Medical Editor: Dr. Lynn Marie Morski, MD, Esq
In recent years, scientists have created many innovations for treating symptoms of cancer and cancer-related ailments. Sometimes, help and hope grow from the most unexpected places.
Cannabis, or marijuana, is well known as a recreational drug. More recently, cannabis has been used for many medicinal purposes, including as a pain-killer, and it has been found to help reduce anxiety and inflammation. Now there is new research that suggests that compounds called cannabinoids, derived from the cannabis sativa plant, may be able to treat cancer.
The biology of cancer
Cancer does not discriminate by race, class, religion, or age. Cancer can afflict anyone in their prime, or steal the life of a child, leaving loved ones devastated in its wake. Some signs of cancer are so minor, they often go completely unnoticed until the cancer has spread. Loved ones or friends may even notice signs or symptoms before a cancer patient does.
Certain types of cancer are considered mostly preventable. Preventable cancers are linked to modifiable risk factors, which can be decreased by following a healthy lifestyle. Avoiding risky behaviors or exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) also modifies cancer risks. Of all cancers, breast, cervical, lung, and liver cancer are some of the most preventable. When left undetected and untreated, however, these cancers are also among the deadliest.
The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) explains that several factors point to a higher risk of getting the most preventable types of cancer:
- Age: The older a patient is are, the greater the risk for breast cancer;
- Body Mass Index: carrying excess body fat increases the risk for cancer;
- Family history: Inheriting cancer genes does increase risk, but living a healthy lifestyle can mitigate some of these risks.
- Physical activity: Being active decreases risks for many types of cancer. For instance, vigorous regular physical activity decreases the risk for premenopausal breast cancer.
Cancer stage and potential cannabis treatment
The stage of a cancer is the most important factor for cancer prognosis. In general, the earlier cancer is detected, the better the prognosis will be. To determine a patient’s cancer stage, a pathologist studies cells, tumor, organ tissue, and any lymph nodes removed for biopsy.
The three-stage TNM system of cancer staging involves:
- T = Tumor size
- N = Lymph Node status (the number and location of lymph nodes with cancer)
- M = Metastases (cancer that has spread from initial cancer sites)
Cancer pathologists also look for other factors that determine stage and severity, such as tumor grade, and hormone receptor status.
The stages of cancer range from 0 to IV (0 to 4) with the highest stage (stage IV) having the poorest prognosis. Stage IV means any cancer with metastases. If the cancer has spread from an initial site, it can be the most life-threatening, regardless of the size of the tumor, the lymph node status, or any other factors.
Apoptosis is a mechanism the body uses to efficiently eliminate dysfunctional cells; in this case, cancerous cells. If the body is efficiently eliminating dysfunctional cancerous cells, cancer cannot grow and spread.
Cancer cells carry damaged DNA that replicates as part of the cell’s life cycle. These damaged cells should be eliminated by apoptosis, but for various reasons continue to divide and multiply. These cancer cells grow into tumors and spread throughout the body. The earlier these cancer cells are targeted, the better chance the cancer patient has at eliminating these cells from the body before they metastasize.
Regardless of cancer stage, cannabis may be used to treat various symptoms and even reduce the size of tumor growth. And cannabis may be used as a therapy to treat cancer symptoms, like pain, at any stage of a cancer diagnosis.
So how exactly is cannabis effective against cancer? The next section discusses how cannabis can directly target cancer cells.
Cannabis and targeted cancer cell death
Cannabinoids are the derivatives, or components of the cannabis sativa plant. Cannabinoids interact with human physiology, and are considered biologically active. The two cannabinoids we know most about are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD.
Cannabis has been researched as a possible treatment for killing cancer cells before they develop into tumors that can metastasize. The cannabinoid CBD can be used as a concentrated therapy to target certain mechanisms that promote cancer cell death (apoptosis).
Recent studies show promise in the use of cannabidiol to fight breast cancer specifically by inhibiting cell growth and promoting cancer cell death.
Researchers are exploring various ways that cannabidiol oil (or CBD oil) can be used to help regulate apoptosis. One study involving lung cancer in mice showed evidence that cannabinoids inhibited tumor cell growth and prolonged the life of the subjects.
Subsequent studies indicated that CBD slowed cell growth and induced cell death by modulating cell signaling pathways in cancer cells. In other words, some researchers believe cannabis helps kill or at least inhibit the growth of cancerous cells.
A 2007 study published in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics showed that CBD could slow or even stop the progression of metastatic breast cancer. In the study, the team led by senior scientist Dr. Sean D. McAllister used CBD to inhibit the activity of the Id-1 gene, believed to be responsible for cancer cells becoming more aggressive and metastatic.
The study was done in a lab on cells, not humans, which could yield different results. This study reported that CBD could be a potential treatment to slow the growth of cancer cells and reduce the invasiveness of aggressive, metastatic cancers that currently respond to few available treatments.
Further animal studies found that cannabinoids may have anti-tumor effects, but more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms of how these plant compounds can influence the biology of cancer.
At this stage, it’s too soon to say that cannabis can treat cancer directly as a targeted treatment. For now, like other alternative or holistic therapies, cannabis should only be used as a complement to your prescribed course of treatment, if at all.
However, many people report cannabis helps alleviate the nausea and pain associated with chemotherapy. Some patients have also had success using cannabis to address the nerve pain associated with chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy.
As with any cancer, the sooner there is a diagnosis, the better. Watch for signs and symptoms, and adapt your lifestyle to reduce risks.