When it comes to cancer care, employers need more guidance on cannabis use

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Cancer is still a widespread disease, and the risk of getting it at some point in your lifetime is roughly 40%. But survivorship in cancer continues to increase, because of the increase in healthy aging and advances in early detection and treatment.

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Because not all cancer diagnoses are a death sentence, more and more people are living long-term with the side effects and symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment, and many need to return to work to earn a living. Employers need to understand that cancer care is evolving and that treatments may go on for years or decades; employees need longer-term support and care to feel well enough and manage side effects efficiently enough to return to the job safely.

Medical cannabis is now one of the common ways cancer patients help manage their pain, nausea, sleeplessness and anxiety during or after treatment. In fact, up to 40% of patients with cancer will use cannabis at some point along their cancer trajectory for treatment-related side effects—either during treatment or during survivorship.

See also: As cancer costs rise, why employee benefits plans should include biomarker testing

And for many patients, medical cannabis is less risky than opioids and other controlled substances when it comes to side effects and addiction.

What HR, business leaders should know about cancer and cannabis

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What HR and business leaders must understand about helping employees battling cancer and supporting their return to work is:

  • Having options for safe, alternative therapies is becoming a priority for employees living long-term with cancer and who are eager to return to work. In some cases, cannabinoids in place of other symptom-management drugs, such as opioids, can facilitate a quicker return to work.
  • Employees are already turning to medical cannabis as an effective way to treat pain, nausea, lack of appetite, sleep issues and anxiety during cancer treatments instead of opioids.
  • Today, people are using cannabis unsafely and ineffectively due to a lack of clear clinical communication and guidance. They are often making themselves ill and spending more than $250/month on products if they are using it two to three times per week, according to the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.
  • Guided use of cannabis is incredibly important in reducing risks. Employers can play a key role in providing tools to help employees determine whether cannabis should be part of their healthcare journey by providing clinical education and personalized care guidance.

For example, I worked with a physician undergoing cancer treatment who wanted to return to work in a part-time fashion. He was taking opioids for pain management while receiving ongoing chemotherapy and was unsure how to return to work safely. He was sent to me for evaluation and treatment planning and was interested in using cannabis. He was unsure about cannabis but was open to anything that would allow him to remain with adequate pain control and safely return to work.

He ultimately found that taking CBD-rich products during the day to avoid opioids and intoxication, and taking opioids/THC in the evenings and on days off when post-treatment clinically made sense. Occupational Health, myself, HR and the patient all agreed this was a safe plan for him to successfully return to work. He has remained able to work part-time for 18 months while finishing cancer treatment.

At the end of the day, it is in the best interest of HR professionals to better understand medical use of cannabis and provide guided use. This leadership can help employees evaluate potential and safe return-to-work options and improve guidance around management of cancer-related side effects.

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