Study Finds Marijuana Improves Quality of Life in Head and Neck Cancer Patients

Patients who used marijuana were found to have less pain and anxiety than those who didn’t.

Marijuana use can improve the quality of life of patients diagnosed with head and neck cancer, according to a new study published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

A team of researchers from Canada used questionnaires to compare quality-of-life outcomes in head and neck cancer patients who used marijuana to those who did not, from 2011 to 2015. The analysis included 74 patients who used recreational marijuana for medicinal purposes and 74 who didn’t.

“In Canada we’re looking to legalize marijuana federally and we’re trying to get a better idea about marijuana use among the cancer population, including the quality-of-life factors presenting among patients with cancer,” said Michael K. Gupta, MD, MSc, FRCSC, researcher and assistant professor in the division of otolaryngology and head & neck surgery at St. Joseph’s Healthcare, in an interview with HemOnc Today.

“We conducted a study to see if marijuana was effective for the management of pain and anxiety among patients with head and neck cancer. The study was prompted by a combination of upcoming changes in legislation and the fact that we were curious about the effects in our patients.”

Using the Edmonton Symptom Assessment System (ESAS) and the EuroQol-5D to assess quality of life, Gupta and his colleagues found that patients who used marijuana appeared to have less pain, greater appetite, and better general well being. Those who used marijuana also reported experiencing less fatigue, anxiety, depression, and drowsiness.

“The novel thing this study does is that it finds that marijuana use is associated with both lower pain scores and lower anxiety scores,” Gupta added. “So, it seems to be an agent that will both reduce people’s anxiety surrounding their diagnosis of cancer, and it will also be effective in treating pain related to cancer.”

The researchers did not observe any significant differences in mobility, self-care, or usual activities between those who used marijuana and nonusers.

The Study’s Significance and Limitations

The study’s findings indicate that marijuana could play a beneficial role in the treatment efforts of patients with head and neck cancer.

Cancers that are known collectively as head and neck cancers – including cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity, and salivary glands — account for approximately 4 percent of all cancers in the United States.

“Patients with head and neck cancer have some unique quality-of-life issues because the cancer tends to affect things like swallowing, breathing and speaking. It can be quite debilitating, and the pain can be significant and interfere with activities of daily living. Among this set of patients who have very acute and specific problems, [the findings] suggest that marijuana use is effective,” Gupta said.

Gupta, while acknowledging the potential significance of the study’s findings, reiterated the need for additional investigation into cannabis’s therapeutic potential for cancer.

“The use of marijuana for cancer pain is very much in its infancy, so we need more data,” he added. “The next thing to do is a randomized controlled trial. We need to look at these patients and randomly assign them to a fixed dose of some cannabinoid agent and assess anxiety and pain scores.”

Full text of the new study, “Association of Marijuana Use With Psychosocial and Quality of Life Outcomes Among Patients With Head and Neck Cancer,” is accessible via JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

More on Marijuana for Cancer

Previous studies have also found evidence of cannabis’s therapeutic benefits for patients with cancer. Read up on what researchers have discovered about marijuana for cancer on our education page.

You can also learn more about the history of marijuana use for cancer HERE, and keep up with the latest cannabis-related studies through our news page.