In June, Oklahoma became the 30th state to legalize some form of marijuana, and nine states in total have now decriminalized the drug altogether. These changing policies toward cannabis aren’t just good news for those who use the drug recreationally – or who are impacted by discriminatory drug laws – they vastly expand treatment options for those who suffer from a variety of chronic conditions, and even potentially deadly diseases such as cancer.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved cannabis as a cure for cancer, several scientific studies suggest cannabinoids could one day have a role in the treatment of the disease. And, already, researchers and patients are seeing improvements in symptom and side effect relief with the use of cannabis.
Here are five ways cannabis is changing the treatment of cancer.
In a European study published July 30 in Oncogene, mice with pancreatic cancer who were treated with a combination of cannabidiol (CBD) and chemotherapy survived nearly three times longer than those treated with chemotherapy alone. This finding is especially significant considering the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer remains at about 5% and has not changed substantially in the past 40 years, study authors noted.
Of course, human trials with CBD and chemotherapy are needed. The good news is that may happen very soon in the UK since the chemical is already approved for use in clinics, the study’s lead researcher, Marco Falasca of Queen Mary University of London, said in a news release. “If we can reproduce these effects in humans, cannabidiol could be in use in cancer clinics almost immediately, compared to having to wait for authorities to approve a new drug.”
While chemotherapy may be effective in killing cancer cells, the side effects from this treatment can leave patients with nasty side effects that, thankfully, CBD can help mitigate. “Nausea and vomiting, appetite issues, fatigue, anxiety, insomnia—those sorts of things that are associated either with cancer or chemotherapy, those things are very well treated with cannabis,” Harvard-trained Holistic Care expert Jordan Tishler, MD, who’s a leading expert on Cannabis therapeutics, told NPR station WBUR.
A systematic review of 30 randomized controlled trials involving 1,138 patients found that cannabinoids were more effective than placebo in reducing chemotherapy-induced nausea. Researchers also concluded CBD could be advantageous in preventing potentially devastating drug interactions. “To be able to suggest a single agent that could hold benefit in the treatment of nausea, anorexia, pain, insomnia, and anxiety instead of writing prescriptions for 5 or 6 medications that might interact with each other or with cancer-directed therapies seems advantageous,” study authors wrote.
It’s for that reason Newsweek labeled cannabis a “wonder drug” when it comes to the “horrors of chemo” in 2015. And while a majority of the evidence to support use in cancer patients is anecdotal, “A 2014 poll conducted by Medscape and WebMD found that more than three-quarters of U.S. physicians think cannabis provides real therapeutic benefits,” Newsweek reported. “And those working with cancer patients were the strongest supporters: 82 percent of oncologists agreed that cannabis should be offered as a treatment option.”
Cancer patients can experience severe pain, either as a result of their disease or the modality used to treat it. But a 2017 review of medicinal cannabis in cancer treatments found “evidence suggesting that medical cannabis reduces chronic or neuropathic pain in advanced cancer patients.”
Another review last year concluded that currently available data provides sufficient evidence to support the use of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)/CBD spray in pain patients who don’t respond to standard treatment. Though, the study authors concluded, “cannabanoids should not be used in isolation as the only treatment, but in combination with physiotherapy and pain-related psychotherapy.”
Olivia Newton John told Self magazine last year medicinal cannabis has helped her tolerate breast cancer pain, while Dustin Sulak, DO, Founder of medical cannabis education company Healer, said, “Treatment for cancer pain is one of the indications [for cannabis] that has quite a bit of research on it—including pain that hasn’t responded fully to opioid medication.” Animal studies have also shown cannabinoids may prevent nerve problems—pain, numbness, tingling, swelling, and muscle weakness—brought on by chemotherapy.
Despite false reports that the National Institutes of Health admitted cannabis kills cancer, research in this area is promising. Earlier this year, results from a preclinical study indicated THC and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid—the main active compounds in cannabis— have different tumor cell-killing effects, depending on the dosage, type of cancer, and compound formulation.
Studies have also shown that cannabinoids may inhibit tumor growth in mouse models of metastatic breast cancer, while lab studies suggest similar effects in liver cancer and estrogen receptor-positive and estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer cells. CBD has also been shown to make chemotherapy more effective in killing human glioma cells and leukemia cells, though human clinical trials are still needed.
Because inflammation has been strongly linked to cancer, CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties have suggested the agent can reduce the risk of certain cancers. Studies in thyroid, brain, and prostate cancer have been encouraging thus far, and a 2012 study concluded CBD had a chemopreventative effect in colon cancer.
While cannabis is not a cure, studies show it may have a positive impact on survival rates and even slow tumor progression— possibilities which researchers are eagerly exploring further. In the meantime, cancer patients can reap other benefits from cannabis, namely relief from side effects from the disease and the methods used to treat it.
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