Medical Marijuana: Can It Really Help Cancer Patients?

Medical Marijuana and Cancer
Photo Credit: TheCrimsonRibbon / iStockPhoto.com
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Medical Marijuana and Cancer

It is widely known that marijuana is used as a medical treatment for a variety of chronic health conditions, such as back pain, migraines, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia and cancer. It has been used medicinally for centuries, and has recently gained popularity in Eastern medicine as a treatment.

Although it has been legalized in a variety of states, it is still perceived as a negative way to treat cancer by some people.

What Is Marijuana?

Marijuana comes from the cannabis sativa plant and is the name given to the dried leaves and buds. The biologically active parts of the cannabis plant are called cannabinoids. There are a variety of different kinds of cannabinoids, but most studies focus on cannabidiol and 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (also known as THC).

Federal law states that the possession of marijuana is illegal except in approved research settings. However, multiple states have laws that legalize the possession and use of medical marijuana. In these states, it is considered a controlled substance and a license is required.

Treatment of Cancer

At this time, the US Food and Drug Administration does not approve the use of marijuana for the treatment of cancer or for the treatment of cancer-related symptoms. However, research is promising for both the treatment of cancer and the treatment of symptoms related to cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, preclinical studies may show that cannabinoids inhibit tumor growth. The research has been done on mice and rats and the tumor inhibition caused by death to the cells, blocking cell growth, and blocking development of blood vessels required for tumor growth.

In addition, studies show that cannabinoids may kill cancer cells while protecting neighboring normal cells.

There have also been various studies performed on cannabinoids and specific cancer types. For example, cannabinoids may reduce inflammation in the colon, reducing the chance of developing colon cancer.

One study also showed that cannabinoids acted specifically in killing cancer cells in liver cancer, non-small cell lung cancer and breast cancer. One study specific to breast cancer showed that cannabinoids may cause cell death in both estrogen receptor positive and estrogen receptor negative cells. In metastatic breast cancer, it even lessened the spread of tumors.

Treatment of Cancer Symptoms

Ingesting or inhaling marijuana is thought to decrease multiple cancer symptoms for the following reasons:

  • It may stimulate appetite. Cancer treatment often causes a depressed appetite. Marijuana may help due to the THC and other cannabinoids.
  • It may help with pain relief, especially neuropathic pain. Animal studies have shown that cannabinoids may prevent nerve pain that is secondary to chemotherapy.
  • It may help to control nausea and vomiting. THC may act on cannabinoid receptors to prevent vomiting.
  • It may help to control anxiety and induce sleep.

Cannabinoid Drugs

There are two drugs that are based on marijuana compounds that are available for use in the U.S., with another drug currently being studied:

  • Dronabinol (Marinol) is a capsule that contains THC and is approved for use by the FDA to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. It is also indicated for patients with AIDS who have weight loss and poor appetite.
  • Nabilone (Cesamet) is also taken by mouth. It is a synthetic cannabinoid that acts like THC. It is used to treat nausea and vomiting when other drugs have failed.
  • Nabiximols is currently under investigation in the U.S., although it has been approved for use in Canada and parts of Europe. It is a sublingual spray that treats pain related to cancer as well as pain related to multiple sclerosis.

The use of marijuana for treatment of cancer or cancer symptoms should be done under the recommendation of a physician. Keep in mind that not all states have legalized the use of medical marijuana and using it medicinally in these states is illegal.

Resources

American Cancer Society (Marijuana and Cancer)

National Cancer Institute (Cannabis and Cannabinoids PDQ – Patient Version)