Cannabis for Cancer: The Original Medical Marijuana Use Case
Cancer is one of the leading killers in the modern world, and an estimated 38.4% of people in the US will battle some form of cancer in their lifetime. The disease is so prevalent, you likely know at least a few people who have had to fight cancer in their life. In the best case scenario, this is a life-disrupting and terrifying segment of treatment before a remission, after which they must always be vigilant for a re-development of cancer elsewhere. In the worse case, it is a terminal disease that destroys any remaining quality of life in the final days, creating an awful scenario for the patient and the family.
One of the earliest applications of cannabis as a medicine in the US was for the similar symptoms of cancer and AIDS in the San Francisco area - medical marijuana pioneers like Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary distributed cannabis to patients in need to help them with their nausea, weight loss, and pain. The amazing effects of cannabis on these symptoms gave many patients the health support they needed to heal and recover, and helped those terminal patients reclaim a quality of life they would not have found otherwise.
The modern use of cannabis for the management of cancer symptoms has gained more traction as medical cannabis legislation spreads across the US - a recent survey found that 30% of young adult cancer patients use cannabis to deal with symptoms like pain, lack of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and poor overall well-being. There is also evidence to suggest that cannabis can help pediatric cancer symptoms with minimal side-effects. In addition to the palliative management of symptoms themselves, new studies suggest that the compounds in cannabis may also be able to fight tumor formation in several unique ways. More study in this area is still needed, but in this article we will review the current research available to get an idea of the potentially promising future of cannabis medicine for fighting cancer.
Cannabis and Cancer - What We Know Now, And Still Need to Discover
As we mentioned in the intro, the use of cannabis for dealing with the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of traditional treatments like chemotherapy or radiation was part of the catalyst that led to medical cannabis legalization. Personal stories of miraculous health changes quickly spread the word that cancer patients using cannabis were able to regain quality of life, and the reduction in symptoms like lack of sleep and inadequate nutrition often led to health improvements as the body was better able to fight the disease itself. Nowadays, modern science has begun to explore the reasoning behind the varied symptom relief from cannabis products. A 2019 review study in the scientific journal Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology summarized the many symptoms that may potentially be alleviated or significantly reduced with cannabis medicine.
One of the most common side-effects of chemotherapy, nausea and vomiting, is noted to be well managed with cannabis in many cases, allowing patients to absorb necessary nutrients and regain energy. Interestingly, a point that is often considered a negative side-effect of cannabis consumption in the recreational world actually becomes a medical benefit in cancer treatment - the stimulation of appetite. A cancer patient that is struggling with a lack of appetite or an inability to hold food down will often experience severe weight loss. These patients cannot get the nutrition they need to fight the disease internally, so their health typically declines in kind. By stimulating the appetite while reducing nausea and vomiting, cannabis is able to deliver a one-two punch to this symptom and allow cancer patient to regain weight through healthier eating habits to support their recovery and wellness.
Many compounds in cannabis, including THC, CBD, and terpenes, have been identified as potential pain relievers for those with chronic and acute pain, including chemotherapy- and trauma-induced nerve disorders or the pain that results from tumor growth. These compounds are also anti-inflammatory, which is another mechanism of pain signaling that cannabis can target effectively with few side-effects. This mechanism is also part of the effectiveness cannabis has for gastrointestinal symptoms and disorders like IBS and Crohn’s Disease. This tendency of cannabis compounds to attack the root causes of pain on many fronts is likely the explanation behind cannabis’s long-standing history as a pain medicine.
There is significant amounts of anecdotal evidence suggesting that cannabis may be an effective management tool for depression, anxiety, and mood disorders, all of which are common among cancer patients. Obviously the weight of their medical situation is likely to take a toll on their mental state, and some cancer medications have negative side-effects on mood and brain chemistry as well. The main benefit of cannabis consumption in recreational circles is the mood-elevating euphoria produced by THC - this slight boost in happiness, even though external and temporary, can provide a much-needed escape for those suffering through cancer treatment. Certain terpenes, as well as CBD, have demonstrated effectiveness at calming anxiety, particularly before stressful events, and as such may be useful for combatting fears associated with cancer treatments and surgical procedures.
In addition to the wellness-supporting benefits of alleviating the symptoms of cancer to improve quality of life, emerging research suggests that several of the many compounds of cannabis may also be able to fight cancer itself through a variety of mechanisms. For example, CBD has been found in study to induce regularly-programmed cell death, preventing the runaway cell cycle that results in tumor formation. Likewise, THC has been shown to prevent the metastasis of tumor cells in certain cancer lines. Minor cannabinoids CBC and CBG have also been identified as potential cell cycle stabilizers, inducing healthy cell death to prevent tumor formation.
Aside from cannabinoids, the secondary compounds in cannabis can also have powerful anti-cancer actions in lab settings. Many major cannabis terpenes are identified as potential tumor-fighters through similar mechanisms as cannabinoids, including B-Caryophyllene, Myrcene, Pinene, Limonene, and several others. One of the most mysterious classes of compounds in cannabis, the Flavonoids, have been identified as potentially powerful antioxidants, helping to fight the root causes of environmentally-caused cancers, and a particular cannabis flavonoid has been found in a recent study to effectively fight and improve survivorship in metastatic pancreatic cancer, one of the most aggressive and deadly forms of cancer which is known for resisting traditional treatments.
While much more research is needed to fully explore these potential anti-cancer actions of cannabis compounds, it is certainly promising to see early scientific research suggesting that whole-plant cannabis medicine may provide hope for cancer patients where modern Western pharmaceuticals have let them down.
Best Cannabis Products for Cancer Symptom Management
The single most important thing to remember when considering trying cannabis for cancer symptom management is that cannabis is not a cure-all, and individual results will vary with any potential treatment supplement. Cancer is a terrible and cruel disease, so it is always best not to invest whole hope in a single treatment as a definitive cure or guaranteed effective treatment. Cannabis medicine should be seen as a palliative treatment to manage symptoms first and foremost, with any tumor-fighting benefits as potential side-benefits rather that the main goal. We are simply too new in cannabis and cancer research to say with certainty that any cannabis treatment with be guaranteed effective. Any changes or additions to a treatment plan should always be discussed with a trusted healthcare professional. With that caveat in mind, here are some considerations for cannabis products to try for the management of cancer symptoms.
The most vitally important point of consideration when looking at cannabis products is the lab testing to verify potency and purity - because cancer and its traditional treatments often suppress the immune system, a patient must be extra careful to ensure that the product received is free of contaminants, pesticides, heavy metals, or other byproducts that can harm their already reduced health. Potency will be vital for proper dosing and deciding what blend of cannabis compounds provide the most efficacious result. This includes the THC:CBD ratio, minor cannabinoids present, and looking for terpenes with the reported health benefits and nuanced effects needed for medicinal application - like Linalool for relaxation, or Pinene for respiratory health support, etc.
The consumption method used for the product will also be critical to getting the patient the best medicine possible - for example, if the patient has lung cancer, obviously smoking or vaporizing will not be the best option, so a product that does not involve the lungs (like a tincture or edible) would be a much better choice. One must also consider the impact of the effect onset time and duration of experience that the consumption method provides, and tailor it to the medical need - when looking for immediate effects for pain relief, smoking or vaporizing is the best bet, but if long-term support of the sleep cycle is needed, the delayed release and long curve of effect of edibles will be more ideal. Indeed, using marijuana edibles for cancer patients’ symptoms with great success was a leading factor behind the push for medical marijuana in the first place, as they can deliver great relief for nausea and are good for pain. When in doubt, ask your budtender for guidance on the type of experience and length of effects you can expect from a product and what may be best for your exact need.
A quick point on full-spectrum versus isolate or distillate products - recent study has shown that whole-plant cannabis medicine can provide the most targeted tumor-fighting benefits from naturally well-matched terpenes and cannabinoids, much more so than isolated products with terpenes added in from a different source. Anecdotal evidence among care-givers also suggests that whole-plant or full-spectrum products typically provide the most effective symptom relief, and at lower compound doses than their distillate or isolate counterparts. Therefore, it is generally best to look for whole-plant, minimally processed cannabis products for any medicinal application.
We hope that this guidance on the current science supporting cannabis as a treatment companion for cancer has helped you critically evaluate the information surrounding cannabis medicine in the media. If you’re interested in learning more about how cannabis works together with our bodies to support our health, check out our write-up on the Human Endocannabinoid System. If you’re nervous about experimenting with cannabis for the first time, especially edibles, read our blog post on preventing and combatting the negative side effects of THC overconsumption to set yourself up for success.