Find out what you should know about the potential use and effects of medical marijuana for pancreatic cancer patients. Cannabis is a plant and a class B drug. CBD oil is a chemical found in cannabis. Research is looking at the substances in cannabis to see if it might help treat cancer. The Effect of Cannabis in Pancreatic Cancer The prevalence of malnutrition is overwhelming in pancreatic cancer patients, >80% experience a weight loss >10% of their habitual weight, which may
Marijuana and Pancreatic Cancer: 5 Things to Know
Cancer patients have reported finding pain relief and appetite stimulation from the use of medical marijuana, also known as cannabis. In fact, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s (PanCAN) Patient Services, which provides free, in-depth and personalized resources and information about pancreatic cancer, has received many questions about the use and effects of medical marijuana. For example, how is marijuana derived and how can it be used by cancer patients?
Marijuana is a plant that contains substances called cannabinoids. The cannabinoids found in marijuana plants may help treat the symptoms and side effects caused by cancer and cancer treatments. In addition to the naturally occurring cannabinoids found in marijuana plants, cannabinoid drugs have been developed in laboratories for use in helping to treat side effects and symptoms of cancer and cancer treatments.
The use of marijuana and cannabinoid drugs for medicinal purposes, such as controlling pain and stimulating appetite in cancer patients, have been and continue to be studied in the lab and in clinics. Consequently, conflicting information has been reported in clinical studies using cannabinoids as pain relievers or appetite stimulants for cancer patients.
Some studies have reported that patients regained appetite and sense of taste, while others reported cannabinoids are no more helpful than other prescription appetite stimulant medications. Likewise, some studies about pain relief report promising results, while others have shown cannabinoids are no more helpful than prescription medications for controlling pain.
This map shows U.S. states and territories where marijuana is legal for medical purposes.
(Image courtesy of the National Cancer Institute.)
It is important for patients to speak with their doctor to determine if marijuana would be helpful in their fight against pancreatic cancer. According to Anne-Marie Duliege, MD, PanCAN’s Chief Medical Officer, “Since there has not been sufficient data generated yet to produce consistent clinical results about the benefits of medical marijuana for patients, we encourage patients to discuss problems such as pain and appetite stimulation with their doctor to determine the right medications to help control such issues.”
Patient Services often receives questions about how medical marijuana can be used when fighting pancreatic cancer. Here are five things to know:
- What is marijuana? Marijuana is a plant grown in many parts of the world that makes resin-containing compounds called cannabinoids. Some cannabinoids are psychoactive, meaning they act on the brain to change mood or consciousness.
- In which states is medical marijuana legal? 36 states and four territories have some type of legal medical marijuana program. Find out if it is legal in your state.
- What are the active ingredients? The main active cannabinoid in marijuana is delta-9-THC. Another active cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD), which may relieve pain, lower inflammation, and decrease anxiety without causing the “high” of delta-9-THC.
- How can medical marijuana be administered? Cannabinoids are available in a variety of formats. They can be taken by mouth as capsules, sprayed under the tongue, inhaled, used topically, or included as an ingredient in food and eaten.
- Has the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved marijuana for cancer use? No, but the FDA has approved two cannabinoids (dronabinol and nabilone) for chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting prevention or treatment.
Contact Patient Services with any questions about cannabis or any other topics related to pancreatic cancer, or visit the National Cancer Institute online for additional information.
Cannabis, CBD oil and cancer
Cannabis is a plant and a class B drug. It affects people differently. It can make you feel relaxed and chilled. But it can also make you:
- feel sick
- affect your memory
- make you feel lethargic
CBD oil is a chemical found in cannabis.
- Cannabis has been used for centuries recreationally and as a medicine.
- It is illegal to possess or supply cannabis as it is a class B drug in the UK.
- Research is looking at the substances in cannabis to see if it might help treat cancer.
- There are anti sickness medicines that contain man-made substances of cannabis.
What are cannabis and cannabinoids?
Cannabis is a plant. It is known by many names including:
The plant produces a resin that contains several substances or chemicals. These are called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids can have medicinal effects on the body.
The main cannabinoids are:
- Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
- Cannabidiol (CBD)
THC is a psychoactive substance that can create a ‘high’ feeling. It can affect how your brain works, changing your mood and how you feel.
CBD is a cannabinoid that may relieve pain, lower inflammation and decrease anxiety without the psychoactive ‘high’ effect of THC.
Different types of cannabis have differing amounts of these and other chemicals in them. This means they can have different effects on the body.
Cannabis is a class B drug in the UK. This means that it is illegal to have it, sell it or buy it.
CBD oil, cannabis oil and hemp oil
There are different types of oil made from parts of the cannabis plant. Some are sold legally in health food stores as a food supplement. Other types of oil are illegal.
CBD oil comes from the flowers of the cannabis plant and does not contain the psychoactive substance THC. It can be sold in the UK as a food supplement but not as a medicine. There is no evidence to support its use as a medicine.
Cannabis oil comes from the flowers, leaves and stalks of the cannabis plant. Cannabis oil often contains high levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC. Cannabis oil is illegal in the UK.
Hemp oil comes from the seeds of a type of cannabis plant that doesn’t contain the main psychoactive ingredient THC. Hemp seed oil is used for various purposes including as a protein supplement for food, a wood varnish and an ingredient in soaps.
Why people with cancer use it
Cannabis has been used medicinally and recreationally for hundreds of years.
There has been a lot of interest into whether cannabinoids might be useful as a cancer treatment. The scientific research done so far has been laboratory research, with mixed results, so we do not know if cannabinoids can treat cancer in people.
Results have shown that different cannabinoids can:
- cause cell death
- block cell growth
- stop the development of blood vessels – needed for tumours to grow
- reduce inflammation
- reduce the ability of cancers to spread
Scientists also discovered that cannabinoids can:
- sometimes encourage cancer cells to grow
- cause damage to blood vessels
Cannabinoids have helped with sickness and pain in some people.
This means a cannabis based product used to relieve symptoms.
Some cannabis based products are available on prescription as medicinal cannabis. The following medicines are sometimes prescribed to help relieve symptoms.
Nabilone is a drug developed from cannabis. It is licensed for treating severe sickness from chemotherapy that is not controlled by other anti sickness drugs. It is a capsule that you swallow whole.
Sativex is a cannabis-based medicine. It is licensed in the UK for people with Multiple Sclerosis muscle spasticity that hasn’t improved with other treatments. Sativex is a liquid that you spray into your mouth.
Researchers are looking into Sativex as a treatment for cancer related symptoms and for certain types of cancer.
How you have it
Cannabis products can be:
- ingested (eating or drinking)
- absorbed through the skin from a patch
- applied as a cream
- applied as a spray
CBD oil comes as a liquid or in capsules.
Prescription drugs such as Nabilone can cause side effects. This can include:
- increased heart rate
- blood pressure problems
- mood changes
- memory problems
Cannabis that contains high levels of THC can cause panic attacks, hallucinations and paranoia.
There are also many cannabis based products available online without a prescription. The quality of these products can vary. It is impossible to know what substances they might contain. They could potentially be harmful to your health and may be illegal.
Research into cannabinoids and cancer
We need more research to know if cannabis or the chemicals in it can treat cancer.
Clinical trials need to be done in large numbers where some patients have the drug and some don’t. Then you can compare how well the treatment works.
Many of the studies done so far have been small and in the laboratory. There have been a few studies involving people with cancer.
Sativex and temozolomide for a brain tumour (glioblastoma) that has come back
In 2021, scientists reported the final results of a phase 1 study to treat people with recurrent glioblastoma (a type of brain tumour that has come back). The study looked at Sativex in combination with the chemotherapy drug temozolomide.
Researchers found that adding Sativex caused side effects, which included, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and headache but patients found the side effects manageable.
They also observed that 83 out of 100 people (83%) were alive after one year using Sativex, compared to 44 out of 100 people (44%) taking the placebo.
However, this phase 1 study only involved 27 patients, which was too small to learn about any potential benefits of Sativex. The study wanted to find out if Sativex and temozolomide was safe to take by patients.
Researchers have now started a larger phase 2 trial called ARISTOCRAT, to find out if this treatment is effective and who might benefit from it. Speak to your specialist if you want to take part in a clinical trial.
Sativex and cancer pain
There are trials looking at whether Sativex can help with cancer pain that has not responded to other painkillers.
The results of one trial showed that Sativex did not improve pain levels. You can read the results of the trial on our clinical trials website.
Cancer and nausea and vomiting
A cannabis based medicine, Nabilone, is a treatment for nausea and vomiting.
A Cochrane review in 2015 looked at all the research available looking into cannabis-based medicine as a treatment for nausea and sickness in people having chemotherapy for cancer. It reported that many of the studies were too small. Or not well run to be able to say how well these medicines work. They say that they may be useful if all other medicines are not working.
A drug called dexanabinol which is a man-made form of a chemical similar to that found in cannabis has been trialled in a phase 1 trial. This is an early trial that tries to work out:
- whether the drug works in humans
- what the correct dose is
- what the side effects might be
The results are not available yet. You can read about the trial on our clinical trials database.
Word of caution
Cannabis is a class B drug and illegal in the UK.
There are internet scams where people offer to sell cannabis preparations to people with cancer. There is no knowing what the ingredients are in these products and they could harm your health.
Some of these scammers trick cancer patients into buying ‘cannabis oil’ which they then never receive.
You could talk with your cancer specialist about the possibility of joining a clinical trial. Trials can give access to new drugs in a safe and monitored environment.
The science blog on our website has more information about cannabis and cancer.
The Effect of Cannabis in Pancreatic Cancer
The prevalence of malnutrition is overwhelming in pancreatic cancer patients, >80% experience a weight loss >10% of their habitual weight, which may develop into cancer cachexia. Cachexia may cause decreased quality of life, increased mortality and morbidity e.g. poorer response to antitumor treatment, longer length of stay, higher complications rate and shorter life expectancy. There is currently no effective treatment of cancer cachexia, but clinical research in medical cannabis show promising results. The cannabinoids THC and CBD show the highest pharmacological effect, but cannabis consists of >70 cannabinoids. THC and CBD exert their effect on the endocannabinoid system which modulate physiological systems such as pain, inflammation, appetite and energy balance. Thus, this potential orexigenic effect from THC and CBD may improve the nutritional state in patients with pancreatic cancer. Taking the above scientific rationale and the lack of evidence into account, the relevance of this clinical trial appears high.
This clinical trial is an eight-week crossover design examining the effects of the cannabinoids THC and CBD on energy- and protein intake and lean body mass as a measure of appetite, nausea and quality of life. A characterization of the metabolism is analysed through a metabolomics analysis.
|Condition or disease||Intervention/treatment||Phase|
|Neoplasms Pancreatic Cachexia; Cancer Cannabis Appetite Loss Palliative Medicine Morbidity Mortality||Drug: THC and CBD Mixture||Phase 2|
The aim is to investigate the effect of the cannabinoids THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) on energy- and protein intake and lean body mass in patients with pancreatic cancer. A metabolomics analysis is conducted to determine the simultaneous and quantitative intracellular metabolites when medical cannabis is administered in patients with pancreatic cancer.
The clinical trial is designed as a crossover intervention trial with a four week intervention period and a four week control period. The study subjects are instructed to administer individual titered doses of medical cannabis during the intervention period. Dietary history, height, weight, bio- impedance, VAS scales and quality of life measurements are conducted at baseline, every second week and at the end of the clinical trial. Six study subjects are invited to a semi-structured interview. Blood samples and urine samples are used for the metabolomics analysis thus a research biobank is established.
Study population: 32 study subjects diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in palliative care are included. Inclusions criteria: adult, weight loss > 5% of habitual weight. Able to understand and read Danish. Exclusion criteria: regular use of cannabis, psychiatric disorders e.g. Anorexia Nervosa, alcohol abuse, life expectancy
Descriptive statistics is used to characterize the study population. The statistical analysis is carried out in R-Project and all primary data are analyzed as intention-to-treat. P value 90% of patients with pancreatic cancer in the palliative phase experience reduced energy- and protein intake. The quantity of the reduction is, however, very poorly described and appear to depend on cancer progression.
The trial which is approved by the Research Ethics Committee is expected to commence May 2017 after approval by the Danish Medicines Agency and the Data Protection Agency. The clinical trial finish no later than February the 6th 2018. The specified time limit is due to the trial is also basis for a master’s thesis in Clinical Nutrition at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, University of Copenhagen. A PhD based on this master thesis will proceed afterwards. Taking into account the patients’ usual control times and to minimize dropout, patient inclusion takes place ongoing, so that there is a control- and intervention period at the same time. Outcome measurements including anthropometry and dietary interviews are carried out at baseline, every two weeks and at the termination of each period. Quality of life measurements and VAS scales are filled out weekly in both periods. The semi-structured interview is carried out at the end of the clinical trial.
The results are going to be published, this applies to both positive, inconclusive and negative results. The clinical trial is registered in the two trial databases ClinicalTrials.gov and EudraCT (clinicaltrialsregister.eu). Scientific articles based on the findings are submitted to relevant journals such as The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2014 Impact Factor: 6.770). The results are furthermore used in a master’s thesis in Clinical Nutrition at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, University of Copenhagen by Ninette Renee Jensen and Rikke Lundsgaard Nielsen. The results will be presented at congresses. reported in scientific articles, in the master”s thesis, in the information material, on the department’s website, at the public master ́s thesis defense as well as at future congresses, or wherever desired. When the clinical trial is completed a report is sent to relevant authorities including the Research Ethics Committee and the Danish Medicines Agency within 90 days of completion.
Necessary permits from the Data Protection Agency, the Danish Medicines Agency and the Research Ethics Committee are obtained before the initiation of the clinical trial. The protocol is approved by the Research Ethics Committee. Side effects caused by medical cannabis varies in the literature, thus an individual titration period is implemented. No fatal cases have been reported with the use of medical cannabis in human clinical trials. Potential beneficial effects are expected when the study subjects are being treated with medical cannabis, since a gain in appetite and quality of life is expected through a modulation in the endocannabinoid system. Patients are informed that the drug is discontinued after the intervention period. The two master’s thesis students review patient charts weekly to evaluate potential side effects to the drug. The clinical trial is terminated immediately in case of serious side effects. Relevant information material is handed out to the study subjects.
Upon loss of muscle mass and function as seen in cancer cachexia, the administration of individually titrated doses of medical cannabis could hypothetically slow down the condition further, by affecting any negative protein – and energy balance through the endocannabinoid system. When relieving cancer cachexia and improving steady-state, we expect improved prognosis’s for the included patients
The overall objective of the study is that it must be orientated towards clinical significance, so that it can be implemented in clinical practice, thus benefit patients with cancer. The short-term goal is that the patients in this trial experience positive effects in terms of increased appetite and quality of life. Positive effects may contribute to increased research into this area thus resulting in improved evidence. In the longer term, the aim is that the results from this study may contribute to a treatment protocol on malnutrition recommending the use of medical cannabis based on high scientific evidence, so a larger group of patients with cancer may benefit. The results from the study may be used for recommendations on doses, side effects and likely beneficial effects when administer medical cannabis. The metabolomics analysis can contribute to a improved understanding of the cancer cachexia pathophysiology and management in a more experimental matter.