Joel Brown says that he didn’t know a lot about pot’s properties before he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer in 2014. “But when you’re facing death, you want to really become part of the treatment and figure out what’s going on,” he says. “So I started looking at alternative therapies.”
As a 28-year-old chef living in Toronto — where marijuana is legally available — Brown was now facing six months of regular chemotherapy. He says he immediately started investigating how weed could help him cope with his treatment. And he’s not the only one.
A new survey shows that if marijuana is legally available, a lot of people with cancer are likely to use it, and even more are interested in learning about how it could help them during their illness.
A team of researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center surveyed 926 cancer patients at the Seattle Cancer Center Alliance and according to results published Monday in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, about 25 percent of patients used marijuana in the past year.
Washington was one of the first states to legalize marijuana in the United States; adult possession of weed became legal there in 2012 and retail marijuana stores opened in 2014. The research team also surveyed patients about their perspectives on using marijuana during treatment. They found that most patients had a strong interest in learning about using weed, with 74 percent saying they’d like information on marijuana from cancer care providers. Researchers also found found that 66 percent of those surveyed had used marijuana in their lifetimes, while 24 percent had used it in the last year, and 21 percent had used it in the last month.
“More than half of active users reported that legalization significantly increased their likelihood of using, and cannabis use was spread across demographic subsets, including age, sex, and cancer diagnosis subsets,” the study reports.
There’s been a small amount of study on marijuana’s ability to alleviate symptoms related to cancer treatment, but not a lot of study has been done on users themselves.
Brown says he smoked pot in high school but didn’t really interact with marijuana very much before starting his chemo treatment at 28. He says a couple of friends had mentioned that pot could help his treatment, and he was willing to try anything.
“I did it proactively. Almost right before (starting chemo) I started smoking,” Brown says. “I told my doctor and she said I shouldn’t smoke it, but that ingesting it wasn’t terrible.”
Brown’s doctor told him she couldn’t directly recommend pot to him — he thinks it’s because it wasn’t a part of his chemo program, which included a lot of different chemo drugs.
The American Cancer Society says that more research is needed on marijuana as a treatment for cancer symptoms, as the drug has been known to help in treating nausea from chemotherapy, reduce pain and anxiety, and increase appetite. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, properties in weed actually have the potential to combat cancer cells.
More recently, scientists reported that THC and other cannabinoids such as CBD slow growth and/or cause death in certain types of cancer cells growing in lab dishes. Some animal studies also suggest certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce spread of some forms of cancer.
But there’s a wide dearth of hard data on the matter; marijuana’s classification as a controlled substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has inhibited much in-depth research.
Brown says that he didn’t experience a lot of the nausea associated with chemotherapy until the very end of his treatment. Where pot really helped was in improving his mood and his general outlook during his illness. “The big thing that they tell you is you need to have a really positive attitude and that will help a lot with the treatments,” he says. “And it’s super hard to maintain when you’re going into those hospitals, they’re pretty dark places.”
“After I did a round of chemo, I would feel like absolute shit and garbage for like two days. But then I’d eat some pot or vaporize — that’s predominately what I was doing — and I’d feel better.”
In Toronto, marijuana possession laws are still evolving as the government tries to regulate the pot market. Medical weed from licensed distributors is legal, but dispensaries — with unlicensed products — still manage to pop up around the city, and a dealer-based market also exists.
Now having been in remission for the past two years, Brown says he hopes that as marijuana continues to edge towards legalization, doctors and scientists will study it more and get a better handle on its cancer-combating qualities — apart from its ability to help with mood. He’s not the only one.
“Cancer patients desire but are not receiving information from their cancer doctors about marijuana use during their treatment,” says Dr. Steven Pergam, one of the researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “So many of them are seeking information from alternate non-scientific sources.”
Being a chef, while he was sick Brown says he got really into finding ways to cook with weed. He would infuse coconut oil and make bullet proof coffee, or infuse olive oil and use it on a salad. Since recovering, Brown has sent his weed-infused ingredients to other people he knows who have been diagnosed with cancer, because he believes it can make impact on how they feel.
“My friend’s mom called me up in tears saying, ‘I’m really happy, I want to go out and do things, I want to eat dinner with my family, I want to do all these things that I couldn’t do two weeks ago,’’ he says. “So it works.”
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