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Cannabis Help for Each Cancer Stage

To those who have their doubts, it’s worth noting that the idea of exploring medical marijuana for the treatment of illnesses is not unheard of in history. The cannabis family of plants has been part of ancient medical pharmacopeias for centuries. For example, the peoples of ancient China did not only utilize hemp as an agricultural crop for its seeds, oil, and fiber, they also used its sister variety—what we now know as marijuana—to treat pain and other ailments.

In India some 4,000 years ago, cannabis also had medicinal, religious, and recreational value all at once. One application was a concoction called bhang, which was made of a ground-up cannabis paste of buds and leaves and mixed with milk and spices. It was drunk to flush out phlegm, as well as to stimulate the nerves and improve the drinkers’ moods. The Atharveda, the fourth book among the sacred Vedas, hails bhang as part of the so-called “five kingdoms of herbs,” which had the power to release one from anxiety.

But cannabis use for health and wellness does not stop at the esoteric. In the modern world, many consider the herb as an actual medicament. Scientific studies as recent as the 2010s have revealed a little more about the positive effects of cannabis use for the treatment of cancer symptoms. They factor in the effects of cannabinoids, or the biologically active components in cannabis—foremost among them delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Notable steps have been taken in modern medicine to explore the possibilities for medical marijuana, particularly for the treatment of cancer symptoms.

 This article will discuss the current prevailing view of the medical community regarding the use of cannabis and cannabis oil to support cancer treatment and the role of medical marijuana in treating cancer symptoms throughout the four cancer stages. We will also provide some tips for incorporating cannabis oil into your cancer treatment regimen.

But before you read on, we’d like to put forward an important disclaimer: medical marijuana is not a cure for cancer. That’s an oversimplified and exaggerated statement. Cancer itself is a complex and multifaceted illness, and behind every breakthrough should be a foundation of scientific evidence. But what it is that we’re truly happy about is the fact that cannabis has come into the conversation—and that special properties of the herb have a place in patient wellness and overall recovery.

What We Know of Cancer

Cancer encompasses a range of different illnesses in which the body is affected by uncontrolled division of abnormal cells. This rapid division results in the cells clumping together and forming malignant growths or tumors.

While benign tumors are non-life-threatening and can often be removed surgically without much complication, cancerous or malignant tumors can grow much more aggressively and can spread to other tissues of the body, causing complications like bleeding and infections (in case of leukemia), general malnutrition, as well as chronic, progressive, and incessant pain as the metastatic tumors affect the different parts of the body.

Common types of cancer are leukemia (cancer of the bone marrow), skin cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, and many others.

The difficulty that faces both clinicians and patients when it comes to cancer is that it can manifest through a wide variety of symptoms. A potential cancer victim could suffer from a combination of any one of these symptoms:

  • Sudden weight loss and loss of appetite (which can occur from almost any type of cancer)
  • Constant fatigue;
  • Lumps or abnormal growths (for example, in the breast or lymph nodes);
  • Abnormal yellowing, reddening, or darkening of skin
  • Indigestion and/or bowel and bladder problems
  • Bleeding (for example, coughing blood could indicate lung cancer and bloody urine could indicate kidney cancer)
  • Being out of breath
  • Chronic pain

When you’re experiencing such symptoms, and they’re not going away, it’s probably best to see your doctor and ask for a diagnosis. 

What Does Medical Marijuana Have to Do with Cancer?

The usual processes involved in conventional cancer treatment are chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery for the removal of tumors. But battling cancer and its side effects involves more than that. Even while these treatments are taking place, cancer patients can suffer from a lot of different conditions, including appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, even more fatigue, insomnia, and mood swings—all of which bring down the patient’s quality of life and possibly hampering their healing process as well

That said, there is an interesting new player in the field of medicine that addresses most of these: medical marijuana or cannabis for medicinal use. 

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Fast Facts: The Current Status of Medical Marijuana

28 states in the US, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico, have legalized cannabis for medicinal use. The conditions that rule the use of medical marijuana are currently limited to the following:

  • Treatment for symptoms of cancer, such as nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy;
  • Pressure in the eye caused by  glaucoma;
  • Treatment of neuropathic pain caused by HIV/AIDS;
  • Spasticity from multiple sclerosis.

In addition, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has begun to study the wider medical applications of cannabis, as well as investigate current public data on safety and abuse potential. 

Cancer Treatment and Where Cannabinoids Come In

What of the most recent studies pertaining to cannabinoids and cancer treatment, however? Peer reviewed studies from the past ten years have explored the cancer-fighting properties of THC and CBD for certain tumor types. One finding is that THC and CBD can possibly slow the growth or cause the death of certain cancer cells.

In this regard, two studies stand out: Guzman, Sanchez, and Galve-Roperh’s “Control of the cell survival/death decision by cannabinoids,” published in the Journal of Molecular Medicine, 2001; and Salazar et al.’s “Cannabinoid action induces autophagy-mediated cell death through stimulation of ER stress in human glioma cells,” published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, 2009. Both studies testify to the power of cannabinoids in inducing apoptosis, or cell death, in human glioma cells—the cells that constitute tumors in the glial cells of the brain. In addition, the 2001 study suggested that breast and prostate cancer cells were also vulnerable to “cannabinoid-induced anti-proliferation.” Thus, although cannabis cannot cure cancer, its cancer-fighting properties should not be ruled out. Moreover, there are two therapeutic cannabinoid agents that are currently approved by the FDA as antiemetics: dronabinol (or Marinol®), a gelatin capsule containing THC; and nabilone (Cesamet®), a synthetic or man-made cannabinoid that mimics the effect of THC. Both can be taken orally to counter nausea and vomiting, which are common side effects of chemotherapeutic drugs used to treat cancer. Nabiximols, a mouth spray formulated with both THC and CBD in near 1:1 ratio, is also legal in Canada and parts of Europe, and is also under study by the FDA. This drug can be used as an adjunctive treatment for pain due to cancer. A number of recent breakthroughs on cannabis use and cancer treatment have come from clinical trials. The result of 23 randomized and controlled trials with patients yielded that the ones who took products with cannabis suffered less from nausea and vomiting than those who received a placebo. One among these is a clinical trial conducted by Canadian scientists from McGill University, whose results were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Smoked cannabis at a low THC concentration of 9.4% was shown to be analgesic, i.e. with modest pain-relieving properties.

The Four Stages of Cancer, and How Cannabis Can Support Each

That said, what’s worth concretizing is how cannabis can be used, alongside conventional cancer treatments, for each of the four stages of cancer. Below are some details about each stage, and how cannabis could play a role in treatment at that stage.

  • Stage 1. Stage 1 cancer is the early stage of cancer development, and people who have this condition has a higher recovery rate compared to the other stages. At stage 1, the cancer tumors are relatively small, concentrated in a single organ, and likely not spread out. The easiest way to treat a patient in this stage of cancer is through surgical removal of the tumor. After surgery, you can seek out a healthcare provider who is well-versed in cannabinoid therapy. Discuss what low-dosage cannabis products can be included in your holistic healing regimen from that point forward.
  • Stage 2. Having Stage 2 cancer means that the patient has a larger tumor than in Stage 1, although the cancer cells have not yet spread to other parts of the body. Typically, it is Stage 2 cancer that requires systemic treatment like chemotherapy or radiation. This is the case in which patients can take analgesics formulated with THC or CBD in order to counter the effects of chemotherapy. Cannabis in this form can soothe pain, offer relief from nausea, and boost appetite.
  • Stage 3. By Stage 3, there is a threat of the tumor growing large and spreading to the surrounding tissues. In this case, surgical removal is much trickier, and cannot be the only resort to beating cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation are required to prevent the return of the cancer after the removal of the tumor. At this point, it’s also important to remember that the patient could be weak and feeling taxed both physically and emotionally. Some additional symptoms that cannabis could address at this stage are insomnia, anxiety, and episodes of depression. 
  • Stage 4. Also referred to as metastatic cancer or secondary cancer, Stage 4 cancer is the most serious form. Stage 4 connotes that the tumor is already well-developed, and that the cancer cells have spread out to other tissues in the body. Treatment is very difficult at this stage, and in the worst case, chemotherapy or radiation will not be able to reverse the cancer entirely. At this point, cannabis can be used more for palliative care. This is to ensure pain relief, and greater comfort, for cancer patients facing the disease.

The form of cannabis to be consumed is also important. Most oncologists would prefer for patients not to smoke cannabis—think, for example, of the consequences this could have on a lung cancer patient. Thus, better alternatives are oil-based products or sprays.

No two people will receive cannabis the same way, as all situations vary—especially with regard to what type of cancer they have, and at what stage. Patients are also enjoined to research on the effects of cannabis on their own, instead of depending solely on their doctors. The best partnership for cancer treatment is one in which patients and doctors can be transparent with, and mutually trusting of, each other. It’s also in the best interest of the patient to feel like they have regained control of themselves, after undergoing what often seems to be a losing battle against their cancer.

Dr. Virginia F. Borges, of the Breast Cancer Research program of the University of Colorado’s Cancer Center, says it well in a quote published on Breastcancer.org:

“It’s important for people to know that anything they ingest that produces a change in their bodies is acting like a drug, and it has the potential for side effects, interactions with other drugs, as well as benefits. … I’ve mainly seen it used in conjunction with prescription drugs to control pain and other side effects in patients living with metastatic disease. It’s rare that a person living with metastatic breast cancer would have only one side effect to manage. So, by adding in medical marijuana, it often allows me to cut back on the number of drugs I prescribe. With a high-quality source for medical marijuana and knowing how it affects an individual, using medical marijuana can put more control back in the hands of my patient. If someone is feeling good, she may only need to take one or two drops per day. If she’s not feeling good, she may need three or four drops per day. Many of the prescription drugs don’t have this flexibility. Any time you can give control back to a person when their living with cancer, it’s a good thing.”

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Conclusion: Fighting Cancer through Responsibility and an Open Mind

In the end, a holistic cancer treatment involving cannabis boils down to two things: responsibility and an open mind about the possibilities available. A cancer patient must always be clear with their doctor about what supplements and over-the-counter medicines are being used in conjunction with systemic treatment, especially cannabis. It also falls on the patient and their families to do the following:

  • seek out medical professionals trained in cannabinoid therapy;
  • source their products from reputable medical dispensaries, and keep in contact about the results of cannabinoid treatment;
  • listen to the stories of former patients with positive experiences of cannabis for cancer treatment.

Medicine is a quickly-evolving field, and there are many possibilities that lie ahead of us so that we can better combat cancer and other complex diseases. It’s high time to remove the stigma from marijuana, and to acknowledge its role alongside conventional medicine in coping with—and eventually defeating—cancer.