Cancer patients and their families know that getting well is their top priority, but worry, pain, and suffering are barriers to that goal. Medical marijuana is like a doorway through those hurdles, offering hope on the way to wellness, from diagnosis through remission.

In 2016, Pennsylvanians received 78,621 diagnoses of cancer. Breast, lung, and prostate cancer were the most common. Median age at diagnosis was 67, although cancer can strike at all ages.

The year 2016 was also when Pennsylvania legalized the use of cannabis for medical use. Today, Pennsylvanians with 21 conditions qualify for medical marijuana ID cards, allowing them to purchase and consume medical marijuana. On the list: Cancer, including remission therapy, meaning that patients have options spanning the full spectrum of treatment.

A body out of balance

Cancer happens when cells multiply too rapidly. If allowed to reproduce beyond control, they take over, causing pain and disrupting normal functions.

One of the areas cancer can disrupt is the endocannabinoid system. When the body is threatened, properly functioning endocannabinoids take action to strengthen the immune system, halt the spread of pain and inflammation, and promote sleep and appetite.

Is it a coincidence, then, that compounds found naturally in cannabis work like a key in a lock to propel the endocannabinoid system into doing its restorative job? It’s a fascinating question of evolution that researchers are exploring. Even without answers to its mysteries, medical marijuana is harnessing the power of the endocannabinoid system to fight the effects of cancer and the consequences of treatment.

Fighting cancer symptoms with medical marijuana

On its own, cancer can devastate the body. Add cancer treatment – lifesaving but potentially harsh – and patients are in for a rough journey.

Today’s patients want natural solutions, and as we’ve seen, cannabis aligns with the body’s own systems. Medical cannabis provides relief from:

  • Fatigue: Whether caused by the tumor or the treatment, fatigue is a constant, unwelcome companion. Some strains of medical marijuana can elevate energy levels.
  • Nausea: It could be the most dreaded side effect of chemotherapy – the anguish of nausea and vomiting. Patients get so weak that posting for work or caring for family become impossible. Medical marijuana can ease the nausea, minimizing the parade of prescription and OTC drugs meant to counteract the effects of chemo.
  • Loss of appetite: The inability to eat can adversely affect the ability to function, absorb nutrients, and even socialize with friends and family over meals, leading to feelings of isolation.
  • Neuropathic pain: Neuropathy sends waves of pain through the arms, hands, legs, and feet. When chemotherapy drugs damage the nerves that deliver sensations to our limbs, peripheral neuropathy can result.
  • Insomnia: Sleep is nature’s way of putting the body into neutral while cells and tissues rebuild. It can also regulate the hormones that are essential to a healthy immune system and the body’s ability to fight cancer. In short, sleep helps promote healing from cancer, but as many as 75 percent of cancer patients experience sleeplessness, putting recovery at risk.
  • Depression: When cancer strikes, depression and anxiety often follow. Depending on the strain consumed, even one puff of medical marijuana can relieve anxiety and stress.

Smoked or inhaled marijuana is considered a beneficial form, for its fast-acting effects. It’s long been known, through research and experience, that cancer patients who use medical marijuana tend to need fewer pain medications. And although results are preliminary, recent studies are finding that some cannabinoids could slow the growth of some cancers.

Medical marijuana and remission therapy

Cancer patients often mark the end of chemotherapy as a happy milestone. They’re ready to resume their lives and all the ordinary activities they once took for granted.

But for many, a new, equally challenging phase begins. Leukemia patients, especially, first receive remission induction therapy, blasting the body with treatments before it can build immunity. That’s followed by postremission therapy, “used to kill any cancer cells that may be left in the body,” according to the National Cancer Institute.

Once again, postremission therapy patients face a double-edged sword, one that offers hope while blasting the body with radiation, stem cell transplant, or more rounds of chemo. The same, brutal side effects can be in store, which makes Pennsylvania’s placement of remission therapy among qualifying conditions a blessing. The lack of distinction means that patients can still use medical marijuana as a powerful traveling companion on the road to recovery.