Chemotherapy can affect patients' ability to smell and taste food, in addition to making them feel sick. Many patients don’t want to eat when they feel like this, and if they can’t taste the food, the incentive isn’t there. This can lead to weight loss, decreased quality of life and decreased chance of survival. Because of this, doctors are looking at ways that patients can maintain a good diet during and after chemotherapy treatment.
Researchers in Canada studied a small group of 21 patients with advanced cancer (except brain cancer) between May 2006-December 2008. The patients had all been eating less for at least two weeks and all were having chemotherapy or had it in the past.
The patients were separated into two groups, and one group was given a placebo capsule, or ‘sham’ medication and the other group was given capsules containing delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the main active ingredient in cannabis. They took the capsules once a day for three days and twice a day after that for 18 days.
Patients were given questionnaires to fill out before, during and after the treatment. From the results of the questionnaires, the researchers found that the majority of patients taking THC reported increased appreciation of food (73%) compared with placebo patients, and that more said the medication "made the food taste better" (55%), compared with only 10% of the placebo group.
64% of the THC patients had increased appetite, whereas half of the placebo patients had decreased appetite or no change. The THC patients also had improved taste and they reported better quality of sleep and relaxation than the placebo group.
Dr. Wendy Wismer, Ph.D., leader of the study and associate professor at the University of Alberta, said that this was the first randomized controlled trial to show that THC makes food taste better and improves appetites for patients with advanced cancer, as well as helping them to sleep and to relax better.