CHICAGO — During her treatment for breast cancer, Mary Paris couldn’t sleep. Her pain was “horrible,” she said. Until, she said, a doctor explained how medical marijuana might help her.
The 60-year-old Mundelein resident, who said her cancer has metastasized to her bones, said that using medical marijuana helps her not only sleep, but also feel improved mobility with less pain.
Like Paris, many cancer patients in Illinois are seeking medical marijuana throughout and after their treatment.
Judith Paice, a nurse and research professor who directs the pain program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Lurie Cancer Center, said cannabis can help with many symptoms associated with chemotherapy, radiation or surgery. Nausea, for example, is a frequent side effect and one she said many patients use cannabis to combat. It can also ease complications of cancer diagnosis and treatment like sleeplessness and anxiety.
She said requests from patients for information and advice have increased since using medical marijuana became legal in Illinois four years ago.
“It exploded with the first announcements,” she said. Recently, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a new law that allows easier access.
A 2017 study in the Cancer journal found that among 926 cancer patients in Washington state, most were interested in learning about cannabis during treatment. Among those actively using it, most people inhaled it or consumed edibles, including candy, butters, oils and baked goods.
Most patients listed their reason as pain, followed by nausea or upset stomach and stress. The study noted that comparing results among patients is difficult because of the limited number of studies on medical marijuana and cancer patients.
Among those surveyed, 74 percent said they preferred to get information from their cancer team, but less than 15 percent had received information from their physician or nurse.
Paice explains three options to patients: oral, topical and inhaling. Some patients are concerned about damage to their lungs if they inhale, she said; most opt for edibles. She also cautions it can take hours to feel the effects.
“People may use a piece of candy and not feel anything; they’ll take another piece and still not feel anything, and then a third piece, and then they’re really having confusion and cognitive impairment,” Paice said.
“Our ultimate goal is to improve outcomes for anyone diagnosed with the disease, including easing pain from treatment,” she said. The group’s partnership with the cannabis company will include social media promotion about medical marijuana.
Paice said cannabis can be helpful to breast cancer patients, in particular.
“Women going through breast cancer treatment do experience symptoms, sleeplessness, they may experience hot flashes, which then make sleep more challenging. Nausea is a considerable symptom that we can usually get under control with the available anti-nausea medication, but not always,” she said. “Anxiety is prevalent with breast cancer and all cancers.”
It’s not the right fit for every patient, she added. She reminds them not to drive after using it, and that they cannot travel across state lines with cannabis. She also cautions patients not to share their supply or use someone else’s.
Many patients who already feel cognitive difficulties from cancer treatments — some breast cancer patients, for example, talk about “chemo brain” — might not want something that could exacerbate that feeling.
“Many of our patients have tried the various cannabis products,” she said. “Many report some benefit, and others have decided they did not like the cognitive impairment that went along with it.”