Many breast cancer patients use cannabis to relieve symptoms of the disease and its treatments, but few tell their doctors, according to a new survey.
In an anonymous online survey of over 600 adults diagnosed with breast cancer, 42% said they had used some form of cannabis to relieve symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, pain, insomnia, anxiety and stress, according to the report published Tuesday in Cancer. .
“They’re not using it to get high, but to manage breast cancer side effects or breast cancer treatments,” said study author Dr Marisa Weiss, founder and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org and oncologist at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, PA. “It can be a pretty tough race. People find it difficult to continue and have a reasonable quality of life. “
To take a closer look at the cannabis use of breast cancer patients, Weiss and colleagues sent a survey of 47 questions to 612 adults – 605 were women and five were men. The other two preferred not to answer the gender question. All were recruited through Breastcancer.org and the Healthline.com community.
While 39% said they mentioned cannabis to their doctors, only 4% of the 306 participants who said they wanted more information turned to their doctors for information about the drug. Most sought information from other sources, including websites or staff at cannabis dispensaries. Eighteen percent turned to a family member or friend. Most said they were not satisfied with the information they received.
Of the 42 percent who reported using cannabis, 78 percent reported using it for pain relief, 70 percent for relieving insomnia, 57 percent for relieving anxiety, 51 percent for managing stress and 46 percent to stem nausea and vomiting. Most, 79 percent, reported using cannabis during treatment.
Respondents said they used multiple sources of cannabis: 70% said they had used edibles and 65% liquids or tinctures. Just over half said they had smoked and almost half had used vape pens. They also reported using three to four different products, on average
“Not many people talk to their doctors about it,” Weiss said, “and many get information, as well as products, from their family members.”
The majority of participants, 70 percent, believed that cannabis should be considered an herbal medicine, that natural products were better than “chemicals” and that the benefits of cannabis outweighed the risks. Additionally, 49% of cannabis users said they believe medical cannabis can be used to treat cancer itself.
While acknowledging that cannabis can provide relief for breast cancer patients, Weiss is concerned that patients will see their doctors.
“Some of these products can interact with the treatments they are taking, and there is a safety concern,” she said. “We want to make sure they get relief from their symptoms without interfering with treatment.”
One concern, Weiss said, is that the liver is involved in the metabolism of many treatments as well as cannabis. “We don’t want to overload the liver,” she said.
It is also not currently known how cannabis interacts with treatments, she added.
The new study is “very interesting,” said Dr. Stephanie Bernik, chief of breast surgery at Mount Sinai West in New York City. “Our patients have been using cancer marijuana for years and years,” she added. “So we knew it helped with the symptoms.”
The new report shows that “few patients talk to their doctor about it,” Bernik said. And that means doctors can’t take cannabis into account when deciding on doses of anti-cancer drugs, she added.
“It can alter the metabolism of these drugs when the chemotherapy dosage is really important,” Bernik said.
More research is needed on cannabis use during cancer treatments to determine interactions and dosage, Bernik said.
“It also underlines the importance for patients to be open with their doctors,” Bernik said. “And doctors need to ask questions specifically about it. They probably need to strike up a conversation.
To follow NBC HEALTH to Twitter & Facebook.