Cannabis is big business right now, and medical cannabis, synthetic cannabis, and recreational cannabis are all their own sectors of a booming industry that is taking the world by storm, especially in the United States. Every year, cancer continues to be a concern for millions of people and their families. The link between cancer and cannabis therapy has been researched and studied, but not well enough and will continue to be studied in the future as more scientific and medical research bodies study it. We need to know how cannabis can help cancer patients, and whether it can fight cancer in its many different forms. The purpose of this article is to collect the information that’s out there related to cancer studies and results of individuals who use cannabis therapy to combat symptoms of cancer, and tell you what the truth is as far as current research on the topic. (This article is not meant as medical advice, but just a collection of current information.) Let’s take a look at what cancer is, what the current cannabis treatments are, and what medical and scientific cancer studies have found.
What is Cancer?
Cancer is not just one disease, but a collection of related diseases, as the National Cancer Institute states. The main characteristic of cancers is the dividing of some of the body’s cells constantly and spreading of this division to the body’s surrounding tissues. In a normal situation, the body’s cells only divide and form new cells when our bodies need them to – this might happen as cells age or become damaged. The process is essential to functions like repairing skin when we get a cut, for instance, and is usually “orderly.” If a body has cancer, the process breaks down and causes cells to become more abnormal. Old or damaged cells that should be purged are not, and new cells may form when they are not needed. Extra cells like this may continue to divide and form tumors, or growths in parts of the body. Benign tumors do not invade nearby tissues, but malignant tumors do – in the brain, both types of tumors can be deadly.
How Do Cancer Cells Spread?
Cancer cells are tricky; they often grow rapidly because they are less specialized, like stem cells. Cancer cells can easily divide continually without this special programming that only suits normal cells to certain areas of the body. Cancer cells also “ignore” programmed cell death signals (these are called apoptosis) which allows the body to purge cells that are no longer needed. Cancer cells are also persuasive members of the cell community inside a body (called the microenvironment); they may “induce” other cells to create blood, oxygen, and nutrient supplies through blood vessels. Another dangerous characteristic of cancer cells is their ability to “hide” from the body’s immune system. It all sounds very sinister, and it is – like other chronic diseases, cancer uses the body’s own resources to sabotage it and keep itself alive. (The process of cancer spreading to other parts of the body it did not originate in is known as metastasis.)
Where Does Cancer Come From?
Cancer is genetic and can be inherited from a patient’s parents and is a result of changes to genes caused by cell function. Besides genetic causes, cancer can also be the result of environmental exposure to substances like radiation, ultraviolet rays, and tobacco smoke. As cancer changes cells, patients will have more DNA mutations, although some of these changes have nothing to do with cancer. There are three main types of genes that are often associated with cancer, called proto-oncogenes, tumor suppressor genes, and DNA repair genes. These three are thought to cause most types of the over 100 cancers we have found to date.
How Do We Fight Cancer?
The most common types of cancer may be familiar to you, and they include carcinoma, sarcoma, leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma, and brain and spinal cord tumors. The first step in fighting cancer is, like most illnesses, prevention. This means that you should try not to expose yourself or your family to known carcinogens, or cancer-causing substances. While we don’t know exactly why some people develop cancer while others don’t, there are certain risk factors, such as heredity, age, alcohol or tobacco use, chronic inflammation, poor diet, hormones, immunosuppression through medications, obesity, infectious agents, radiation, and sunlight. This is a pretty vague list, so the best way to help prevent cancer is to be aware of your family medical history, be aware of your environment, and stay as healthy as possible. Preventing carcinogenesis (the process of normal cells becoming cancerous) is the key to cancer prevention, and not smoking is the best thing you can do to prevent cancer. At the current time, chemotherapy is the main way that doctors and patients fight cancer.
What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a combination of drugs that stop or slow the growth of cancer cells, but it can also affect healthy cells, and can be very hard for patients and their families. Chemotherapy can destroy cancer, but sometimes it doesn’t work and the cancer returns later. This treatment can also prevent cancer from spreading, and it can be used to decrease negative symptoms at all stages of cancer treatment. Currently, cannabis therapy can be used by patients to improve quality of life, ease nausea, and increase their appetites. Chemotherapy can be used to shrink tumors prior to surgery and tumor removal, and after surgery in order to kill any cancer cells the operation may have missed.
Cannabis & Cancer Patients
Cancer and cancer treatments can have many side effects, including pain, nausea, fatigue, anemia, anxiety and depression, and swelling of the arms and legs (lymphedema). Currently, all marijuana products are illegal at the federal level, but pharmaceutical THC in the form of Dronabinol and the synthetic cannabinoid drug Nabilone have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States. Individual states also allow cannabis to be used to treat certain medical conditions, among them cancer, although scientific proof of its effects is still being studied. Many states allow marijuana products such as cannabis flower and extracts to be prescribed to cancer patients to help with the management of cancer, including the following:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- Washington and
- Washington, D.C.
Regulations and requirements in each state are different, so search your state’s government website for medical marijuana information and get your medical card if you want to pursue cannabis therapy for cancer.
Cannabis and Cancer Studies
The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that different types of marijuana products (read: THC and CBD) have different effects on the human body, and that THC can help with pain, nausea, inflammation, and act as an antioxidant. Keep in mind that THC can also cause anxiety and paranoid in some patients, and isn’t for everyone. CBD (which doesn’t get the consumer high) is usually used in the form of an oil or tincture. The results of CBD oil use to combat cancer is controversial, and further scientific and medical studies are needed to determine its exact effects on cancerous cells and their human hosts. The ACS notes that marijuana consumption can reduce nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, promote food intake, and decrease pain and the necessity for other pain medicines. Studies have also shown that THC and CBD slow growth or cause the death of certain cancer cells growing in labs or present in animals being studied scientifically. The safety of cannabis therapy for cancer patients has been demonstrated in clinical trials, but there is currently no proof that if can control or cure cancer. ACS notes that reliance on cannabis alone instead of a combination of conventional medical care or medical care alone is dangerous and may have “serious health consequences.” For some people, side effects of cannabis consumption may include:
- Increased heart rate
- Decreased blood pressure
- Dizziness or fainting
- Mood Changes
- Feeling too “high”
- Poor coordination
- Dry mouth
- Reduced short term memory
The illegality of marijuana at the federal level has prevented many cannabis studies from going forward, and still prevents them, although state studies and studies outside the United States have been able to move forward in recent years. That said, here are some results of recent medical studies on the effects of both THC and CBD on cancer patients. Keep in mind that results for cannabis therapy in cancer patients have been varied, so I’ve included studies that show improvement for cancer patients, and studies that don’t. A 2016 study found that cancer patients using cannabinoid therapy in addition to more traditional pharmaceutical therapy could reduce the number of traditional drugs used to combat cancer and chemotherapy symptoms. Cannabis helped patients reduce nausea, vomiting, and anorexia caused by chemotherapy treatments and improved patient “quality of life.” Cannabis seems to be most effective for neuropathic pain for 1 in 5 patients. Nausea and vomiting were reduced in cancer patients with use of dronabinol nabilone, and cannabis extracts, as well. Cannabis did improve appetite in some patients studied, but certainly not all. If you can’t eat due to the drug cocktail of cancer chemotherapy or anxiety, it’s seems worth a try, doesn’t it?
Animal & Human Cannabis Cancer Studies
Due to the federal restrictions on cannabis studies, most pre-clinical medical trials which document anti-cancer characteristics of cannabis have been conducted on animals. Way back in 1975 a medical study found that cannabis extracts had antitumor effects in mice, and more recent studies have shown that lung, glioma, thyroid, lymphoma, skin, pancreas, endometrium, breast, and prostate cancers have been prevented from spreading through cannabis extracts as well. This means that cannabis extracts can help decrease tumor growth in animals with cancer. A pilot study in 2006 showed that some patients’ tumors shrank after treatment with THC, but all patients in this study eventually died of cancer.
A 2016 study of 20 patients found that medical marijuana use helped with radiotherapy effects, increasing appetite, decreasing pain and muscle spasms, and generally making them feel less depressed. Cannabis extracts generally don’t cause cancer cells to spread, and don’t have any negative side effects caused by interaction with other anti-cancer or chemotherapy drugs – meaning they are usually safe to use together. Some studies have found that low doses of cannabinoid preparations did cause cancers to spread, however (particularly in head and neck cancers), and some show that higher doses seem to prevent cancer from spreading. In other words, cancer cannabis therapy can be a mixed bag, and just like any drug or treatment, it may be more effective for some people than for others.
Cannabis therapy is a personal choice, and one that many help or hinder a person fighting cancer, depending on many different factors. Current studies are underway in Israel to find out whether cannabis extracts can be used for patients with drug-resistant cancer, and others are studying whether cannabis-based therapies can help mediate the effects of other anticancer pharmaceuticals and treat pain and inflammation in lung cancer patients. The result of studies like these over the next decade will give us factual, scientific, and proven results of cannabis therapy for future patients, prevention, and cures.
Cannabis Resources for Cancer Patients
The most important part of starting a new cancer therapy regime is to do your research, talk to your doctor, and find out what works best for you or your loved one. The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. are excellent resources for information about cancer and cannabis treatments, as well as other treatments available and general information. I would also recommend that patients and people who are interested in cannabis therapy contact the Realm of Caring for more information and help with dosage for particular illnesses. I wish you all the health, happiness, and wellness life can bring you.