Understanding Cancer Survivors’ Reasons to Medicate With Cannabis: A Qualitative Study Based on the Theory of Planned Behavior

Peer reviewed: 
Yes, item is peer reviewed.
Scholarly level: 
Final version published as: 

McTaggart-Cowan, H., Bentley, C., Raymakers, A., Metcalfe, R., Hawley, P., & Peacock, S. (2020). Understanding cancer survivors’ reasons to medicate with cannabis: A qualitative study based on the theory of planned behavior. Cancer Medicine, n/a(n/a). https://doi.org/10.1002/cam4.3536

Date created: 
DOI: 10.1002/cam4.3536
Cancer survivors
Decision making
Theory of planned behavior


Prior to nonmedical cannabis legalization in Canada, individuals were only able to access cannabis legally through licensed producers with medical authorization. Now with an additional legal access system designed for nonmedical purposes, it is unclear what factors influence cancer survivors’ decisions to medicate or not medicate cannabis as a complementary therapy to alleviate their cancer symptoms.


We recruited cancer survivors via social media. Interested individuals were purposively sampled to ensure maximization in terms of age, sex, and province of residence. Constructs of the Theory of Planned Behavior were explored during the telephone interviews as participants described what influenced their decisions to medicate or not medicate cannabis to manage their symptoms.


Interviews were conducted with 33 cancer survivors. All individuals believed that cannabis would manage their cancer symptoms. Those that chose to medicate with cannabis provided a variety of reasons, including that cannabis was a more natural alternative; that it reduced their overall number of prescription drugs; and that safer products had become available with the legalization of nonmedical cannabis. Some individuals also indicated that support from physicians and validation from family and friends were important in their decision to medicate with cannabis. Individuals who opted not to medicate with cannabis raised concerns about the lack of scientific evidence and/or possible dependency issues. Some also felt their physician's disapproval was a barrier to considering cannabis use.


The findings revealed that recreational legalization made using cannabis appear safer and easier to access for some cancer survivors. However, physicians’ censure of cannabis use for symptom management was a barrier for survivors considering its use.

Document type: 
Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute