As science catches up, we’re learning that there’s no evidence yet that cannabis can cure cancer. However, research indicates that medical marijuana can successfully treat some of cancer’s most difficult side effects, which could significantly impact a patient’s outcome and quality of life.
Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, most research institutions couldn’t study cannabis as a potential cancer treatment until recently. The first instance of a patient in the United States attempting to legally use cannabis for cancer involved a 1992 proposal that served as the basis for California’s Proposition 215. Patients with cancer have long played a key role in advocating for legal access to cannabis.
In 1996, Prop 215 went on to pave the way for the first legislation to allow for the legal medicinal use of marijuana in the United States. Since then, legislative changes have allowed for medical marijuana use in states across the country. These changes, along with progress in scientific research and public awareness on the benefits of medical cannabis have contributed to a surge in interest in the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids–especially among cancer patients.
Medical marijuana activist and cultivator Rick Simpson claimed in 2003 that he used cannabis oil to treat his skin cancer. Today, the process that he used to extract the cannabis oil has been copied by cannabis processors across the world who produce a product marketed as “Rick Simpson Oil (RSO).” The oil is extracted utilizing a solvent such as butane or ethanol to preserve the cannabinoids.
Simpson suggested that patients take up to 1 gram of THC per day, but to titrate up slowly. His method for ingesting THC by gradually increasing intake is documented on his website. Although no scientific research exists which shows that RSO or other forms of cannabis oil can treat cancer, anecdotal RSO success stories continue to be shared around the internet.
The two best studied components of cannabis are the chemicals delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Research has discovered that THC can help relieve pain and nausea, reduce inflammation, improve appetite, and can act as an antioxidant.
CBD may help treat seizures and reduce anxiety and paranoia, which are sometimes reported as side effects of high doses of THC. Cannabis oils that contain THC may help control nausea and vomiting for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Patients with cancer who use cannabis have reported that it can be successful in quelling nausea, suppressing vomiting, increasing appetite, relieving pain, and soothing anxiety. Clinical studies indicate that cannabis may not be as effective as pharmaceutical drugs at treating each of these symptoms separately. However, patients find cannabis preferential because they can use it to treat several symptoms simultaneously. Cannabis could also be used to complement standard medications or to treat patients for whom standard therapies have failed.
With nausea, some patients have better success with inhaling THC to prevent vomiting rather than swallowing a pill. If vomiting were severe or began immediately after chemotherapy, a pill often will not stay down long enough to take effect. Vaporizing THC provides faster relief as opposed to an orally administered product. Another added benefit to vaporizing cannabis is that the patient can take only the amount of medicine they need, one puff at a time, thus reducing their risk of unwanted side effects.
Appetite loss affects most cancer patients, leading to a disproportionate loss of lean body tissue. Depending on the type of cancer, 50 to 80 percent of patients will develop Wasting Syndrome, also known as Cachexia. Cachexia can occur during the final stages of advanced pancreatic, lung, and prostate cancers. Proteins called cytokines, produced by the immune system in response to the tumor, appear to stimulate this wasting process.
Cachexia is often treated by inserting a feeding tube and a pharmaceutical medication called megestrol acetate (Megace), an appetite stimulant. Medical marijuana can also work to increase appetite in cancer patients struggling with cachexia.
It is possible that CBD could alleviate symptoms of anxiety, poor sleep, and pain. CBD has been studied a lot in the laboratory and in mice but far less in humans. Right now there are some studies that are evaluating CBD as a part of cancer treatment, but none of those have had significant results.
In cell cultures and animals, cannabis-derived cannabinoids, particularly THC and cannabidiol, can have activity against some cancers but accelerate the growth of others. None of these studies provide evidence that cannabis can cure cancer. Because it does show evidence in helping treat cancer side effects such as loss of appetite, neuropathic pain, and nausea, doctors typically recommend it as complementary treatment to conventional cancer therapy.
Author: Gabrielle Dion Visca
Gabrielle has been writing and editing professionally for the medical and wellness industries for more than 20 years. She’s held positions with The Journal of Pediatrics, Livestrong, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and Patient Pop. She currently writes articles about medical marijuana for Duber Medical, and is the founder of the Ohio cannabis journalism non-profit, MedicateOH.