Medical Monday: Cannabis and Cancer

Medical Monday, Patient Education | 1 comment

Unfortunately, chances are you yourself or someone close to you has experienced the reality of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, "approximately 39.6 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes (based on 2010-2012 data)." While survival rates are improving, the mortality rate remains at roughly 50 percent. A cancer diagnosis is not easy to deal with — it can be emotional, frustrating and intimidating. Luckily, however, modern medicine and research provides a variety of methods to treat the disease and its symptoms, leaving several options for the diagnosed individual to choose from. For certain states where it is legal, these many methods include cannabis. In Arizona, cancer is a qualifying condition to receive a medical card. Many turn to the plant for a number of benefits; beyond just relieving pain, cannabis can help with nausea, appetite loss and stress/anxiety.

How exactly does cannabis interact with cancer though? Research is still limited in the U.S., yet there have been countless studies completed across the globe to untangle this complicated relationship.

The Organization Cancer Research UK cites evidence that mice who are delivered high doses of THC have a lower chance of developing cancer, but there is also research unveiling the role of endogenous cannabinoids (cannabinoids that are created naturally in organisms' bodies) and how this may inhibit tumor growth. In the end, more research is needed. The American Cancer Society does include cannabis as a treatment on their website, however, this is under the assumption the patient will be using the federally-approved pharmaceuticals, Dronabinol and Nabinol. These drugs are made by isolating a single cannabinoid, oftentimes THC. This isolation can sometimes be detrimental; often the combination of the cannabinoids and terpenes -- known as whole-plant medicine -- may be more effective.

Canadian Rick Simpson cured himself of metastatic skin cancer in 2003. He became well-known for promoting a whole-plant medicine, deemed Rick Simpson Oil (RSO). HMH sells a product made the same as the RSO, but we call ours Health Oil. This oil includes a variety of cannabinoids, including THC and CBD, and terpenes. The Oil is one of the most versatile cannabis products, and can be ingested through a number of methods, including eating it directly, applying it to the inside of one's mouth and absorbing it over time, using it with a suppository, and applying it topically as one would with a salve. Many have described using the oil as a euphoric, relaxing experience. Rick Simpson has claimed the oil has cured several ailments including, but not limited to, cancer, AIDS/HIV, Chron's Disease, burns, multiple sclerosis and osteoporosis. Unfortunately, Simpson faced backlash from Canadian authorities, and was unable to continue living in Canada. He now resides in Europe.

The whole plant medicine has been shown to be more effective than limiting treatment to one cannabinoid. According the Israeli researcher  Dr. David Meiri, “In addition to active cannabinoids, cannabis plants also contain a multitude of other therapeutic agents, such as terpenoids and flavonoids that are usually present in small quantities, but can have beneficial therapeutic effects, especially as synergistic compounds to cannabinoids.”

Even so, according to the American Cancer Society, there is definitive evidence based on cannabis-based therapies. The Society also believes that more research regarding the cannabis plant itself is needed, saying "The classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration imposes numerous conditions on researchers and deters scientific study of cannabinoids." De-scheduling cannabis will allow for more research regarding cancer and numerous other ailments.

While cannabis may not eliminate cancer, it can definitely aid in managing many of the side-effects. The Society highlights the following findings regarding cannabis therapy for cancer patients.

  • A number of small studies of smoked marijuana found that it can be helpful in treating nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.
  • Studies have long shown that people who took marijuana extracts in clinical trials tended to need less pain medicine.
  • More recently, scientists reported that THC and other cannabinoids such as CBD slow growth and/or cause death in certain types of cancer cells growing in laboratory dishes. Some animal studies also suggest certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce spread of some forms of cancer.

As stated above, it would be irresponsible to guarantee that cannabis will cure cancer. Cancer Research UK states it well: "Unverified anecdotes about ‘cures’ do little to help progress towards more effective treatments for patients on a wider scale ... they aren’t strong scientific evidence." However, the evidence that has been gleaned from research and controlled lab tests are promising. These results have pushed medical researchers to continue exploring the world of cannabinoids and how it interacts with the human body.

If you would like more resources about treating cancer with cannabis, we recommend a few websites here:

Americans for Safe Access

National Cancer Institute