Medical marijuana could improve cancer patients’ quality of life

Jane’s cancer was incurable. She had a hard time eating and taking medication due to pain and nausea despite many of our best medications. A friend had suggested the use of marijuana, but Jane was adamantly against this because of its illegality. It might have helped Jane, a 67-year-old Wethersfield resident with advanced colon cancer, endure very difficult symptoms in her final weeks, but it is not an option for law-abiding citizens. This needs to change.

I am a cancer center director and oncologist. It’s my job and my privilege to provide patients and families with treatment options and the information they need to chose the right path to treat and, if possible, cure cancer. One useful alternative that is not available to most cancer patients in Connecticut is medical marijuana. It is neither a panacea nor a magic bullet, but it could significantly improve the quality of life for patients like Jane. That’s why 15 states have legalized such use and 10 others are seriously considering it.  That’s why Gov. Dannel Malloy has sponsored this legislation and many of our legislators support it.

Cancer patients often cope with a variety of symptoms, including pain, nausea and loss of appetite.  These conditions might relate to effects of the cancerous growths or to the impact of treatment, including surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy.  While we have effective drugs to help control these issues in general, each patient needs to have a tailored treatment plan to help maximize his or her function and minimize side effects.  Pain medications of the opioid classification such as morphine, antinausea or appetite-stimulating medication each have their own set of potential side effects.  While they are generally effective, there are certain patients who benefit from cannabinoids to relieve these types of symptoms.  Marinol, a synthetic prescription drug of the cannabinoid type, has some of these benefits, but is not always tolerated well by patients.  A large number of scientific studies reveal that the use of marijuana can markedly improve some patient symptoms.

I therefore support the availability of medical marijuana for those selected patients who might benefit.  Most notably, some patients near the end of life might benefit from this approach whereby their symptoms could be lessened and they might have fewer sedating or other side effects from some of their regular medications.  The scientific literature also suggests that medical marijuana may help with a host of other vexing medical conditions including chronic pain syndromes, AIDS, neurologic syndromes, and others.  Clearly, a panel of medical professionals could assist the state Department of Public Health in developing a list of appropriate indications for which the Physician could prescribe its use.

As someone who has campaigned strongly against tobacco use, I do not offer this endorsement lightly. But the risks and benefits of marijuana use are very different for adults suffering from cancer or certain other conditions than for healthy individuals. This legislation would enable doctors and their patients to make sound choices and exercise all options, without fear of prosecution.

 

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