When many of us think about cancer, we think about abnormal cells in the body running amok and causing the disease. Yet, cancer is not one disease. Rather, it is a name given to a group of over 100 different diseases.
Types of cancer and treatment
There are five main categories of cancer: leukemia, sarcoma, carcinoma, lymphoma and myeloma. Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow, inhibiting the marrow’s ability to produce normal red and white blood cells and platelets and producing large numbers of abnormal cells, which then enter the blood. Sarcoma can begin in supportive or connective tissues such as cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels or bone. Carcinoma starts in either the tissues that line the internal organs or in the skin. Lymphoma, as its name suggests, can begin in the lymph glands, but it can also get its start in organs such as the brain or even the breast. Myeloma cancer begins in the plasma cells of bone marrow and can either grow into one tumor, or the cells can collect in several bones. This is what’s known as multiple myeloma¹.
The “big three” standard treatments for cancer are radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Radiation treatment for cancer began in 1899², with chemotherapy beginning in 1943³. But radiation and chemotherapy come with a slew of side effects; nausea and vomiting (which can be severe), peripheral neuropathy, intense pain, insomnia, loss of appetite, depression and anxiety, to name a few⁴.
Does marijuana help cancer?
The cannabinoids in marijuana are effective due to their ability to activate specific receptors throughout the body, especially in the immune and central nervous systems. These cannabinoids have been synthesized into medications such as nabilone and dronabinol for treating the side effects that accompany cancer treatment.
Although these two drugs are synthesized versions of THC, cannabidiol (CBD) is another important cannabinoid in cancer research, as like THC, CBD affects the endocannabinoid system. CB1 and CB2 receptors are part of the body’s endocannabinoid system, which appears to modulate pain, appetite, inflammation, memory, and more. The largest number of CB2 receptors are found on natural killer cells and B lymphocytes, which researchers say suggests a possible role in immunity.
Nabiximols is another cannabis extract available in Canada. It has a 1:1 ratio of THC:CBD and is prescribed for pain relief for those with advanced cancer and multiple sclerosis⁵.
Cannabis and cancer
The palliative effects of marijuana’s cannabinoids on cancer-related symptoms has been known for some time. But the evidence is emerging that shows the ability of cannabinoids to decrease tumor growth in animals. They do this by apoptosis – programmed cell death of the cancer cells. In the studies done with laboratory animals, cannabinoids were also found to decrease metastasis in various types of tumors as well as inhibit angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels)⁶.
Researchers are eager to commence clinical trials on human subjects to learn more about marijuana and cancer, while admitting to the existence of many anecdotal reports of cancer patients using cannabis as an anticancer medicine, and benefitting in remarkable ways. Cannabis seemed to be especially effective when high-potency concentrates were taken orally⁷.
Is medical cannabis for you?
Cannabis has helped ease the side effects of cancer treatment as well as some of the painful symptoms of the disease itself, and according to in-vitro and animal studies may kill some cancer cells. Yet, doctors and researchers are no way suggesting cancer patients forgo traditional cancer treatments in favor of cannabis. If you choose to add cannabis to your cancer treatments, check with your physician.
If your state does not allow medical marijuana for any reason but you want the benefits of naturally occurring cannabinoids, you might consider CBD oil. It is available in tinctures, topicals, and concentrates, and can even be vaped. CBD can contain various amounts of THC, so be sure to check your state’s laws to ensure you’re getting a legal product.
You should also check the medical marijuana laws of your state and find out if cancer or the symptoms from cancer-related treatment are qualifying conditions. You can use this map to get started.
- Cancer Types. staff, Stanford Health Care. s.l. : Stanford Health Care, 2019. https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/cancer/cancer/cancer-types.html
- Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Radiation. Cancer.org staff. s.l. : American Cancer Society, Inc. | Cancer.org, 2019, Cancer.org. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-radiation.html
- History of Chemotherapy. Dr. Ananya Mandal, MD. s.l. : Medical.net, 2019, Medical.net News. https://www.news-medical.net/health/History-of-Chemotherapy.aspx
- Managing Cancer-related Side Effects. staff, Cancer.org. s.l. : American Cancer Society, 2019. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects.html
- PDQ Cannabis and Cannabinoids. PDQ® Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board. 2019. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/cannabis-pdq#cit/section_2.2
- Anticancer mechanisms of cannabinoids. G. Velasco, PhD,*†‡ C. Sánchez, PhD,*§ and M. Guzmán, PhD. s.l. : PMC, 2016, Current Oncology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4791144/
- Integrating cannabis into clinical cancer care. DI Abrams, MD. s.l. : PMC, 2016, Current Oncology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4791148/