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Medical Marijuana for Leukemia: 9 Things To Know

Medically reviewed by Jazmin N. McSwain, PharmD, BCPS
Posted on September 20, 2023

As more research about medical marijuana becomes available, it’s natural for people with leukemia to wonder whether the drug could help with sleep difficulties, pain, nausea, or other side effects of cancer treatment. Some online sources claim that cannabis can treat or even cure leukemia itself, while others warn that smoking marijuana may raise the risk of cancer. It can be difficult to decide on the best step to take.

Current research on medical marijuana in leukemia is limited to small, observational studies. These studies make it hard to say for sure how helpful marijuana is for people with leukemia. Larger clinical trials of medical marijuana for people living with different types of cancer reveal a complex combination of risks and benefits to consider.

Let’s break it down. Here are nine important things you should know before using medical marijuana to manage leukemia symptoms and side effects.

1. Medical Marijuana Comes in Many Forms

Marijuana is the dried buds of the cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana contains active compounds called cannabinoids. These cannabinoids include delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which link up with the body's natural cannabinoid receptors to produce the many effects of this drug. This article focuses on the effects of THC, specifically.

Medical marijuana can be consumed in many forms. It can be taken in edible forms such as oils, drinks, baked goods, or candy, which may take hours to be absorbed into the body. The amount of THC varies by product or serving size. This may result in users taking a higher dose than anticipated.

Marijuana can also be inhaled by smoking or vaporizing. In this form, it enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain soon after. These effects fade faster than the effects of edible marijuana products.

Read about CBD oil and leukemia.

2. Medical Marijuana Can’t Cure Leukemia

It’s important to note that medical marijuana can’t cure or control cancer, including leukemia. While some early research has shown that THC may slow or stop the growth of cancer cells in some laboratory settings, this effect has not been proven in studies of people with leukemia. Cells in the human body are very different from mouse cells or cells in petri dishes.

Medical marijuana is sometimes used to treat leukemia symptoms and chemo side effects. Some studies suggest that THC may help manage symptoms like pain, nausea, and vomiting, commonly experienced by people with leukemia on chemotherapy. However, this does not treat the underlying cancer. If people with cancer choose to use medical marijuana for symptoms, it should be added to a treatment plan focused on killing cancer cells or slowing their growth.

3. Medical Marijuana May Help With Pain Relief

Leukemia and its treatments can cause pain. “I’ve been having a lot of bone pain the last couple of days,” one MyLeukemiaTeam member shared. “I’ve taken all the pain meds that I have.”

Medical marijuana, particularly strains with higher THC content, may offer some pain relief. Another member wrote, “Medical marijuana has helped me with pain relief.”

What does the research say? One study found that vaporized, low-dose THC was effective in treating neuropathic pain that didn’t respond to other forms of treatment. However, this study did not include people with pain caused by leukemia or chemotherapy.

Another small study followed people with cancer who were taking medical marijuana in addition to their cancer treatment medications. It found that they had reduced pain and took less pain medicine over time. Though not specific to people with leukemia, the research shows promising results for reducing cancer-related pain.

Consult your health care provider before using medical marijuana. It’s difficult to predict what kind of pain management will work best for you, and it’s important to keep your doctor in the loop.

4. Medical Cannabis Could Ease Nausea and Vomiting

Most people with leukemia are unfortunately familiar with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. “I’ve been experiencing days of nonstop nausea,” one member shared.

In many small studies, marijuana has shown the potential to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two human-made forms of cannabinoids for people with chemotherapy-associated nausea and vomiting. These drugs are:

  • Dronabinol (sold under the brand names Marinol and Syndros)
  • Nabilone (sold as Cesamet)

If you think that these drugs, or medical marijuana, could help you manage nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, speak to your oncologist. Keep in mind that your insurance company may not cover these medications.

5. Marijuana May Stimulate the Appetite

Many people with leukemia experience a loss of appetite. This often leads to weight loss and undernutrition. Maintaining a healthy appetite is crucial for individuals with leukemia, because proper nutrition supports overall well-being.

Some marijuana strains, especially those high in THC, have been reported to increase appetite. However, most of this research has been conducted on people with AIDS, not leukemia or other forms of cancer.

Some MyLeukemiaTeam members have discussed how marijuana increases their appetite while living with leukemia. “Vaping marijuana helps me drink lots of water, gives me an appetite, and it helps my mental health,” one member shared.

6. Marijuana May Improve Sleep

Leukemia and its treatments can lead to fatigue and sleep disturbances, such as insomnia. Good sleep is an essential part of quality of life, especially for people undergoing leukemia treatment. Certain strains of medical marijuana might help improve sleep quality and manage fatigue.

One study assessed the experiences of 24 people taking medical cannabis during cancer treatment. The study found that cannabis use improved quality of sleep and reduced the need for other sleep medications. Individual effects may vary, so it’s important to start with small doses under medical supervision.

7. Medical Marijuana Has Potential Health Risks

While medical marijuana shows promise, there are some long- and short-term risks to consider.

Mental and Psychological Effects

THC causes a “high” in most users. This feeling is commonly described as euphoria, but it sometimes causes negative mood changes such as anxiety and paranoia. People with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety should use marijuana with caution, as it can worsen the symptoms of these conditions.

Short-Term Physical Side Effects

Physical side effects of medical marijuana include increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, memory loss, and fainting. Some of these effects may worsen existing leukemia symptoms or side effects, such as fatigue.

Lung Effects

Smoking marijuana can deliver harmful chemicals to the lungs, similar to some of the chemicals found in cigarettes. This may be especially concerning for people with compromised lung function, including diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis.


It can be hard to predict how much THC you’re consuming. In edible form, doses are sometimes larger or smaller than what is written on the packaging. When smoked, the dose of THC you receive depends on how deeply you inhale and how long you hold your breath. These person-to-person differences affect how much THC actually enters the bloodstream. These irregularities can make it easy to take more than you intended.


Some users of marijuana develop a dependence on the drug and may need higher doses over time to achieve the same effects. Constant use may disrupt quality of life, relationships, and work or lead to financial problems.

Long-Term Cancer Risk

Does marijuana increase your risk of cancer? Additional research is needed to determine whether smoking marijuana can increase the risk of lung cancer. Studies have shown that people with certain types of leukemia have an increased risk for later developing lung cancer. It’s important to consider the potential risk that smoking marijuana could further increase the risk for lung cancer in leukemia.

8. Medical Marijuana May Have Legal and Financial Risks

Apart from how cannabis affects your mental and physical health with leukemia, it’s also important to consider whether it’s legal and affordable for you to use.

Medical Marijuana Laws

Medical marijuana is legal in many states in the U.S. — but not yet at the federal level. Some states have legalized both medical and recreational use, while others permit medical use only under specific conditions. Research the laws in your state to understand whether you need a prescription or a medical ID card for marijuana and/or if growing your own plants is allowed. Details about the amount you’re allowed to buy or grow may also influence your legal risk.

These regulations present challenges for MyLeukemiaTeam members trying to get access to medical marijuana. “Not having a medical marijuana card is a major roadblock,” one member explained.

At this point, the American Cancer Society has not taken a position on the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes because additional research is needed on its benefits and harms.

Financial Concerns

As a relatively new option, medical marijuana is not yet covered by most health insurance providers. This means that even if you’re prescribed medical marijuana, you may have to pay out of pocket for your expenses. “Expensive medical marijuana may or may not help!” said one MyLeukemiaTeam member. “No insurance will cover it, and it’s a stressor on finances!”

In the oncology world, there’s much debate over whether medical marijuana should be covered by insurance. In favor of medical cannabis covered by insurance, many argue that coverage would make an effective form of pain management more accessible to a diverse population. Others argue that clarifying research must be done on long-term risks of marijuana before it can be promoted by cancer specialists.

9. It’s Best To Speak With Your Doctor Before Trying Marijuana

Before incorporating medical marijuana into your treatment plan, consult your oncologist or primary care provider. They can help you weigh the costs and benefits, considering your other medical conditions, leukemia symptoms, and treatment side effects. They can also help determine how marijuana might interact with your other health conditions and current treatment plan.

Bringing up medical marijuana to your doctor might feel nerve-wracking or embarrassing at first. Keep in mind that many oncologists are open to using a combination of traditional cancer drugs and alternative treatments to treat leukemia symptoms.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLeukemiaTeam is the social network for people with leukemia and their loved ones. On MyLeukemiaTeam, more than 15,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with leukemia.

Have you tried medical marijuana to feel better with leukemia? Did it help with any symptoms or side effects, or make any worse? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on September 20, 2023
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    Jazmin N. McSwain, PharmD, BCPS completed pharmacy school at the University of South Florida College of Pharmacy and residency training at Bay Pines Veterans Affairs. Learn more about her here.
    Scarlett Bergam, M.P.H. is a medical student at George Washington University and a former Fulbright research scholar in Durban, South Africa. Learn more about her here.
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