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Patterns of Use of Medical Cannabis Among Israeli Cancer Patients: A Single Institution Experience

Open AccessPublished:June 14, 2014DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2014.05.018

      Abstract

      Context

      The use of the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa L.) for the palliative treatment of cancer patients has been legalized in multiple jurisdictions including Israel. Yet, not much is currently known regarding the efficacy and patterns of use of cannabis in this setting.

      Objectives

      To analyze the indications for the administration of cannabis among adult Israeli cancer patients and evaluate its efficacy.

      Methods

      Efficacy and patterns of use of cannabis were evaluated using physician-completed application forms, medical files, and a detailed questionnaire in adult cancer patients treated at a single institution.

      Results

      Of approximately 17,000 cancer patients seen, 279 (<1.7%) received a permit for cannabis from an authorized institutional oncologist. The median age of cannabis users was 60 years (range 19–93 years), 160 (57%) were female, and 234 (84%) had metastatic disease. Of 151 (54%) patients alive at six months, 70 (46%) renewed their cannabis permit. Renewal was more common among younger patients and those with metastatic disease. Of 113 patients alive and using cannabis at one month, 69 (61%) responded to the detailed questionnaire. Improvement in pain, general well-being, appetite, and nausea were reported by 70%, 70%, 60%, and 50%, respectively. Side effects were mild and consisted mostly of fatigue and dizziness.

      Conclusion

      Cannabis use is perceived as highly effective by some patients with advanced cancer and its administration can be regulated, even by local authorities. Additional studies are required to evaluate the efficacy of cannabis as part of the palliative treatment of cancer patients.

      Key Words

      Introduction

      An increasing number of countries, including Israel, have legalized the use of the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa L.) for the treatment of a wide range of cancer-related symptoms.
      • Shelef A.
      • Mashiah M.
      • Schumacher I.
      • Shine O.
      • Baruch Y.
      Medical grade cannabis (MGC): regulation mechanisms, the present situation around the world and in Israel.
      The cannabis plant contains more than 70 cannabinoids, with Δ−9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabinol, and cannabidiol (CBD) being considered the most active and clinically relevant.
      • Turcotte D.
      • Le Dorze J.A.
      • Esfahani F.
      • et al.
      Examining the roles of cannabinoids in pain and other therapeutic indications: a review.
      These compounds are primarily found in the dried flowering tops and leaves of the female plant. These dried parts are known as marijuana, and the content of THC in these parts may exceed 10%.
      • Mehmedic Z.
      • Chandra S.
      • Slade D.
      • et al.
      Potency trends of Δ9-THC and other cannabinoids in confiscated cannabis preparations from 1993 to 2008.
      The cannabinoids mediate their action through two kinds of G-protein-coupled receptors, CB1 and CB2, found in membranes of nerve cells. The CB1 receptor is found predominantly in the central and peripheral nervous systems and suppresses neuronal excitability,
      • Rahn E.J.
      • Hohmann A.G.
      Cannabinoids as pharmacotherapies for neuropathic pain: from the bench to the bedside.
      whereas the CB2 receptor is found predominantly in immune tissue and is not related to psychoactive effects.
      • Bowles D.W.
      • O'Bryant C.L.
      • Camidge D.R.
      • Jimeno A.
      The intersection between cannabis and cancer in the United States.
      • Machado Rocha F.C.
      • Stéfano S.C.
      • De Cássia Haiek R.
      • Rosa Oliveira L.M.
      • Da Silveira D.X.
      Therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting among cancer patients: systematic review and meta-analysis.
      Several studies have tested the efficacy of either synthetic or purified cannabinoids in the treatment of cancer-related symptoms. Thus, synthetic cannabinoids were found to reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV) compared with either placebo or older generations of antiemetic medications
      • Machado Rocha F.C.
      • Stéfano S.C.
      • De Cássia Haiek R.
      • Rosa Oliveira L.M.
      • Da Silveira D.X.
      Therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting among cancer patients: systematic review and meta-analysis.
      • Zutt M.
      • Hänssle H.
      • Emmert S.
      • Neumann C.
      • Kretschmer L.
      Dronabinol for supportive therapy in patients with malignant melanoma and liver metastases.
      but did not increase appetite compared with placebo or megestrol.
      • Jatoi A.
      • Windschitl H.E.
      • Loprinzi C.L.
      • et al.
      Dronabinol versus megestrol acetate versus combination therapy for cancer-associated anorexia: a North Central Cancer Treatment Group study.
      • Strasser F.
      • Luftner D.
      • Possinger K.
      • et al.
      Comparison of orally administered cannabis extract and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol in treating patients with cancer-related anorexia-cachexia syndrome: a multicenter, phase III, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial from the Cannabis-In-Cachexia Study Group.
      Two recent Phase III trials noted a modest effect of either THC/CBD extract or the synthetic cannabinoid nabilone compared with placebo for the treatment of intractable cancer-related pain.
      • Campbell F.A.
      • Tramèr M.R.
      • Carroll D.
      • et al.
      Are cannabinoids an effective and safe treatment option in the management of pain? A qualitative systematic review.
      • Frank B.
      • Serpell M.G.
      • Hughes J.
      • Matthews J.N.
      • Kapur D.
      Comparison of analgesic effects and patient tolerability of nabilone and dihydrocodeine for chronic neuropathic pain: randomised, crossover, double blind study.
      • Maida V.
      • Ennis M.
      • Irani S.
      • Corbo M.
      • Dolzhykov M.
      Adjunctive nabilone in cancer pain and symptom management: a prospective observational study using propensity scoring.
      To our knowledge, no controlled trials have tested the efficacy of the cannabis plant in cancer patients. Despite lack of evidence-based data, cannabis use has been legalized in several Western countries or jurisdictions, including The Netherlands
      • Hazekamp A.
      • Heerdink E.R.
      The prevalence and incidence of medicinal cannabis on prescription in The Netherlands.
      and the U.S.
      • Room R.
      Legalizing a market for cannabis for pleasure: Colorado, Washington, Uruguay and beyond.
      In 2010, the Israeli Ministry of Health authorized five oncologists to issue permits for cannabis use in oncology patients being treated at their institution. Permits were valid for a period of six months and could be issued for any symptom attributed to the disease itself or to treatment (e.g., pain, CINV, weight loss, depression). Permits were granted following a formal request by the treating oncologist, who was required to specify the clinical condition of the patient and the precise indications for prescribing cannabis. The cannabis was supplied to the patients by a legal distributor.
      We aimed to analyze the indications for the administration of cannabis among adult Israeli cancer patients and evaluate the efficacy of cannabis both directly, using a detailed questionnaire, and indirectly, by examining the prescription renewal pattern among these patients.

      Methods

      Participants

      The Sheba Medical Center is an academic medical center, affiliated with Tel Aviv University in Israel, serving as a regional and a tertiary center for cancer patients. All consecutive adult patients (≥18 years old) who were treated at the Oncology and Gynecology Oncology Departments of Sheba Medical Center and received a permit for medical cannabis between October 2010 and September 2011 were included in the study. Symptoms were managed by the treating oncologist according to best practice, with a dedicated palliative care team consisting of a trained nurse and physician being available for consultation. Per national guidelines, all cancer patients receiving either active oncology treatment or supportive care, as well as patients receiving adjuvant chemotherapy, were eligible for a permit. The use of cannabis in the adjuvant setting was limited, per institutional guidelines, only for the treatment of severe side effects refractory to conventional treatment. All requests for eligible patients by the treating oncologists were approved by the institutional authorizing oncologist (I. W.). Patients with hematological malignancies and children were excluded. The study was approved by the local research ethics board.

      Measures

      Data on demographics, clinical diagnosis, treatment, and indications for cannabis were collected from the permit application forms. At the time of the study, permits for cannabis use were valid for six months, and their renewal required reapplication by the treating oncologists. We used the reapplication forms, together with survival data obtained from medical charts, to classify patients into three groups: alive and requested permit renewal, alive but did not request renewal, and dead.
      To assess the perceptions of patients regarding the efficacy of cannabis, a detailed questionnaire was administered at least one month and up to six months after cannabis approval to Hebrew-speaking patients able to answer the questionnaire. The questionnaire was completed by the patients during their visit to the oncology clinic. We focused only on patients who were actively using cannabis. The questionnaire was based on the literature, as well as previous experience and expert opinion. It comprised 39 questions: 15 questions collected demographic and clinical data; 10 questions about the use of cannabis, including the start date, indications, and mode of use; 10 questions about the efficacy of and attitudes toward cannabis (scored on a five-point Likert scale, with 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree); and four questions about adverse effects and their severity (scored on a five-point Likert scale). An improvement in symptom control was defined as a 4–5 on the Likert scale, and side effects were categorized as mild (1–3 on the Likert scale) or severe (4–5 on the scale). A pilot study of five medical personnel and five patients was conducted to assure proper wording. No external validation was performed.

      Statistical Analysis

      This was an observational exploratory study of the use of cannabis in a single institution. Demographic and clinical data for patients who renewed or did not renew the application for cannabis use were compared using the chi-square test for discrete variables and the t-test for continuous variables. All the statistical analyses were done with Statistical Analysis System software v. 9.1 (SAS Institute, Inc., Cary, NC). Statistical significance was set at P < 0.05, using chi-square, Fisher, and t-tests.

      Results

      Study Population

      During the one year study period, 279 of approximately 17,000 oncology patients being treated or observed at the Sheba Medical Center received a permit for medical cannabis. Thus, the estimated percentage of patients who received a permit was 1.7%. The demographic and clinical characteristics of all patients who received a permit, as well as those who completed the detailed questionnaire, are presented in Table 1. The median age of patients was 60 years (range 19–93 years); 57% were female; and the most common cancer diagnoses were lung (18%), ovarian (12%), breast (10%), colon (9%), and pancreatic (7.5%) cancer. The majority of the patients (84%) had metastatic disease. The oncology treatment was defined by the referring physicians as active palliative in 199 (71%), supportive care in 36 (13%), and curative in 17 (6%) patients. In most patients (216; 77%), cannabis was requested for multiple indications. The most common indication for which cannabis was prescribed was pain (76%), with anorexia, generalized weakness, and nausea also being common indications (56%, 52%, and 41%, respectively).
      Table 1Demographic and Clinical Characteristics of All Patients and Those Completing the Detailed Questionnaire Regarding Cannabis Use
      CharacteristicAll Patients, N = 279, n (%)Patients Completing Questionnaire, N = 69, n (%)P-value
      Age
       Median (range)60 (19–93)57 (24–81)0.17
      Sex
       Male119 (42.6)35 (50.7)0.28
       Female160 (57.4)34 (49.3)
      Ethnic origin
       European/American/Russian63 (22.6)14 (20.3)0.89
       Africa/Asia52 (18.6)14 (20.3)
       Israel164 (58.8)41 (59.4)
      Cancer diagnosis
       Lung51 (18.3)8 (11.6)0.78
       Ovary33 (11.8)8 (11.6)
       Breast29 (10.4)6 (8.7)
       Colon25 (9)6 (8.7)
       Pancreas21 (7.5)6 (8.7)
       Other120 (43)35 (50.7)
      Indication for cannabis
      Cannabis could be requested for multiple indications.
       Pain211 (75.6)54 (78.3)0.04
       Appetite156 (55.9)33 (47.8)
       Weakness146 (52.3)16 (23.1)
       Nausea115 (41.2)27 (39.1)
      Disease extent
       Local45 (16.1)17 (24.6)
       Metastatic234 (83.9)52 (75.4)
      Intent
       Cure17 (6.1)6 (8.7)0.08
       Active palliative199 (71.3)46 (66.7)
       Supportive care36 (12.9)15 (21.7)
       Unknown27 (9.7)2 (2.9)
      Principal physician responsible for symptom control
       OncologistNA44 (63.8)
       Family doctor6 (8.7)
       Pain clinic9 (13)
       Other10 (14.5)
      Method of administration
       SmokingNA63 (91.3)
       Other6 (8.7)
      Who recommended you to use cannabis
       OncologistNA34 (42.0)
       Media18 (22.2)
       Other patient12 (14.8)
       Family member7 (8.6)
       Pain clinic6 (7.4)
       Family doctor3 (3.7)
       Other1 (1.2)
      NA = not available.
      Cannabis could be requested for multiple indications.

      Renewal Pattern

      Almost half of the patients (128; 46%) died within six months, and 36 (13%) died within one month of receiving the first cannabis permit. Of the remaining 151 patients, 70 (46%) renewed their permit. The demographic and disease characteristics of patients who did and did not renew the license are presented in Table 2. Renewers were more likely to be younger (median age 53 vs. 61 years, respectively; P < 0.001), have metastatic disease (P = 0.02), and managed with supportive care only (12 vs. 7, respectively; P = 0.03).
      Table 2Demographic and Clinical Characteristics by Application to Renew Cannabis Permit at Six Months
      CharacteristicApplied for Renewal, N = 70, n (%)Did Not Apply for Renewal, N = 81, n (%)P-value
      Age
       Median (range)52.5 (23–81)61 (19–93)<0.001
      Sex
       Male32 (46)33 (41)0.62
       Female38 (54)48 (59)
      Ethnic origin
       European/American/Russian15 (31.4)22 (27)0.17
       Africa/Asia7 (10)14 (17)
       Israel48 (68.6)45 (56)
      Cancer diagnosis
       Lung7 (10)17 (21)0.08
       Ovary11 (15.7)15 (18.5)
       Breast8 (11.4)6 (7.4)
       colon4 (5.7)7 (8.6)
       Pancreas1 (1.4)6 (7.4)
       Other39 (55.7)30 (37)
      Indication for cannabis
       Pain54 (69)56 (77)0.83
       Appetite40 (57)42 (52)
       Weakness37 (53)49 (61)
       Nausea25 (36)35 (43)
       Anxiety26 (37)32 (40)
      Disease extent
       Metastatic51 (72.9)72 (88.9)0.02
       Local19 (27.1)9 (11.1)
      Intent
       Cure6 (8.6)6 (7.4)0.33
       Active palliative42 (60)59 (72.8)
       Best supporting care12 (17.1)7 (8.6)
       Unknown10 (1.4)9 (11.1)

      Survey of Patients

      Of the 279 patients, 113 (41%) were alive and using cannabis at least one month following approval. Sixty-nine (61%) of these patients completed the study questionnaire. Their demographic and clinical characteristics also are presented in Table 1 and are similar to those of the whole study group, although the former group were less likely to use cannabis for weakness (P = 0.04). More than 90% of patients used cannabis by smoking. Most patients (44; 63.8%) reported that their symptoms were principally managed by their treating oncologist. Yet, whereas 42% of the responders stated that cannabis was recommended to them by their oncologist, more than 45% stated that they were recommended cannabis by nonmedical sources including the media (18; 22%), other patients (12; 14.8%), and family members (7; 8.6%).
      The efficacy of cannabis use in patients, as perceived by those who completed the questionnaire, is presented in Figure 1. Improvement in pain control was reported by 70% of the patients, general well-being by 70%, improved appetite by 60%, reduced nausea and vomiting by 50%, and reduced anxiety by 44%. Importantly, 83% graded the overall efficacy of cannabis as high. Among responders to the questionnaire, 21 (30%) died within six months. Of the remaining 48 patients, 32 (67%) renewed their permits.
      Figure thumbnail gr1
      Fig. 1Efficacy of cannabis use in patients, as perceived by patients who completed a detailed questionnaire (n = 69).
      The majority of the responders (43; 62%) reported no side effects attributable to cannabis. The most common side effects reported were fatigue (14; 20.3%) and dizziness (13; 18.8%). A minority of patients described other side effects including delusions (4; 5.8%) and mood change (3; 4.35%). One patient reported requiring hospitalization because of dyspnea attributed to cannabis.

      Discussion

      Although several Phase III studies evaluated the efficacy of synthetic cannabinoids or purified extracts of THC/CBD in the treatment of cancer-associated symptoms, to our knowledge, no prospective clinical trials reporting the efficacy of natural cannabis in cancer patients have been published.
      • Bowles D.W.
      • O'Bryant C.L.
      • Camidge D.R.
      • Jimeno A.
      The intersection between cannabis and cancer in the United States.
      • Machado Rocha F.C.
      • Stéfano S.C.
      • De Cássia Haiek R.
      • Rosa Oliveira L.M.
      • Da Silveira D.X.
      Therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting among cancer patients: systematic review and meta-analysis.
      • Zutt M.
      • Hänssle H.
      • Emmert S.
      • Neumann C.
      • Kretschmer L.
      Dronabinol for supportive therapy in patients with malignant melanoma and liver metastases.
      • Jatoi A.
      • Windschitl H.E.
      • Loprinzi C.L.
      • et al.
      Dronabinol versus megestrol acetate versus combination therapy for cancer-associated anorexia: a North Central Cancer Treatment Group study.
      Accordingly, its use is not approved by regulatory agents and is not recommended by formal guidelines. Despite the lack of evidence or formal recommendations, the use of cannabis is increasing in Israel and other Western countries.
      • Shelef A.
      • Mashiah M.
      • Schumacher I.
      • Shine O.
      • Baruch Y.
      Medical grade cannabis (MGC): regulation mechanisms, the present situation around the world and in Israel.
      • Bowles D.W.
      • O'Bryant C.L.
      • Camidge D.R.
      • Jimeno A.
      The intersection between cannabis and cancer in the United States.
      • Hazekamp A.
      • Heerdink E.R.
      The prevalence and incidence of medicinal cannabis on prescription in The Netherlands.
      • Room R.
      Legalizing a market for cannabis for pleasure: Colorado, Washington, Uruguay and beyond.
      For example, the current prevalence of medical cannabis use in The Netherlands is eight per 100,000 inhabitants.
      • Hazekamp A.
      • Heerdink E.R.
      The prevalence and incidence of medicinal cannabis on prescription in The Netherlands.
      Recently, a lively debate regarding the medicinal use of cannabis was launched by the New England Journal of Medicine, followed by a poll among readers.
      • Bostwick J.M.
      • Reisfield G.M.
      • DuPont R.L.
      Clinical decisions. Medicinal use of marijuana.
      • Adler J.N.
      • Colbert J.A.
      Clinical decisions. Medicinal use of marijuana—polling results.
      Surprisingly, despite the lack of strong scientific evidence, 76% of 1446 voters supported the use of cannabis. Obviously, because of selection bias, these data should be interpreted with caution.
      The implementation of a new system in Israel for issuing permits for cannabis use enabled us to collect data regarding prescription patterns, renewal requests, and efficacy of cannabis in cancer patients. During the study period, 279 cancer patients treated at the Sheba Medical Center received a permit. This number represents a small fraction (approximately 1.7%) of all patients. The vast majority of these patients suffered from advanced disease, almost half died within six months and 13% died within one month of issuing the cannabis permit. The use of cannabis in the adjuvant setting was limited, per institutional guidelines, only for the treatment of severe side effects refractory to conventional treatment. Thus, the use of medical cannabis remained relatively restricted. This may be attributed to the reluctance of the oncologists or the patients to use an illicit drug or may be related to the lack of evidence regarding the efficacy of the treatment.
      The uncertainty regarding the role of cannabis is reflected by the multiple indications for its use. Treatment was recommended by the treating oncologists for a wide array of symptoms, and in most patients, the treatment was indicated for more than one symptom. This unique prescription pattern differs from that of most approved medications, which are often registered and prescribed for very specific indications, based on data obtained from clinical trials. Interestingly, the reasons for cannabis use in cancer patients in our study differ from the general medical marijuana population in the U.S., where the most common indications among more than 286,000 registered users were severe or chronic pain (92%), muscle spasms (21%), and nausea and vomiting (12%).
      • Bowles D.W.
      Persons registered for medical marijuana in the United States.
      As permits are only valid in Israel for six months, we examined renewal patterns and noted that less than half of the patients alive at six months applied for a permit renewal. These data are consistent with a recent survey of Israeli patients, in which only 50% of those who received permits were actually using cannabis six to eight weeks after commencing treatment.
      • Bar-Sela G.
      • Vorobeichik M.
      • Drawsheh S.
      • et al.
      The medical necessity for medicinal cannabis: prospective, observational study evaluating the treatment in cancer patients on supportive or palliative care.
      Although some patients (i.e., those receiving adjuvant treatment) may not need renewal, our data suggest that a significant percentage of patients and/or physicians do not perceive benefit from cannabis. As expected, patients with advanced disease and those receiving supportive care only were more likely to ask for renewal. This may reflect difficulties in controlling symptoms in these patients using currently available measures. The long-term efficacy of cannabis in cancer patients should be addressed in a controlled trial.
      The vast majority of the participants who completed the detailed questionnaire stated that cannabis use was associated with an improvement in all aspects that were surveyed, and 83% of them graded the overall efficacy of cannabis as high. These efficacy data are striking compared with reported Phase III trials.
      • Machado Rocha F.C.
      • Stéfano S.C.
      • De Cássia Haiek R.
      • Rosa Oliveira L.M.
      • Da Silveira D.X.
      Therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting among cancer patients: systematic review and meta-analysis.
      • Jatoi A.
      • Windschitl H.E.
      • Loprinzi C.L.
      • et al.
      Dronabinol versus megestrol acetate versus combination therapy for cancer-associated anorexia: a North Central Cancer Treatment Group study.
      • Uritsky T.J.
      • McPherson M.L.
      • Pradel F.
      Assessment of hospice health professionals' knowledge, views, and experience with medical marijuana.
      The demographic and clinical characteristics of these patients are similar to those of the entire group (Table 1). As only patients actively using cannabis at one month were asked to complete the questionnaire, the results may be affected by a selection bias. It is also possible that those who benefited from cannabis were more likely to respond to the questionnaire. Yet, it is still clear that a significant portion of the patients perceive the treatment as highly effective. It is possible that the natural plant is more effective than either the synthetic cannabinoids or the pure extracts that were tested in previous trials.
      • Hall W.
      • Solowij N.
      Adverse effects of cannabis.
      Alternatively, the major beneficial effect of cannabis may be its psychoactivity. Indeed, a meta-analysis evaluating the efficacy of cannabinoids on CINV noted a clear preference for treatment with cannabinoids, despite the marginal objective effect on CINV.
      • Machado Rocha F.C.
      • Stéfano S.C.
      • De Cássia Haiek R.
      • Rosa Oliveira L.M.
      • Da Silveira D.X.
      Therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting among cancer patients: systematic review and meta-analysis.
      Although the request forms were completed by the treating oncologist, almost half of the patients stated that they requested cannabis following recommendations made by other patients, family members, and even the media. This may have resulted from widespread public interest in the use of medical cannabis in Israel surrounding its legalization. It is plausible that the exposure to a large amount of nonmedical information regarding the beneficial use of cannabis encouraged patients to request cannabis for a wide range of symptoms.
      The reported side effects in this study were similar to those described in the literature for this population of patients.
      • Johnson J.R.
      • Burnell-Nugent M.
      • Lossignol D.
      • et al.
      Multicenter, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the efficacy, safety, and tolerability of THC: CBD extract and THC extract in patients with intractable cancer-related pain.
      • Brisbois T.D.
      • de Kock I.H.
      • Watanabe S.M.
      • et al.
      Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol may palliate altered chemosensory perception in cancer patients: results of a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot trial.
      Yet, the magnitude of side effects of cannabis could not be accurately assessed in this study.
      Taken together, our data indicate that nearly half of all cancer patients who start treatment with cannabis continue using it for prolonged periods of time and some of the patients describe the treatment as effective for a wide range of symptoms, including general well-being. Although these data cannot endorse the use of cannabis for specific symptoms, they support the view that its use may be justified as part of palliative treatment in selected cancer patients. Overuse or abuse could not be evaluated, but our experience suggests that administration of cannabis to cancer patients can be regulated by local medical authorities. Further prospective studies are required to confirm the role of cannabis in the palliative care of cancer patients.

      Disclosures and Acknowledgments

      This study was supported by the Israeli Cancer Association. The authors have no disclosures.

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