The Promise of Cannabis for Cancer


In recent years, the medical community has notably warmed to the medical use of marijuana. Rather than being cited for the destruction of brain cells, marijuana has now been noted as a fantastic choice for patients with anxiety, glaucoma, and a wide range of other medical problems.

One area where marijuana holds a lot of promise is for use by cancer patients. Over 1.7 million people were diagnosed with cancer in 2018 alone. For many of those patients, cannabis offers a variety of low-risk relief options such as stimulating appetite, relieving pain, and progress on the anti-tumor front.

However, as with any treatment, simply smoking a few joints will not “cure cancer.” There are over 100 types of cancer, and those diseases are unique in their development and the way they affect the body. The researchers at the Society for Integrative Oncology break down the myth of cannabinoids as a cancer cure-all when they concluded

…[to claim] that cannabis oil is a suppressed cure for all types and stages of cancer is, at best, an innocent inference (educated guess) and, at worst, a delusion that has gone viral on the internet and is endangering the lives of patients with curable cancer who might choose to take cannabis oil in lieu of conventional therapy without any scientific follow up with imaging or surgery.

With that disclaimer, though, cannabis and cannabinoids represent a grossly understudied and underfunded branch of medicine. According to a recent study of practicing oncologists, 80% said they had discussed medical marijuana with their patients, but only 30% of doctors felt sufficiently informed about cannabis use.

As medical and recreational marijuana becomes more accepted culturally, the scientific community’s attitudes and knowledge have to keep up as well. A big part of that will come from research studies. Cancer Today pointed out that, without randomized and controlled studies around whole plant marijuana use in cancer patients, “Oncologists are left to extrapolate from other sources of information.” Progress is being made on that front, even if federal prohibition stops most medical research. Canada, which legalized recreational cannabis last year, is planning to do one of the first clinical trials for the treatment of cancer using cannabis extracts.

Let’s break down the relationship between cannabis and cancer treatment.

Cannabis Goes Medical

When California first legalized medical marijuana in 1996, smoking was the primary means of consumption for cancer patients. Now, cannabis comes in a variety of forms, including pharmaceuticals. Finding the right method of consumption is a critical step to determining the efficacy of cannabis as a cancer treatment.

Cannabis can be eaten, smoked, or applied topically. Each method of consumption provides a different intensity and duration of relief. Choosing non-THC products like CBD-oil will even remove the psychoactive effects. Depending on the type of cancer and the symptoms associated with other treatments will determine the method of consumption.

Certain ingredients in cannabis are now being manufactured synthetically to meet FDA standards as a pharmaceutical. Synthetic THC prescription medication dronabinol is being used to treat chemo-related nausea and vomiting. Sativex, which brings together CBD and THC, is used to treat cancer symptoms like pain.

With the legalization of hemp in 2018 making it legal to research more uses for it, the odds are high for more cannabidiol-derived medications for cancer treatments in the future.

The National Cancer Institute Report on Cancer

Medical cannabis use may have begun just over 20 years ago, but there have actually been centuries of use of marijuana in medicine (although mostly by herbalists and those interested in alternative medicine). Nowadays, alternative medicine practitioners and Canadian oncologists aren’t the only ones pushing for cannabis as a cancer treatment. Recently, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) announced it is considering the idea of introducing this herb into mainstream cancer treatments, both in the form of cannabis and broken down into cannabinoids – which are found in the plant’s resin.

In their research, they have found promise in several areas of a cancer patient’s life. Some of these include appetite stimulation, better sleep, reduction of nausea, and even general pain relief. While it is still mostly recommended for symptom management, it would do wonders if patients could fight the disease while still being able to eat, sleep, and at least gain some energy back.

With so many years of illicit and medically-prescribed marijuana use in this country, people have a pretty good idea of how cannabis functions as a cancer treatment. The support and research of the NCI will make the medical community take more notice of cannabis as a serious option for treatment.

Advocacy groups like Safe Access Now are helping to push the medical community in this direction and educate them with years of anecdotal evidence from patients. They know, for instance, that different strains of marijuana have certain effects. Sativas, for instance, stimulate thoughts and feelings and are better for daytime use. Indicas, on the other hand, produce a sedating effect and are great at night.

Some cancer researchers have even higher hopes for cannabis, though.

Cannabis and Anti-Tumor Activity

The dream for many cannabis advocates is that cannabis can treat cancer with anti-tumor activity. Most people focus on the use of marijuana for pain management, appetite stimulation and the various other ways that cannabis and cannabinoids can be used to help with side effects of cancer. Early clinical research shows that cannabis can do more.

For some forms of cancer, cannabis derivatives have not only slowed the growth of tumors, but it has also been able to shrink them as well. As the authors of the study conclude,

[…] cannabinoids induce tumor cell death and inhibit tumor angiogenesis and invasion in animal models of cancer, and there are indications that they act similarly in patients with glioblastoma. Given that cannabinoids show an acceptable safety profile, clinical trials testing them as single drugs or, ideally, in combination therapies in glioblastoma and other types of cancer are both warranted and urgently needed.

Though the research is minimal, it is incredibly positive and “urgently needed” to provide doctors and patients an alternative or supplementary form of tumor treatment. This means that – potentially – if this research stands, tumors could potentially be helped without (or with less of) the harmful effects of radiation.

Stimulating Appetite in Cancer Patients

Keeping a patient’s energy up while they fight cancer is incredibly important, and two of the most important things are sleep and food. Unfortunately, due to nausea and lowered appetite, eating is usually one of the last things on a patient’s mind. Up to 68% of advanced-stage cancer patients experience nausea and vomiting, making it difficult to eat and maintain the needed treatment regiment. However, cannabis-based medications can stimulate appetite.

This is because the THC in cannabis can affect your body’s hormones and neurotransmitters. One of the most common side effects of this is for your body to get hungry. Not only that, THC affects your olfactory bulb, making your sense of smell heightened. This can make the food around you smell and taste better, tempting you to eat.

Pain Relief

One thing that can keep a patient’s morale from falling is to keep them comfortable. That can be difficult, though, as 30% of all cancer patients experience pain, while 90% of all advanced-stage patients experience severe pain. Marijuana is actually used for a wide range of pain relief from aches and pains to headaches and even chronic conditions.

This general pain relief works well for cancer patients. A big part of this is that cancer can affect different parts of your body. Someone with brain cancer would experience different pain symptoms than someone fighting prostate cancer, but cannabis could help with either form of pain.

The pain relief that marijuana offers is potentially a good option when it comes to dealing with pain over opioids. While every medication has its side effects, the world has been seeing more and more evidence of a growing opioid crisis. Marijuana, however, doesn’t have the same addictive tendencies. This makes it a potentially better solution for those dealing with chronic pain or long-term conditions.

Cancer Healing Stories: Community in East Los Angeles

If statistics aren’t enough to prove the healing benefits of marijuana, then you could always take a look at the stories of survivors who swear by it. City of Hope in East Los Angeles is one of many communities that have a high success rate among members who used several alternative methods, the use of medical marijuana included.

The use of these second opinions and alternative care options saved the lives of many people. One patient from City of Hope, Stephanie, even reported that help dealing with her breast cancer with aggressive treatment using a mix of traditional and new treatments helped not only to save her but the baby she was carrying that all her previous doctors told her to abort.

This might not seem important, after all, she wasn’t using a cannabis-based medication specifically. Rather, you should take from it the importance of non-traditional and creative treatments. It is easy to keep thinking in the box but being a little creative sometimes can be the thing that saves someone’s life.

Conclusion

When it comes to finding ways to give those with cancer relief, science is going to have to step out of tradition and conventionality and pave way for the future of cannabis. This is why the growing legalization of marijuana worldwide has been extremely helpful in allowing science to find new and promising techniques and medications to treat cancer.