Given the fact that almost two out of five Americans are diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lives, cancer concerns everyone. Chances that you or someone close to you might battle cancer are sky-high.
Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana as a treatment for cancer, the shifting attitude to cannabis is encouraging more patients to turn to their physicians with a question whether marijuana cures cancer and helps ease cancer-related symptoms.
Despite the fact that a plant has been labeled dangerous and classified as a Schedule I drug, scientists continue to provide more evidence on marijuana as a powerful medication that can help with a number of debilitating conditions, including chronic pain, HIV, epilepsy, and cancer.
Cancer is not one disease but a collection of related impairments characterized by an abnormal growth of cells. There are more than a hundred different types of cancer, each of which could affect any type of cells in the human body.
Many cancers, except blood cancers, form solid tumors, which are masses of tissue. Cancerous tumors are malignant, i.e. they can spread onto nearby tissues. Although cancerous tumors can be removed, they are likely to grow back. As these tumors grow, some cancer cells can travel through the blood or the lymph system and form new tumors—this process is called metastasis.
Cancer can be caused by both external factors, like tobacco smoking, carcinogens, or viruses, and genetic factors, including genetic mutations inherited from parents. However, the majority of cancers are due to environmental factors, and only up to ten percent fall on genetics. According to the World Health Organization, tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of cancer in the world causing 22 percent of cancer deaths.
Symptoms differ depending on the type of cancer and its location in the body. Among the most common symptoms, there are bruising, fever, fatigue, blood in urine, coughs (often accompanied by blood), heartburn, difficulty breathing, changes in genitalia, weight loss or gain, spots and growth on the skin, and pain.
Chemotherapy. This is one of the most common ways to treat cancer. Chemo is a form of treatment in which a patient uses one or more anti-cancer drugs as part of a chemotherapy regimen to inhibit the cancer cell division or reduce symptoms (palliative chemo). However, while killing “bad” cells, prescription drugs damage or stress healthy cells leading to their death. This results in the side-effects of chemo: decreased production of blood cells, inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract, and hair loss.
Surgery. Surgery can be performed to remove or debulk tumors and ease the pressure and pain they cause. This method of treatment is used for most localized, solid cancers. Along with tumors, surgeons often remove healthy tissues and lymph nodes.
Immunotherapy. This type of treatment implies the administration of living organisms to stimulate the immune system to destroy tumors. Immunotherapy works better for some types of cancer than for others and often causes flu-like symptoms.
Hormones. Hormone therapy is used to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells and prevent or reduce symptoms. Some hormones are administered orally, others—via injection or during surgery. Oftentimes, hormones are used with other drugs to minimize the chance of cancer recurrence.
Radiation. Radiation therapy uses high doses of radiation to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells and to shrink tumors. Nearly half of all cancer patients receive some type of radiation during the course of their treatment. However, it can also damage normal cells, leading to numerous side effects, including memory loss, fibrosis, diarrhea, and bleeding.
In 2015, the U.S. National Cancer Institute, one of the federal government sponsored agencies, wrote on its website that “cannabis has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory.” NCI also acknowledged that marijuana might have benefits in treating the symptoms of cancer or the side effects of cancer therapies.
NCI preclinical studies demonstrated the efficacy of cannabinoids to inhibit tumor growth and cause cell death. Animal and laboratory studies showed that cannabis might be able to kill cancer cells while protecting healthy cells. The researchers also claimed that a lab study of THC killed cancer cells. Later, when the study was repeated in mouse models, it showed its anti-tumor effects that could help in the treatment of lung, colon, and breast cancers.
Back in 1998, scientists at the Madrid’s Complutense University first reported that THC could selectively induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in brain tumor cells without negatively impacting the surrounding normal cells. In 2000, they followed up their initial findings and found that injections of the synthetic cannabinoid agonist WIN 55,212-2 eradicated malignant gliomas (tumors in the brain) in one-third of treated rats.
The National Institute of Health published a study in 2011 that demonstrated that THC decreased the viability of liver cancer cells. Cannabinoids were also shown to inhibit tumor growth and accumulation of fluid in the abdomen.
CBD was also found to cause cancer cell death and lessen the growth and spreading of tumors. In 2003, Italian investigators reported that cannabidiol inhibited the growth of various human glioma cell lines, thus suggesting a possible use of CBD as an antineoplastic agent.
While the medicinal value of marijuana as a cancer cure remains highly disputed in the scientific community, no one doubts that the plant is a potent medicine for many cancer and treatment-related side effects—loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and pain.
A growing number of cancer patients, as well as their oncologists, view the substance as a viable alternative for managing both chemo’s effects and emotional health consequences of the disease. A 2014 poll by WebMD and Medscape showed that more than three-quarters of physicians in the country believed cannabis to provide real therapeutic effects, and among oncologists, there was the strongest support (82 percent).
Given all the positive effects of the drug, the NCI decided to add marijuana to its Guidelines Exit Disclaimer and recommend cannabinoids as a breakthrough treatment for chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting. Moreover, the pill form of THC, Marinol, has been approved by the FDA for treating chemo-induced symptoms since 1985.
Along with nausea, cancer patients often experience weight loss. Thankfully, marijuana is a good appetite stimulant—it can increase food intake and prevent unpleasant loss of weight. The drug is actually one of the few anti-nausea medicines that increase appetite.
Cannabis also helps people sleep and elevates their mood—not an easy task when someone is facing a life-threatening illness.
Neuropathic pain is a symptom cancer patients may experience, especially those who are treated with platinum-based chemo or taxanes. To ease both acute and aching pain, many people prefer to use marijuana instead of painkillers. Smoking weed reduces the intensity of pain, improves sleep, and is usually well tolerated with no serious side effects.
Any oncologist will tell you that “cure” is a huge word in medicine. The term usually implies that after medical treatment, a patient no longer has the condition anymore, or, in the case of cancer, they have survived at least five years without evidence of their disease.
Scientists still do not know whether cannabis can cure cancer. And the reason is that there is not enough evidence for that. The strongest argument most proponents use toward marijuana being a cure is that the studies showed the plant could kill cancer cells. However, it all falls apart when it comes to human testing.
In most of the studies reporting about curative properties of marijuana, researchers used Petri dishes and mice. In order for marijuana to find the way into clinical cancer treatment, rigorous clinical and pharmacological studies need to be conducted. Human testing remains mostly in plans. Furthermore, the federal ban on medical cannabis significantly slows down the process.
Is marijuana a potent medicine for cancer patients? Absolutely. It shows amazing results being a part of anti-cancer therapy. Does it cure cancer? Perhaps, but we do not know it for sure yet.