To be given the dreaded diagnosis of cancer is devasting for anyone, but for young people – who still have their entire lives ahead of them – the news is accompanied with even greater shock. Doctors offload vast amounts of information and refer to health professionals for further immediate treatment. It can all feel overwhelming.
Once treatment begins, the side effects kick into gear, nausea, pain, weight loss, fatigue, and insomnia all take over the daily routine. Oncologists and doctors attempt to keep symptoms at bay with traditional prescriptions, but youth and their families are starting to ask if cannabinoids could be used to reduce the effects of treatment.
Beniamin Gavris was born and currently lives in Oradea, Romania. At only 8 years old, Beniamin was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but only after being wrongly treated for what the doctors thought to be tuberculosis pneumonia. “After a proper diagnosis, I started treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I have had most of the treatment side effects as I’ve had thirteen relapses – so nausea, dizziness, several infections, neuropathy, aplasia and losing hair. As you can imagine, I lost my zest for life, and felt depressed.”
As a youth and young adult, Beniamin smoked marijuana for recreational purposes After huge amounts of research he decided to try CBD and THC for medical purposes.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the psychoactive compound in cannabis known to relieve mild to moderate pain, control nausea, stimulate appetite, and relieve insomnia by penetrating the brain – providing a ‘high’. Currently, THC is illegal in the UK without a prescription, but its relative – Cannabidiol (CBD) can be legally used for cancer treatment.
“As I heard only good things about medical marijuana and cannabis, I decided to give it a try, hoping it would help me too. I had all the support from my family to use cannabis products, but my doctor wouldn’t recommend it and said that his treatments are the ones based on exact science.”
While cannabis didn’t cure his cancer, Beniamin found it “did improve my mood, increased my food appetite (I even put on weight during the treatment), and I could sleep well during the night to feel rested in the morning.”
In a recent webinar from Youth Cancer Europe, panellists who were diagnosed with cancer at a young age were asked about their experiences of cancer treatment and cannabinoid use during treatment.
Nicola, now 26, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 11 years old. “I struggled a lot with nausea and pain.” At 15, her doctor in America introduced THC, a psychoactive cannabinoid. After using THC, Nicola says, “I was functioning better and could do more.” She described the pain as still present, but “easier to endure”. When she moved to Germany, she found it difficult to obtain a prescription for THC from doctors, but eventually did and continued using THC to manage her symptoms.
Nabilone is a synthetic THC that was prescribed in the UK to Katherine. “Once I was diagnosed, at 14, I was being sick all the time and losing so much weight.” Katherine says she had “reached the end of the road with any other fixes for nausea. I was so underweight that the doctors struggled to get my doses right.” A Canadian consultant working with Katherine suggested that she use synthetic cannabinoids to treat the nausea. “I looked up my options on Cancer Research UK and found Nabilone. “It did what I needed to do, but it wasn’t a magic bullet.” After three months, Katherine had a fit from the high dosage of Nabilone and came off of it for the remainder of her treatment. She recognized that it did its job and was the key to her being able to continue with treatment.
James, also diagnosed in the UK, was not offered cannabinoids for his pain associated with cancer treatment, but instead, was offered strong pain killers. “It’s like you’re not in the room,” he says. “Medical grade painkillers just knock you for six. I slept pretty much seven days straight once.” He would have preferred to have had the chance to live his life for his treatment duration instead of taking painkillers and sleeping away the constant pain.
Experts and doctors are hesitant to prescribe or encourage cannabinoids, citing the lack of scientific evidence surrounding their use. There are fears that it may cause some types of cancer to spread more quickly, weaken the immune system, and damage important blood vessels. All reasons to proceed cautiously, especially with children and youth.
Andrea was diagnosed at 15. When the topic of cannabinoids came up, she says “it was easier for my parents to say no to it.” In Spain, cannabis is widely frowned on for medical purposes. She endured severe, chronic pain during and after treatment and thinks it would “have been so much easier if I had cannabis.” She recalls a social event where a friend let her smoke a joint. While everyone was enjoying the high, she was just “concentrated on the fact that the pain was just muted.”
While clearly, no one wants to make a child unnecessarily suffer with the consequences of pain and nausea from cancer treatment, there are valid concerns about the interactions cannabinoids could have with other medications. Cannabinoids are metabolized in the liver, along with the other medications being taken. Experts fear what happens when liver enzymes attempt metabolizing both medication and cannabinoids as they are essentially competing against one another.
In spite of the lack of research, many parents are interested in or already using cannabis for the symptoms of their child’s cancer treatment. All the more reason for more research into the effectiveness and repercussions of cannabinoids during cancer treatments. If proven to be helpful without being harmful, it could give children an experience of youth they would be robbed of while enduring treatment.