Cannabis for Lung Cancer: Does the Herb Harm or Help?

Health Anna Wilcox 9/7/2018
cannabis for lung cancer
Your lungs contain enough surface tissue to cover a tennis court.

“Cannabis is an extremely valuable tool in your toolbox when you’re faced with a cancer diagnosis,” begins Mara Gordon in a Green Flower segment on using cannabis for lung cancer.

If anyone knows anything about cannabis and cancer, it’s Gordon.

The founder of Aunt Zelda’s, a unique line of cannabis oils and supplements designed for patients managing severe illnesses, Gordon has been working with medical cannabis patients with cancer for the last seven years.

But, not all cancers are the same. When it comes to cannabis for lung cancer, does the herb cause the disease or help fend off the cellular invasion?

Amazingly, early laboratory evidence suggests that compounds in the plant may be useful in the fight against lung cancer.

Cannabis for lung cancer: does it help?

While many daily cannabis smokers are concerned that their favorite pastime may be linked to lung cancer, the active molecules in the plant may actually work to prevent the disease.

Evidence from early laboratory trials suggests that the cannabis plant produces several different compounds with potentially potent anti-cancer effects.

While the verdict on whether or not cannabis can contribute to lung cancer is still out (more on this below), there is a growing body of science that suggests that it may be an up-and-coming adjunct remedy for cancer patients.

But, before we’re too quick to make any assumptions about the herb, Gordon has a few words of wisdom.

“It’s important to understand that [cannabis] is not a panacea,” she says.

“The scientific studies that we have seen and we have done show, in many cases, that cannabinoids work more effectively when they are in conjunction with a chemotherapy drug or radiation.”

Yet, even for those who have exhausted their chemotherapy options, cannabis medicines may still be helpful for managing symptoms of the disease. As Gordon explains:

“Cannabis is still extremely effective on its own in many cases, in more cases than it's not.”

Yet, why exactly does cannabis seem to fight the disease? Early science offers some potential answers.

CBD for lung cancer

CBD for lung cancer
Cannabis can help cancer patients in more ways than one.

The anti-cancer potential of cannabidiol (CBD) is a topic that is quickly gaining attention among research communities.

CBD is a non-intoxicating compound found only in the cannabis plant. Already, the cannabinoid has proven to quell seizures in epilepsy patients. Now, the focus is turning to cancer.

Thus far, CBD is thought to hold the most promise in breast cancer, halting tumor progression and reducing metastasis in animal models. A cancer is metastatic when parts of the original tumor break away and take up residence in other locations.

However, breast cancer isn’t the only cancer responsive to CBD.

In a 2012 study published in the FASEB Journal, CBD was found to decrease the spread and invasiveness of lung cancer cells in early laboratory trials.

There is some early evidence that CBD may actually kill lung cancer cells as well. In 2013, the American Association for Cancer Research published a paper which confirmed that the cannabis compound successfully triggered the self-destruction of lung cancer cells.

The cells were cultured outside of the human body, so it is difficult to tell whether or not the molecule would have the same effect in real patients.

However, the results were intriguing. CBD triggered a phenomenon called apoptosis in cancer cells, causing tumor cells to disassemble while healthy cells remained untouched.

Said another way, CBD triggered cancer cell suicide.

“The reason this is important,” explains Gordon, “is when a cell commits suicide and dies through apoptosis, it is a very clean death and it doesn’t cause residual [damage].”

“Whereas traditional treatments for cancer result in something called necrosis. Necrosis results in inflammation and a lot of other negative side effects in the cells and organs around where you’re being treated.”

While the evidence is out regarding whether or not CBD can actually help patients beat their cancer, the early research on the subject is certainly fascinating and warrants further investigation.

THC for lung cancer

THC for lung cancer
THC and CBD both seem to be important for cancer patients.

CBD isn’t the only cannabis compound that has demonstrated effects against lung cancer.

Another cannabis compound shows promise, only this one has more of a reputation.

Believe it or not, the primary psychoactive component in the herb, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has shown preventative effects against lung cancer.

In animal models, THC was successful in slowing the growth and spread of lung cancer cells. In cell culture models, the compound seemed to slow the migration of these cancer cells as well.

Back in 2007, a study conducted by researchers at Harvard University discovered that the psychoactive compound cut tumor cell growth down by a whopping half in animal models. These astounding results were publicised by the American Association for Cancer Research.

The early research also found that the molecule seems to prevent lung cancer cells from developing blood vessels, which are vital for the survival of tumors. Without blood vessels, tumors cannot eat!

Cannabis for lung cancer symptoms

Apart from potentially fighting tumors and causing cancer cells to self-destruct, cannabis medicines are proving to be quite useful in palliative care.

Already, synthetic cannabis drugs are available to patients via prescription for the management of nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. The most common of which is Marinol (dronabinol), which is a drug designed to mimic the effects of THC.

In early trials, compounds in the herb have been found effective for relieving cancer-related pain. The soothing plant may also be useful for those hoping to improve their sleep, elevate their mood, or relieve anxiety associated with having a serious illness.

Does cannabis cause lung cancer?

cannabis cause lung cancer
Smoking isn't the only way to consume cannabis.

Anytime you burn a botanical substance, you create carcinogen-containing smoke, it's true.  

Yet, whether or not smoking cannabis actually increases your risk of developing lung cancer is still under investigation.

In one of the most well-respected reviews on the topic, scientist Donald Tashkin from the University of California at Los Angeles reports that there has been little evidence that firmly connects cannabis to lung cancer. He writes:

Although marijuana smoke contains a number of carcinogens and cocarcinogens, findings from a limited number of well-designed epidemiological studies do not suggest an increased risk for the development of either lung or upper airway cancer from light or moderate use, although evidence is mixed concerning possible carcinogenic risks of heavy, long-term use.

According to the American Thoracic Society, cannabis smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as tobacco smoke.

For this reason, while conclusive evidence has yet to be published, it is always safest to consume that smoking may cause cancer.

However, as Tashkin’s work mentions, the research has yet to prove that smoking cannabis is a de facto path toward developing the disease.

Hoping to avoid the risk? Opt for oral, sublingual, and vaporized cannabis products.


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