For decades, people undergoing chemotherapy have heard the advice whispered by nurses and fellow cancer patients: Try marijuana to ease your nausea.

Now, they can shout it from the rooftops. Cancer is among the conditions qualifying Pennsylvanians for medical marijuana. Plus, new studies are showing that medical marijuana can minimize the dreaded nausea and vomiting caused by chemo – without impairing cognitive skills.

Why chemotherapy causes nausea

Medical science has come a long way, but at heart, chemotherapy bombards the body with chemicals meant to kill cancer cells. The radiation therapy common for cancer treatments can also cause queasiness. Some chemotherapy drugs have a higher chance of causing nausea than others.

It’s believed that chemo can trigger a part of the brain that controls vomiting and some parts of the esophagus, stomach, and large intestines. These triggers are like light switches, activating a reflexive pathway that prompts nausea and vomiting. After a few chemo treatments, some patients even experience anticipatory nausea and vomiting caused by the sights and smells of the treatment room – even before chemo is delivered.

While highly unpleasant, these side effects are rarely life-threatening, but they can hamper cancer treatment in multiple ways. They can cause malnutrition and dehydration. Patients can become tired, lose weight, heal from wounds more slowly, and lose their appetites. They can also suffer from insomnia, depression, and anxiety. All of these consequences complicate recover by hampering the body’s ability to heal.

Medical marijuana more effective on chemo symptoms

Chemo patients who struggle with nausea and vomiting can be prescribed anti-nausea drugs, also known as anti-emetics. But one new study shows that medical marijuana works well. Patients with advanced cancers do better in battling treatment-related symptoms when they use medical marijuana, reports a study published in January 2019 in the Anti-Cancer Drugs journal.

The study compared cannabis users to non-cannabis users.

“Improvement in executive functioning was demonstrated in the case group,” wrote the Israeli researchers. “In aspects of symptoms, improvement in fatigue, appetite and sleep disorder was demonstrated after cannabis consumption.”

Better yet, the cognitive abilities of the cannabis users didn’t suffer. After three months of use, neither group showed any “significant cognitive decline,” the researchers wrote.

Medical marijuana for cancer in Pennsylvania

In states where it’s legal, nearly one cancer patient in four uses medical marijuana, according to a 2017 study from the American Cancer Society. Studies show that medical marijuana can not only ease nausea and vomiting, including anticipatory nausea, but can also reduce anxiety and neuropathic pain. It can also combat weight loss and its consequences by stimulating appetite and making food taste batter.

For cancer patients, medical marijuana can offer a crucial benefit – better quality of life. They find they can fight cancer while continuing to work and join family and friends for meals and social events. While oncologists deliver increasingly sophisticated treatments targeting cancer at its source, Pennsylvania cancer patients can now access medical marijuana that offers hope and a step toward wellness.