Does cannabis really work as a cancer treatment? Here's the latest science...

Health Anna Wilcox 9/13/2017
Cancer patient
Cancer patients deserve the most effective treatments out there.

Does cannabis really work as a cancer treatment?

With such an extreme diagnosis, many patients are desperate to find remedies that boost their chances of fighting the disease.

Thus far, there have been no large-scale clinical trials on cannabis as a cancer treatment.

This means that, at this point, there is no concrete scientific proof that cannabis can treat a human being for cancer.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that the plant isn’t useful in cancer treatments.

A wealth of preclinical evidence and even an early human trial have found that the anticancer and antitumor effects of cannabis are extremely promising.

Here’s the scoop on cannabis and cancer treatment:

Does cannabis really work as a cancer treatment?

cannabis plants
Research on cannabis and cancer goes back to the 1970s.

Emerging evidence suggests that this medicinal herb does, in fact, kill cancer cells. At least they do in a laboratory setting.

A handful of the active components of the cannabis plant, called cannabinoids, have successfully killed cancer cells cultivated outside of the body and in animal models.

Two of the most promising compounds include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the primary psychoactive in the cannabis plant. It’s the culprit behind the famous “high” that  many varities of cannabis provide, plus a slew of other medical benefits.

Meanwhile, CBD is perhaps the second most abundant chemical compound in cannabis and it does not induce a state of euphoria. Rather, CBD promotes a calm uplift without causing cognitive impairment.

Both THC and CBD have been found to have anti-tumoral and anticancer properties by themselves.

Yet, early laboratory experiments suggest that the two compounds may work best when combined with one another.

Small human studies even suggest that cannabis compounds may extend the life of patients with certain types of cancer.

A 2017 clinical trial in 21 patients with an aggressive form of brain cancer found that adding THC and CBD treatment to chemotherapy was correlated with an increased survival rate.

Patients given the cannabis compounds had an 83 percent survival rate at the one-year mark while patients given a placebo only had a 53 percent survival rate at one year.  

Yet, it’s important to keep in mind that research on this topic is only in preliminary phases.

The four ways cannabis kills cancer cells

cancer cells
You can learn exactly how cannabis kills cancer cells.

There are a few primary reasons why researchers and patients postulate that cannabis has a role to play in cancer treatment.

Preclinical evidence suggests that it halts cancer progression and kills cancer cells in four different ways:

1. Halted proliferation

In laboratory research, scientists have discovered that both THC and CBD halt the proliferation of cancer cells in numerous different types of cancers, including melanoma, breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, and glioma.

Cancer cells proliferate when they divide and make new cancer cells, causing tumors to grow and cancers to spread.

This is why any tools that halt the proliferation of cancer cells are of major interest to researchers when developing effective cancer treatments.

2. Death by starvation

Tumors can’t grow if they can’t eat. Research suggests that cannabis compounds are anti-angiogenic.

In other words, studies are finding that THC can switch off genes that allow tumors to develop blood vessels.

Preventing blood vessel formation essentially starves the tumors, cutting them off from vital oxygen and nutrient supplies that would otherwise allow them to grow and interfere with vital bodily functions.

3. Decreased spread

Sometimes, cancer cells break away from their original locations and spread to other parts of the body via the lymphatic system or blood stream. This spread is called metastasis.

Scientists have discovered that cannabis compounds like THC and CBD prevent metastasis in various types of cancers.

While the evidence thus far is limited to laboratory and rodent models, finding therapies that prevent metastasis is a key target in cancer research.

Since cannabis compounds have been shown time and time again to block metastasis, they are potentially valuable tools in cancer treatment.

4. Triggered cell death

The fact that cannabis compounds can prevent tumor growth, starve tumors, and prevent the spread of cancer in early research is nothing short of amazing.

Yet, these three topics pale in comparison to research that suggests that cannabis compounds can actually kill cancer cells.

As luck would have it, both THC and CBD can tap into a natural mechanism in the body that determines whether or not diseased cells live or die.

Research has shown that the two cannabinoids trigger a process called apoptosis, which can roughly be described as “cell suicide.”

Apoptosis is a natural phenomenon that helps the body prevent the buildup of diseased and damaged cells. Cancer becomes a threat when cells stop responding to the natural signals that would otherwise trigger apoptosis.

Preclinical studies have discovered that cannabis compounds trigger apoptosis in cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.

This is a major difference from prevailing cancer treatments like chemotherapy, which can harm both healthy and cancerous cells.

Additional research suggests that THC can trigger another process of natural cell death called autophagy, which is an autodigestion of the cell.

Both of these factors have immense importance in cancer research.

This is why many medical cannabis patients have made the personal decision to add cannabis into their cancer treatment plans even though large-scale clinical trials in humans are lacking.

What types of cancer respond to cannabis treatments?

Each year, more studies are published about the anti-cancer properties of cannabis.

Currently, researchers have identified various different cancers that may be responsive to cannabinoid treatments.

10 of these cancers include:

Admittedly, some of the research on cannabis and certain cancers is far too sparse for comfort. Plus, there are multiple different types of cancer that can affect the regions listed above.

For example, there are over 61 different types of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, five different common types of Hodgkin's lymphoma, and over 25 different possible types of brain tumors.

Cannabis treatments have not been thoroughly researched in all variations of cancers.

In order for cannabis to be effectively integrated into cancer care, it is important for researchers to figure out what types of cancers respond to cannabis treatments and which ones do not.

For more specific information on whether or not cannabis or cannabis compounds may help a particular type of cancer, it is best to ask a medical professional for research on the individual condition.

Different types of cancer may respond differently to cannabis treatments

doctor with cannabis leaf
Cannabis can also help cancer patients with other symptoms including pain, nausea, morale, and depression.

While cannabis is a promising tool in cancer treatment, early evidence suggests that not all cancers respond to the same cannabis compounds.

For example, research in glioma, an aggressive type of brain tumor, responds most strongly to THC. Though, mixtures of THC and CBD seem to work best in preclinical models when combined with chemotherapy.

Breast cancer, on the other hand, has responded more strongly to CBD in laboratory models.

It’s important to work with a canna-savvy medical professional prior to integrating cannabis into your cancer routine.

A cannabis friendly medical professional will likely be able to provide you with more information on the best types of cannabis to use for your particular needs.

Though, it’s also useful to keep in mind that many medical professionals will not recommend cannabis for the treatment of cancer due to the fact that large scale clinical trials have not been completed.

Unfortunately, many patients are still left to experiment on their own when it comes to integrating cannabis into their treatment plans.

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