You have probably heard that cannabis is the cure for cancer, is this fact or fiction?
Cancer is an umbrella term for a group of diseases in which cells grow and spread abnormally, causing a wide variety of problems. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are over 100 types of cancers that affect humans. 12.7 million people per year are diagnosed with the disease, and another 7.6 million die from it, making it one of the leading causes of death in the world. With so many millions of people struggling with cancer, finding ways to manage its symptoms and combat its occurrence is a vitally important task. We’ll give you the breakdown on the disease, how it’s treated, and what cannabis treatment for cancer can contribute to patients.
What is Cancer?
Cancer is the abnormal proliferation of cells that causes them to grow and spread in ways that they shouldn’t. It occurs when various genes at the cellular level are altered; specifically, the genes that regulate cell growth. The causes of this alteration and subsequent growth are numerous. As a result of this change, a mass of cells called a tumor, forms. To diagnose a malignant (cancerous) tumor, six criteria must be met:
- Cell growth and division without the proper signals
- Continuous growth and division in spite of contrary signals
- Avoidance of programmed cell death
- Limitless number of cell divisions
- Promotion of blood vessel construction
- Invasion of tissue and formation of metastases (the spreading of the tumor to another organ without being directly connected to it)
Fortunately, roughly 90% of all cancers are caused by environmental factors, with the remaining 10% due to inherited genetics. In other words, it is largely an avoidable disease provided the requisite lifestyle changes are made.
What Causes Cancer?
Substances we encounter in the world that cause the disease or are linked to it, are called carcinogens. Exposure to these chemicals is to be avoided whenever possible so as to limit the chance of developing cancer. Tobacco smoke is perhaps the most well-known of cancer-causing agents, and it contains over 50 carcinogens.
It is responsible for some different types of cancer, and causes the vast majority of lung cancers at 90%. Additionally, alcohol is associated with a significant number of cancers; particularly those of the liver and digestive tract. As such, these should be used sparingly and in moderation to avoid developing the disease.
Diet and lack of exercise are also huge contributors to getting cancer in the developed world. In fact, obesity as a result of diet and lack of physical activity accounts for the majority of cancer deaths in the world at roughly 35%. While having excess body weight contributes to cancer risk in itself, a lack of exercise compounds this risk via its negative effect on the immune system and endocrine (hormone) system. Additionally, specific types of food are linked to specific cancers in themselves and should be avoided in excess. For example, a high-salt diet is linked to gastric cancer, and Betel nut chewing is linked to oral cancer.
Infectious diseases can also cause the disease, though this is a much more common cause in developing nations than developed ones. Viruses such as human papillomavirus, Epstein-Barr virus, and leukemia are all examples of diseases that can cause cancer. Radiation exposure, such as that from the sun or medical imaging machines, and inherited genes, are other less common though still significant causes of cancer.
What are the Symptoms of Cancer?
Depending on the size, location, and progression of the disease, signs and symptoms of the disease vary broadly. At the site of cancer itself, the most obvious sign is that of a lump or mass on the body that should not be there. For tumors out of sight, such as in lung cancer, symptoms may include a cough and pneumonia. Cancer of the esophagus may cause difficulty swallowing, and so on. Due to how non-specific symptoms often are, cancer is easy to miss, and patients are often treated for diseases they do not have as a result of a misdiagnosis based on their symptoms.
Other ‘systemic’ symptoms may also indicate cancer in the body. This includes:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Changes in skin
The most effective way to diagnose cancer is through early detection via regular screenings, which are common for cancers like cervical, colorectal, and breast cancer. A diagnosis is confirmed through various medical imaging devices and, at last, a biopsy of the affected site. Once a diagnosis has been made, treatment can begin.
Traditional Cancer Treatment
Cancer is a curable disease, and its treatment varies widely on an individual basis. The treatment options chosen depend on the location of the disease, its type, and its progression. We’ll examine common treatment methods in fighting cancer.
The most well known are chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is the administration of drugs that are toxic to cells, and the aim of this course of action is to kill those cells which are cancerous so as to stop their progression. Chemotherapy can be “targeted,” meaning that it only kills specific types of cells, and leaves normal, healthy ones alone. However, targeted chemotherapy does not exist for all types of cancers. This means that non-targeted chemotherapy is the administration of drugs that are toxic to all cells, resulting in a significant toll taken on the body. The symptoms of chemotherapy vary based on the specific drugs used, but some common side effects are:
- Reduced immune function
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hair loss
- Neuropathy (nerve pain)
- Organ damage
Another treatment path involves radiation or the transmission of energy. The goal of radiation therapy is to expel so much energy into the cancerous tissue that its DNA is disrupted, and cancer killed. This energy can also damage healthy tissue, however; therefore, limiting the area affected by the radiation device is crucial. With such a destructive form of treatment, radiation therapy can often come with a host of adverse side effects of its own, many of which are similar to those experienced by patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Surgery involving the removal of cancerous tissue is also common and is sometimes sufficient to remove all of the cancerous tissue by itself. Obviously, this solution is most sought after when available, but many cancers cannot be fully removed by surgery alone. As such, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and the many unfortunate side effects that come with them are commonly used. In treating these side effects, as well as cancer itself, cannabis treatment has been shown to be extremely valuable.
Cannabis as Cancer Symptom Management
A study examined the effectiveness of cannabis-based medications in reducing vomiting in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. What they found was surprising. Not only was dronabinol, a particular cannabis-based medication, an effective medicine at reducing the incidence of vomiting in patients, but it was also more effective than “conventional” drugs that aim to accomplish the same goal. The researchers also note that cannabis had some beneficial side effects: the ‘high’ sensation helped with depression, and the drug-induced sleepiness and sedation. All of these things are very beneficial in patients undergoing the rigorous treatment that is chemotherapy.
When the subjects of the study were asked about which anti-vomiting drug they preferred, most patients chose the cannabis treatment. Fortunately for these patients, that option was available. The researchers hypothesize that this was because nausea and vomiting are the most uncomfortable side effects of the chemotherapy process, and cannabis treatment was most effective at treating those particular symptoms. Lastly, the researchers make the point that the mechanism by which cannabis stops vomiting is distinct from the other anti-vomiting medicines. This is important because some people may react poorly to one group of medications based on how they interact with the body. Because cannabis interacts differently, it may be the best option available for these patients in providing a safe alternative.
How Cannabis Affects Patients
Researchers examined various therapeutic aspects of the cannabis plant, and particularly how it affects cancer patients. They note that cannabis use increases both calorie intake and frequency of eating compared to a placebo. For cancer patients specifically, for whom maintaining a healthy body weight is often difficult, an improvement in appetite and body weight was also found when using the plant.
In the study, cannabis treatment was also a fairly potent pain reliever. Specifically, they state that it benefited those with cancer-related pain. Surprisingly, it was similar to codeine in strength, but even longer lasting. Considering the fact that Codeine is an opioid, a powerful but highly addictive class of drugs, this suggests that cannabis may be preferential due to a significantly reduced risk of addiction.
Additionally, the researchers examined the effects of another cannabis-based medication called nabilone. In patients experiencing anxiety, nabilone gave them dramatic improvements in their anxiety with minimal adverse side effects. Grappling with cancer can obviously cause one to be anxious, and any mental health benefit such as reduced anxiety is important in a patient’s overall treatment plan. The study finishes by noting that cannabis treatment is very safe in overdose. In other words, an ‘overdose’ on cannabis produces relatively harmless side effects when compared to the majority of other medications. This makes cannabis among the safest possible alternative to virtually any other medication and utilizing it minimizes the risk of further compromising the health of an already sick individual.
Cannabis as Cancer Prevention
One study cited a known link between chronic inflammation and the development of cancer. It follows that reducing inflammation, as the researchers go on to say, is an effective way to reduce the likelihood of developing cancer. In the study, the researchers note that certain cannabinoids, the chemical compounds found in cannabis, have anti-inflammatory effects. As a result, cannabis treatment can be used not only to treat cancer, as we will see but prevent it from even cropping up. The best way to fight any disease is to avoid contracting it, and this exciting find makes cannabis treatment a potential candidate in a host of medications that ward off cancer.
Cannabis as Cancer Fighter
A 2012 study done on cannabis treatment and its relationship to cancer highlighted some interesting findings. In the paper, the researchers corroborate the studies we looked at before, noting cannabis’s ability to ease various symptoms patients struggle with. Additionally, they state that cannabinoids have anti-cancer effects. This means that not only is the plant a symptom-management medication, but a disease-fighting one as well. Cannabinoids inhibited tumor growth in the study both in vitro (in a test tube/petri dish) as well as in vivo (in a living organism). The study goes on to list the different types of cancers that cannabis’s intervention helped to inhibit, and the list is nine cancers long. The researchers suggest that more studies be done to get the full scope of what cancers cannabinoids can treat.
Is Cannabis Smoke the Same as Tobacco Smoke?
On the subject of cancer and cannabis, some are worried that smoking the plant can cause lung cancer in a similar fashion to smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products. A survey of thousands of studies was conducted in 2014 to determine whether or not there is a correlation between cannabis smoking and lung cancer. In their detailed analysis, the association between the cannabis smoking and lung cancer was found to be weak. Further, the researchers say there is “little evidence” for an increased risk of lung cancer from habitual cannabis smoking.
An earlier study concurs. With the suggestive title, “Cannabis and tobacco smoke are not equally carcinogenic,” the researchers seek to make clear that smoking cannabis is far and away safer than smoking tobacco. The abstract concludes by stating that “…tobacco smoke, but not cannabis smoke, may result in lung cancer.” Clearly, smoking cannabis and smoking cigarettes do not have the same consequences, as the link between cancer and tobacco smoking is abundantly clear.
The Future of Cannabis Treatment for Cancer
The science is on the side of cannabis as an effective treatment for virtually all aspects of the disease. Cannabis treatment can prevent it from occurring, slow or stop it once it does occur, and effectively treat the symptoms associated with it. Fortunately, the opinion among experts is that more research should be done on the plant in light of these findings. The data suggests we’re on the cusp of discovering that cannabis and its extracts should be used for the majority of patients in at least some avenue of their treatment plan. Due to how innocuous and relatively harmless the drug is, the prospect of replacing other more harmful medications with cannabis is an exciting one.