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Cannabis and Cancer: Can Cannabis Oil Alleviate the Symptoms of the Big C?

While it is common knowledge that cancer is one of the world’s leading causes of death, the magnitude of the statistics may shock you when taken into perspective. In the United States alone, roughly 1.6 million new cases of cancer were recorded in 2016 -- about 4,600 diagnoses per day. When you take into account how this affects not just the patient but also his friends and loved ones, it’s easy to understand why this disease has become such a major concern for many people.

While medicine has advanced to a point where there’s a variety of treatment options available that significantly boost a patient’s chances of survival, one of the areas of cancer treatment that remains difficult to this day is symptom management. Cancer patients are afflicted with unbearable pain either by the disease itself or by the unwanted side effects of the drugs used to combat it. In addition to the physical discomfort, patients and their families also face the financial burden of paying for expensive treatments and drugs.

Cases have been documented where patients express their willingness to try anything to relieve cancer-related pains. In some sad cases, children have been shown in videos begging for euthanasia. This is due in large part to the ineffectiveness of even the strongest painkillers in large doses, but it can also be because of the harsh side effects of drugs that are used to kill cancer cells. The emotional trauma of terminal illness combined with the physical pain is too much for a lot of patients to bear.

Thanks to a more liberal mindset in society and groundbreaking research, though, the legal landscape of the US is shifting. Lately, horizons have been broadened and once highly illegal marijuana products are now being looked at as a possible means of effectively relieving some cancer symptoms. For many decades, studies on the medicinal use of cannabis have been very limited due to laws that restrict its possession. Now that several states have legalized it, progress has been made on determining methods for its legitimate use in the fight against cancer.

What is Cancer?

Contrary to popular belief, cancer is not a single type of disease that can occur in different parts of the body. More accurately, it’s an umbrella term used to refer to more than 100 diseases where abnormal cell growth occurs in the body. In most cases, a combination of factors results in genetic flaws, resulting in mutations where cells divide uncontrollably and grow into tumors. Tumors that stay localized in one area are referred to as “benign” while those that can spread to other parts are termed to be “malignant.”

Normally, each cell in the human body has genes that prevent its abnormal division and growth. These genes are called Tumor Suppressor Genes. However, there are also genes called Proto-oncogenes and Oncogenes that promote cancer growth. How and why these genes are switched off and turned on to result in cancer is still a mystery. However, researchers have observed that one’s genetic makeup, environment and consumption habits can all combine to produce mutations.

Smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol excessively and eating unhealthy food can all contribute to cancer occurrence. Viruses have also been known to trigger genetic modifications and subsequent abnormalities in cell division. In rarer cases, prolonged exposure to radiation and chemicals can also be attributed as a main cause of the disease.   

There is also a misconception that cancer is a “new” disease. As a matter of fact, the disease has been accurately described as early as 1600 B.C. by ancient Egyptian texts. Throughout known history, there combatting the disease has proven very difficult. Initially, it has no symptoms or mimics the symptoms of other more common illnesses. By the time a patient is diagnosed, the cancer is usually in more advanced stages that are harder to treat. Recent advances in medicine, however, have shown greater promise. Now more than ever, the survival and life extension rates for patients are at much higher levels.

This is due to the fact that cancer happens at the genetic level, making it “personalized.” This means that one woman’s breast cancer may be very different to that of another. Different symptoms, treatments and pain management methods may or may not work on different people.

Of the 100 types of cancer, the most common for men are lung cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer and stomach cancer. For women, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, cervical cancer and lung cancer are the most reported. Children, on the other hand, are most susceptible to brain tumors and non-Hodgkin lymphomas.

Why Does Cancer Hurt so Much?

The type of cancer pain experienced by a patient depends on the type of cancer he or she is dealing with. The most common type occurs when tumors press against bones, organs or nerves. Those afflicted report that the agony is the worst they’ve experienced by far and pain medication often has very limited effects.

Nerves may also be damaged by chemicals produced by the tumors or by those introduced into the body through drugs. In some cases, changes to the nerves can cause extreme pain even when there is no evident physical damage to nerve strands.

It’s not just the disease itself that causes the patient to suffer; more often than not, the treatments and medicines that fight cancer have adverse side effects that add to the pain felt by the patient. The presence and severity of these side effects are highly dependent on the drug and the person taking it. Some of the more common side effects of chemotherapy drugs include:

  • Alopecia
  • Anemia
  • Bleeding and bruising
  • Concentration problems
  • Constipation
  • Delirium
  • Edema
  • Fatigue
  • Infection
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Urinary and bladder problems

Depending on their severity, the above mentioned side effects can negatively impact a person’s quality of life. Some symptoms will not only keep the patients from performing their daily tasks independently, they can also last a lifetime. There are drugs that can cause infertility or permanent hearing loss, for example. Ideally, the doctor will discuss these possible side effects with the patient before the start of the treatment.

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Cannabis and Cancer

For the longest time, cannabis and its derivatives have been ignored as potential allies in the fight against cancer. Not only is the plant illegal under federal law – it also has a strong stigma from the general population. Until recently, few tests in America have yielded conclusive evidence on marijuana’s positive impacts on cancer patient health. Thanks to the shifting legal landscape, we now know that some of the most common and most severe cancer symptoms can be effectively mitigated with the controlled use of cannabis products.

Marinol (dorabinol) is one man-made form of cannabis that is used to treat severe nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy. In addition, this drug also provides relief to persons with AIDS as it is used to treat weight loss caused by lack of appetite. Another man-made form of cannabis, Nabilone, is used to treat severe nausea and vomiting that may arise due to chemotherapy.

Marijuana is a very complex plant that has a variety of different unique compounds in it depending on the cultivate or strain. Right now, most of the research on cannabis applications on cancer is centered on two particular compounds or cannabinoids, specifically:

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - Probably the most recognizable among all cannabinoids, THC is the compound that gets people high when it’s inhaled or ingested. When used for medicinal purposes on patients living with chronic cancer pain, it can alleviate intense discomfort, nausea and burning sensations from chemotherapy side effects.  Some studies have shown that THC can also be used as a potent antioxidant.

THC can either be ingested through baked products or inhaled through smoking. Ingested THC takes longer to kick in, but the effects tend to last longer. Smoked marijuana goes to the bloodstream and the brain much faster, but its effects subside just as rapidly.

Cannabidiol (CBD) – This compound has been found to be an effective relaxant for cancer patients who suffer from prolonged anxiety, paranoia and even seizures. Strange as it may sound, this compound can also effectively sober up patients who are high on THC.

Cannabis-based cancer treatment products are currently being developed, though progress has not been as rapid as some might desire due to differences in the laws of every American state. For instance, 28 states may have legalized the use of medical marijuana, bit the conditions surrounding each are not uniform all throughout.

Nevertheless, research has shown that there’s hope just around the corner for patients who suffer from the following cancer symptoms:

Cancer Pains – When regular pain killers or even opioids (opium-based pain relief products) have limited effect on a patient’s pain management program, marijuana may be introduced to it. Studies have shown the significant relief experienced by some long-suffering individuals once cannabinoids were prescribed as a stand-alone treatment or as a complement to opioids. Cannabis is a viable option for patients with bone and nerve-related cancer pains in locations where the law allows its use.

Nausea and Vomiting – Nausea and vomiting is not only very uncomfortable, but it can push an already fragile cancer patient to the brink of malnutrition. This symptom can be produced by the cancer itself or can be a side effect of chemotherapy. For patients who are experiencing nausea and vomiting in severe levels, medical marijuana and the synthetic cannabinoid Dronabinol are options which have shown positive results.

Nerve Damage – Also called neuropathy, nerve damage causes tingling sensations, numbness and burning feelings on the hands and feet. While it’s common for tumors to press against bones and nerves to cause pain, neuropathy usually results from chemotherapy’s toxicity to healthy cells. To patients who are not finding relief with traditional methods, marijuana can offer moderate to total relief.

Appetite Loss – Cancer and associated treatments can inflict mild appetite loss or full-blown anorexia on patients. While not a typical answer to this problem, limited studies have suggested that cannabis can restore appetite and improve a patient’s overall health due to the normalization of nourishment routines. This may be due to the fact that marijuana enhances the senses in some people, making food seem more appealing and taste better under the influence of cannabinoids.

Tumor Growth – Lab and anima testing have suggested that cannabis may not just alleviate pain and other symptoms of cancers – it might be able to cure it under the right conditions. Research has shown that cancer cell growth can be stopped and the cells themselves can be killed using controlled cannabis doses. However, there has only been one credible study on a human subject so far and recreational marijuana use has been linked in the past to the growth of some cancer types.

Despite cannabis’ great promise as a potent weapon against cancer and its symptoms, it is not and should not be viewed as an alternative to proven methods for fighting the dreaded disease. As of now, its most practical use is for the alleviation of pain and other discomforts. Foregoing standard treatments for cancer and benign tumors may result in the worsening of a patient’s already serious health problems.

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