Marijuana and Cancer
Marijuana is the name given to the dried buds and leaves of varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant, which can grow wild in warm and tropical climates throughout the world and be cultivated commercially. It goes by many names, including pot, grass, cannabis, weed, hemp, hash, marihuana, ganja, and dozens of others.
Marijuana has been used in herbal remedies for centuries. Scientists have identified many biologically active components in marijuana. These are called cannabinoids. The two best studied components are the chemicals delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (often referred to as THC), and cannabidiol (CBD). Other cannabinoids are being studied.
At this time, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists marijuana and its cannabinoids as Schedule I controlled substances. This means that they cannot legally be prescribed, possessed, or sold under federal law. Whole or crude marijuana (including marijuana oil or hemp oil) is not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any medical use. But the use of marijuana to treat some medical conditions is legal under state laws in many states.
Dronabinol, a pharmaceutical form of THC, and a man-made cannabinoid drug called nabilone are approved by the FDA to treat some conditions.
Different compounds in marijuana have different actions in the human body. For example, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) seems to cause the “high” reported by marijuana users, and also can help relieve pain and nausea, reduce inflammation, and can act as an antioxidant. Cannabidiol (CBD) can help treat seizures, can reduce anxiety and paranoia, and can counteract the “high” caused by THC.
Different cultivars (strains or types) and even different crops of marijuana plants can have varying amounts of these and other active compounds. This means that marijuana can have different effects based on the strain used.
The effects of marijuana also vary depending on how marijuana compounds enter the body. The most common ways to use marijuana are in food (edible marijuana) and by smoking or vaping it (inhaled marijuana):
- Edible marijuana: When taken by mouth, such as when it’s used in cooking oils, drinks (beer, tea, vodka, soda), baked goods (biscuits, brownies, cookies), and candy, the THC is absorbed poorly and can take hours to be absorbed. Once it’s absorbed, it’s processed by the liver, which produces a second psychoactive compound (a substance that acts on the brain and changes mood or consciousness) that affects the brain differently than THC. It’s important to know that the amount of THC in foods that have had marijuana added to them is often unknown and getting to much THC might cause symptoms of overdose.
- Inhaled marijuana: When marijuana is smoked or vaporized, THC enters the bloodstream and goes to the brain quickly. The second psychoactive compound is produced in small amounts, and so has less effect. The effects of inhaled marijuana fade faster than marijuana taken by mouth.
How can marijuana affect symptoms of cancer?
A number of small studies of smoked marijuana found that it can be helpful in treating nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy.
A few studies have found that inhaled (smoked or vaporized) marijuana can be helpful treatment of neuropathic pain (pain caused by damaged nerves).
Smoked marijuana has also helped improve food intake in HIV patients in studies.
There are no studies in people of the effects of marijuana oil or hemp oil.
Studies have long shown that people who took marijuana extracts in clinical trials tended to need less pain medicine.
More recently, scientists reported that THC and other cannabinoids such as CBD slow growth and/or cause death in certain types of cancer cells growing in lab dishes. Some animal studies also suggest certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce spread of some forms of cancer.
There have been some early clinical trials of cannabinoids in treating cancer in humans and more studies are planned. While the studies so far have shown that cannabinoids can be safe in treating cancer, they do not show that they help control or cure the disease.
Relying on marijuana alone as treatment while avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
Possible harms of marijuana
Marijuana can also pose some harms to users. While the most common effect of marijuana is a feeling of euphoria (“high”), it also can lower the user’s control over movement, cause disorientation, and sometimes cause unpleasant thoughts or feelings of anxiety and paranoia.
Smoked marijuana delivers THC and other cannabinoids to the body, but it also delivers harmful substances to users and those close by, including many of the same substances found in tobacco smoke.
Because marijuana plants come in different strains with different levels of active compounds, it can make each user’s experience very hard to predict. The effects can also differ based on how deeply and for how long the user inhales. Likewise, the effects of ingesting marijuana orally can vary between people. Also, some chronic users can develop an unhealthy dependence on marijuana.
There are 2 chemically pure drugs based on marijuana compounds that have been approved in the US for medical use.
- Dronabinol (Marinol®) is a gelatin capsule containing delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that’s approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy as well as weight loss and poor appetite in patients with AIDS.
- Nabilone (Cesamet®) is a synthetic cannabinoid that acts much like THC. It can be taken by mouth to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy when other drugs have not worked.
Nabiximols is a cannabinoid drug still under study in the US. It’s a mouth spray made up of a whole-plant extract with THC and cannabidiol (CBD) in an almost one to one mix. It’s available in Canada and parts of Europe to treat pain linked to cancer, as well as muscle spasms and pain from multiple sclerosis (MS). It’s not approved in the US at this time, but it’s being tested in clinical trials to see if it can help a number of conditions.
How can cannabinoid drugs affect symptoms of cancer?
Based on a number of studies, dronabinol can be helpful for reducing nausea and vomiting linked to chemotherapy.
Dronabinol has also been found to help improve food intake and prevent weight loss in patients with HIV. In studies of cancer patients, though, it wasn’t better than placebo or another drug (megestrol acetate).
Nabiximols has shown promise for helping people with cancer pain that’s unrelieved by strong pain medicines, but it hasn’t been found to be helpful in every study done. Research is still being done on this drug.
Side effects of cannabinoid drugs
Like many other drugs, the prescription cannabinoids, dronabinol and nabilone, can cause side effects and complications.
Some people have trouble with increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure (especially when standing up), dizziness or lightheadedness, and fainting. These drugs can cause drowsiness as well as mood changes or a feeling of being “high” that some people find uncomfortable. They can also worsen depression, mania, or other mental illness. Some patients taking nabilone in studies reported hallucinations. The drugs may increase some effects of sedatives, sleeping pills, or alcohol, such as sleepiness and poor coordination. Patients have also reported problems with dry mouth and trouble with recent memory.
Older patients may have more problems with side effects and are usually started on lower doses.
People who have had emotional illnesses, paranoia, or hallucinations may find their symptoms are worse when taking cannabinoid drugs.
Talk to your doctor about what you should expect when taking one of these drugs. It’s a good idea to have someone with you when you first start taking one of these drugs and after any dose changes.
What does the American Cancer Society say about the use of marijuana in people with cancer?
The American Cancer Society supports the need for more scientific research on cannabinoids for cancer patients, and recognizes the need for better and more effective therapies that can overcome the often debilitating side effects of cancer and its treatment. The Society also believes that the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration imposes numerous conditions on researchers and deters scientific study of cannabinoids. Federal officials should examine options consistent with federal law for enabling more scientific study on marijuana.
Medical decisions about pain and symptom management should be made between the patient and his or her doctor, balancing evidence of benefit and harm to the patient, the patient’s preferences and values, and any laws and regulations that may apply.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the Society’s advocacy affiliate, has not taken a position on legalization of marijuana for medical purposes because of the need for more scientific research on marijuana’s potential benefits and harms. However, ACS CAN opposes the smoking or vaping of marijuana and other cannabinoids in public places because the carcinogens in marijuana smoke pose numerous health hazards to the patient and others in the patient’s presence.
Learn how marijuana and drugs derived from the marijuana plant can affect cancer-related symptoms.
The Best Cannabis Strains to Combat Chemotherapy Side Effects
Saturday May 4, 2019
T hough still federally illegal due to its Schedule I status, cannabis is widely used to help treat many medical conditions including cancer and the side effects of its treatment. Advocates for cannabis reform often cite the benefit to cancer patients which go well beyond the head high that is typically associated with marijuana consumption. In fact, cannabis can improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy – and minimize those nasty side effects – in many exciting ways.
How Cannabis Helps with Chemo
Chemotherapy is a process that uses special drugs to kill cells in the body before they split and spread. They can be ingested in a few ways – pills, shots, or an IV, for example – with the intention of stopping the spread of cancerous cells before they get out of control. The problem is that chemo targets all cells (including healthy ones) which can cause major damage and discomfort in patients. The side effects of chemotherapy can be devastating including things like hair loss, nausea and fatigue. Chemo patients also often suffer from depression due to the uncertainty of their condition which can exacerbate the negative side effects of chemotherapy.
Cannabis can effectively address many of these symptoms including pain, inflammation, nausea, appetite loss, and depression.
Cannabinoids like THC and CBD work synergistically with each other and alongside cancer treatments to improve the outcome of cancer therapy and make the process much more bearable along the way. Research also shows that cannabis slows (and even reverses) cancer cell growth while leaving surrounding healthy cells untouched, though the exact mechanisms through which this happens are still being studied.
Best Marijuana Strains for Chemotherapy
Not all cannabis strains are created equal. Expert breeders spend years perfecting strains to deliver the best results with the fewest undesirable qualities. The result has been an influx of potent cannabis strains tailored to the consumer and his specific needs. Those who want to treat the side effects of chemo with cannabis should therefore focus on strains developed for the medical community and their own personal preferences. Here is a list of our top seven strains for chemotherapy.
1. Good Medicine: Topping our list is a strain aptly named Good Medicine. The strain was specifically developed as a medicinal strain with a THC:CBD ratio of 1:1 and a high CBN content (which makes this strain very sedating). Unlike other high-CBD strains, this strain boasts a flavorful mixture of fruit and musk. Good Medicine is a strain best used for the treatment of pain, nausea and sleeplessness.
2. ACDC: Though the band AC/DC is typically considered a “hard rock” group, the strain ACDC is most certainly not. Rather, ACDC is a mellow sativa strain containing only trace amounts of THC and a substantially higher amount of CBD. The intoxicating effects of ACDC are minor, making this strain ideal for novice consumers looking to treat symptoms like pain, nausea and neuropathic discomfort.
3. Blue Dream: Blue Dream is a popular strain among both the medical and recreational communities. Known for its distinctive blueberry flavor and invigorating buzz, this Northern California native is great for relieving pain and promoting deep muscle relaxation. Though somewhat speedy at first, the effects of Blue Dream level off within the first hour resulting in a relaxed, pain-free state. Blue Dream is best used to treat pain and nausea without interfering with menial tasks throughout the day.
4. Mental Floss #3: As the name suggests, Mental Floss #3 is a sativa strain that gives the brain a buzz. Though its analgesic and antiemetic properties are apparent throughout the high (which sets in rather quickly, we might add), it is the invigorating “head high” that sets this strain apart from the rest. We suggest using Mental Floss #3 to combat anxiety and depression, and for a boost of motivation when need be, as well.
5. Northern Lights: Northern Lights is a popular strain among growers for it’s ease of cultivation (and resistance to pests) but it is its therapeutic qualities that have consumers flocking to the stores. Capable of treating most of the side effects of chemo including pain, sleeplessness, depression and nausea, this pure indica strain will leave its consumers happy and hungry, albeit a bit too sleepy for daytime activities.
6. Grand Daddy Purps: Known for its powerful head-and-body high and amazing grape flavor, Grand Daddy Purps is a go-to strain for anyone experiencing a case of the crummies. The indica dominant hybrid is a cross between Purple Urkle and Big Bud, and can effectively treat things like pain, nausea, insomnia, weight loss, and stress, though its concentrated form may result in a mean case of couch-lock, as well.
7. Romulan X Chemo: Romulan X Chemo is a powerful strain reserved primarily for medical patients. The indica-dominant hybrid hits hard and fast, leaving its users pain-free and ready for slumber almost immediately. Those who don’t fall asleep right away may find themselves drawn to the refrigerator as this strain is great for appetite stimulation, as well.
A cancer diagnosis is never welcome but when it occurs, there are steps that can be taken to make recovery so much easier. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer and is about to undergo traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy, cannabis may be an excellent way to increase the odds of success and safely put the body into remission.
Have you used cannabis to treat the side effects of chemo? We’d love to hear about your experience.
Abby is a writer and founder of Cannabis Content, a marketplace designed to connect cannabis writers and creatives with businesses in the industry. She has been a professional cannabis writer since 2014 and regularly contributes to publications such as PotGuide and M&F Talent. She is also the Content Director at Fortuna Hemp, America’s leading feminized hemp seed bank. Follow Abby on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin.
Cannabis and cancer have an interesting relationship. While there hasn't been enough research to say for sure, there are many strains that have been shown to help people battling cancer. Learn more about the best strains to aid in the side effects of chemotherapy and cancer related treatment.