Studies to answer this question are underway. Some scientists are studying whether CBD could relieve some of the side effects of cancer and its treatment, such as pain, insomnia, anxiety, or nausea. Other scientists are studying whether CBD could potentially slow or stop the growth of cancer.
There have been some studies that show that CBD, alone or together with THC, may relieve pain, insomnia, or anxiety, but these studies were not specific to people with cancer. While no studies to date have shown that CBD eases these side effects specifically in people with cancer or people receiving cancer treatment, some people with cancer have reported benefits in taking CBD, such as helping with nausea, vomiting, depression, and other side effects. According to ASCO guidelines, your doctor may consider prescribing cannabinoids for chronic pain management if you live in a state where it is legal. However, ASCO guidelines state that there is not enough evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for preventing nausea and vomiting in people with cancer receiving radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
What is CBD?
There are 2 synthetic cannabis medications, nabilone (Cesamet) and dronabinol (Marinol or Syndros), that are FDA-approved to treat nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy. These medications are made in a laboratory.
Cannabidiol, also known as CBD, is one of many chemicals found in the cannabis plant. It has been touted in some online forums as an alternative treatment, and even a cure, for many illnesses, including cancer. And, some people with cancer say that CBD has helped them as a complementary therapy in managing their symptoms and side effects from standard cancer treatment.
It is also important to note that some studies have shown that CBD might interfere with how your body processes cancer drugs, called a drug interaction. This might make cancer treatments more toxic or make them less effective. More research is needed on these effects, too. For these reasons, always tell your oncologist if you’re thinking about using CBD before you take it.
Dr. Raghunathan: The new law allows New Yorkers 21 and over to have up to three ounces of marijuana for recreational use. Using and selling marijuana are both legal, except in schools, workplaces, or in cars. The law also allows New Yorkers up to 24 grams of concentrated cannabis products, including products containing CBD, which is one of many chemicals extracted from the cannabis plant. CBD is different from delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, which is another chemical extracted from the cannabis plant.
You and your MSK care team should make a joint decision on using cannabis.
Should people with cancer consider using marijuana for anxiety or to ease side effects from treatment?
We asked Nirupa Raghunathan, an integrative medicine doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and pharmacist Jason Hou, who manages MSK’s About Herbs database, to share what people with cancer should know before trying marijuana or its cousin, cannabidiol (CBD).
Dr. Raghunathan: While legalization and regulation may change the accessibility and/or quality of all cannabis products, it doesn’t change the lack of scientific evidence. Unfortunately, we still don’t know enough about the benefits of these products for people with cancer. There is a lot of research happening in Canada and Australia because regulations around its use there have changed. It will be interesting to see what comes out of that. In the meantime, you and your doctor should discuss the potential benefits and harms of using anything with cannabis for medical purposes.
Dr. Hou: When CBD is taken by mouth, some amount is absorbed and becomes available in the blood. There are cannabinoid receptors throughout the human body, and when CBD binds to them, that can trigger biological effects. But the downstream effects are still unclear because currently, there are very few human data. Other edible products containing CBD are likely absorbed and metabolized in a similar manner. There is, however, limited absorption through the skin with topical CBD oil.