studies also often focus on government-controlled cannabis strains, which typically have lower potency and a limited range of options compared to the over-the-counter alternatives.
To conduct the research, Bryan worked with oncologists Dr. Daniel Bowles and Dr. Ross Camidge at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. They monitored the cannabis usage of 25 cancer patients over two weeks.
Following an initial consultation to gauge their sleep patterns, pain levels, and cognition, the patients were instructed to procure an edible cannabis product of their preference from a dispensary. The choices available were surprisingly diverse, encompassing 18 distinct brands, including pills, chocolates, tinctures, gummies, and baked goods, and comprising varying ratios of THC and CBD at varied potencies.
Bryan commented that this demonstrates that individuals are willing to experiment with various options they believe may be beneficial. However, there is a shortage of information available to assist them in determining what is most effective for their specific needs.
The researchers utilized a mobile laboratory called the “caravan,” a Dodge Sprinter van, to investigate the immediate effects. The caravan was driven to each patient’s residence, and participants underwent physical and cognitive evaluations inside the van. Subsequently, after using cannabis in their homes, they were re-evaluated inside the van. A follow-up exam was also conducted after two weeks of sustained usage at the frequency of their preference.
According to the study, cannabis significantly relieved patients’ pain within an hour while also impairing their cognitive abilities and inducing a “high” sensation, which intensified with a higher THC content. However, a distinct pattern emerged in the longer run. After using cannabis for two consecutive weeks, patients experienced better pain management, enhanced cognitive function, and improved sleep quality. Additionally, specific objective measures of cognitive function, such as reaction times, demonstrated improvement.
Bryan expressed that they anticipated observing some cognitive function issues, considering that cannabis and chemotherapy have previously been linked to impaired thinking. However, individuals believed that they were experiencing increased clarity of thought. It was unexpected.
The study indicated that their cognitive function improved as patients’ pain levels decreased. Patients who consumed higher amounts of CBD, a recognized anti-inflammatory compound, reported more substantial improvements in sleep quality and pain intensity.
The authors emphasized that more extensive, controlled studies are necessary before making definitive conclusions. Nevertheless, they suggest that the results present an intriguing possibility. While some types and doses of cannabis for pain relief may cause temporary cognitive impairment, others may enhance cognition by reducing pain.
According to a professional research assistant in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and the study’s first author, Gregory Giordano, more extensive studies must be conducted. In his words, since oncologists and patients are worried about the potential negative impact of cancer treatment on cognitive function, the potential role of cannabis use in improving subjective cognitive function should be further studied.
Bryan incorporated cannabis-infused edibles into her pain management regimen after her surgery and chemotherapy. She customized her approach by using more potent THC-heavy products when her pain was severe. This meant sacrificing some mental clarity and opting for milder, CBD-heavy products to keep the pain manageable.
Bryan considered herself fortunate because she had some awareness of the benefits of using cannabis during her chemo treatment. However, she recognized that most patients were not as informed as she was. They either don’t realize that cannabis can be a useful option, or they receive advice from dispensary employees who may not have sufficient knowledge.
The research team hopes that their study and future studies will provide doctors and patients with more information to make more informed decisions.
The study’s results offer a glimpse into the potential benefits of cannabis for cancer patients, but more research is needed to understand its effects fully. The findings suggest that while cannabis may impair cognitive function in the short term, it could lead to long-term improvements by reducing pain and inflammation.
This raises the possibility that cannabis could play a role in helping cancer patients manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Ultimately, the hope is that this research will lead to greater awareness and understanding of cannabis as a therapeutic option, giving patients and their doctors more tools to address the complex challenges of cancer treatment.