Cancer touches us all, either directly or through our friends and family.

Sometimes, that cancer can cause chronic pain, or its treatments may cause side effects such as nausea and loss of appetite. But, like other types of disease with similar symptoms, treatment is available - and preliminary evidence suggests medicinal cannabis may be an option for some patients.
Old man patient hand in hospital

Pain and side effects as a part of cancer

Pain and other side effects are not a normal part of cancer, but can occur - especially for those with more advanced cancers, undergoing more serious treatment.

For pain in particular, it can develop from a variety of causes (which we list below) and may be either acute or chronic.

The important thing to know about cancer pain (and other negative side effects of treatment) is that you don’t have to live with it. There exists a variety of methods to offer varying degrees of relief to these symptoms.

Acute versus chronic pain: Acute pain tends to come on quickly, feels sharper, and generally goes away when the underlying cause is treated. Chronic pain is felt most days of the week, and doesn’t go away for three to six months or longer.

Sick little boy sitting on bed. The boy is coughing, feeling sick and nauseous.
The comforting the boy.
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What causes cancer pain?

It’s relatively common for cancer pain to be caused by tumour growths and/or cancer treatment.

For example, tumours can grow to press on bones, muscle tissue and nerves, causing pain over time. Nerve pain can also cause what’s known as ‘referred pain’, where pain runs along the nerve and you feel it somewhere else in the body. Additionally, treatment such as chemotherapy, bone marrow sampling and spinal tapping ca

Old man patient hand in hospital

Common treatments for cancer pain and other side effects

Cancer pain can be treated much like any other type of chronic or acute pain - with a mixture of medication and lifestyle changes.

Doctors may prescribe painkillers or anti-inflammatories, or in very specific cases, opioids. Massage, acupuncture and relaxation techniques may aid with treating pain, as can pain management skills. To learn more about some of these, have a read of our chronic pain page.

Common side effects of cancer treatment include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Changes in appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Digestive problem

Loss of appetite and nausea in particular can deprive the body of nourishment at a time when it is important to maintain your strength. Thankfully, most of these side effects will go away with time. If they don’t – or if you want to try some additional remedies – relaxation techniques, healthy eating and gentle exercise have been known to help with some of them. However, if you’re concerned about any particular symptom, it’s best to talk to your doctor and seek medical advice.

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Using medicinal cannabis to treat cancer pain and other side effects

Medicinal cannabis has a number of reported benefits for people with cancer-related symptoms, with early research supporting anecdotal evidence in a few key areas.

In one study, researchers found that patients administered with medicinal cannabis (delta-9 THC (27 mg/ml)) reported “significant benefits” to their symptoms of cancer pain. The results were most common in patients the researchers suspected had been receiving lower opioid doses. Source

Medicinal cannabis was also found to be “highly effective” at helping older-aged palliative care patients with symptoms connected to advanced cancer, with the number of patients experiencing pain cut in half. Researchers noted there were some memory loss side effects, but that this may be associated with comedications and the advanced age of participants. Source

In a UK paper, THC:CBD extract, administered over a two-week period, was found to reduce chronic pain associated with advanced cancer in patients who had found opioids inadequate. Twice as many patients in the THC:CBD group showed a 30% reduction in pain when compared to placebo. Source

Two studies found evidence to suggest a compound found in medicinal cannabis, THC, may have links to negating nausea in chemotherapy patients. In one, a combination of medicinal cannabis and prochlorperazine worked effectively at controlling chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. In the other, researchers found nausea/vomiting to be less severe in those treated with THC. Source 1, Source 2

Case study: A patient of ovarian cancer wrote for Healthline about her experiences with cancer pain and medicinal cannabis. While she experienced weight and hair loss, exhaustion, and blistering, she credits her lack of nausea/vomiting with taking 1g of medicinal cannabis extracts in pill form each day. Her appetite also improved. Source

Limitations of medicinal cannabis research

At the time of writing, research on medicinal cannabis is in its early days. In medicine, we like to see a large number of studies conducted over long periods of time (with large numbers of participants) to make definitive statements about the efficacy of certain treatments. As yet, medicinal cannabis has not reached this stage, although there is a significant amount of preliminary research coming out that warrants more large-scale study. Patients should always talk to a health professional for advice on their unique requirements before making any decisions about their treatment options.

Who to talk to next

Wondering where to turn to next? If you’d like to speak with a medical professional who knows the research on medicinal cannabis and can offer you guidance on whether it’s right for your needs, consider booking a digital GP appointment using our telehealth service today.