Cancer is an umbrella term for a group of diseases in which cells grow and spread abnormally, causing a wide variety of problems. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are over 100 types of cancers that affect humans. 12.7 million people per year are diagnosed with the disease, and another 7.6 million die from it. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world. With so many millions of people struggling with cancer, finding ways to manage its symptoms and combat its occurrence is a vitally important task. We’ll go through an explanation of the disease, how it’s treated, and what cannabis treatment for cancer can contribute to patients.
What is Cancer?
Cancer is the abnormal proliferation of cells that causes them to grow and spread in ways that they shouldn’t. It occurs when various genes at the cellular level are altered; specifically, the genes that regulate cell growth. The causes of this alteration and subsequent cancer are numerous. As a result of this change, a mass of cells called a tumor forms. To diagnose a malignant (cancerous) tumor, six criteria must be met:
- Cell growth and division without the proper signals.
- Continuous growth and division in spite of contrary signals.
- Avoidance of programmed cell death.
- Limitless number of cell divisions.
- Promotion of blood vessel construction.
- Invasion of tissue and formation of metastases (the tumor spreads to organs without being connected to it).
Roughly 90% of all cancers are caused by environmental factors, with the remaining 10% due to inherited genetics. In other words, it is largely an avoidable disease if you live a healthy lifestyle.
What Causes Cancer?
Substances we come into contact with that cause the disease or are linked to it, are called carcinogens. Exposure to these chemicals must be avoided whenever possible to decrease your chances of developing cancer. Tobacco smoke is perhaps the most well-known of cancer-causing agents, and it contains over 50 carcinogens.
It is responsible for some different types of cancer, and causes the vast majority of lung cancers at 90%. Alcohol is also associated with a significant number of cancers; particularly those of the liver and digestive tract. As such, alcohol should only be used in moderation and very responsibly.
Diet and lack of exercise are also huge contributors to getting cancer in the developed world. In fact, obesity as a result of diet and lack of physical activity accounts for the majority of cancer deaths in the world at roughly 35%. While having excess body weight contributes to cancer risk in itself, a lack of exercise compounds this risk due to its negative effects on the immune system and endocrine (hormone) system. Additionally, specific types of food are linked to specific cancers in themselves and should be avoided in excess. For example, a high-salt diet is linked to gastric cancer.
Infectious diseases can also cause the disease, though this is a much more common cause in developing nations compared to developed ones. Viruses such as the Epstein-Barr virus and leukemia are only a fraction of diseases that can lead to cancer. Radiation exposure and inherited genes are other less common though still significant causes of cancer.
What are the Symptoms of Cancer?
Depending on the size, location, and progression of the disease, the signs and symptoms may vary greatly. At the site of cancer itself, the most obvious sign is that of a lump or mass on the body that should not be there. For tumors that aren’t visible to the naked eye, such as in lung cancer, symptoms may include a cough and pneumonia. Cancer of the esophagus may cause difficulty swallowing, and so on. Due to how non-specific symptoms often are, cancer is easy to miss, and patients are often treated for diseases they do not have as a result of a misdiagnosis based on their symptoms.
Other ‘systemic’ symptoms may also indicate cancer in the body. These include:
- Unintentional weight loss.
- Changes in skin.
The most effective way to diagnose cancer is through early detection. Potential patients can go for regular screenings, which are common for cancers like cervical, colorectal, and breast cancer. A diagnosis is confirmed through various medical imaging devices and, at last, a biopsy of the affected site. Once a diagnosis has been made, treatment can begin.
Traditional Cancer Treatment
Cancer is a mostly curable disease, and its treatment varies widely on an individual basis. There are, unfortunately, types of cancer that cannot be treated. The treatment options chosen depend on the location of the disease, its type, and its progression. We’ll examine common treatment methods in fighting cancer.
The most well known treatment is chemotherapy. It is the administration of drugs that are toxic to cells, and the aim of this course of action is to kill those cells which are cancerous in order to stop the disease from progressing. Chemotherapy can be “targeted,” meaning that it only kills specific types of cells, and leaves normal, healthy ones alone. However, targeted chemotherapy does not exist for all types of cancers. In other words, non-targeted chemotherapy is the administration of drugs that are toxic to all cells, resulting in a significant toll taken on the body. The symptoms of chemotherapy vary based on the specific drugs used, but some common side effects are:
- Reduced immune function.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Hair loss.
- Neuropathy (nerve pain).
- Organ damage.
Another treatment path involves radiation or the transmission of energy. The goal of radiation therapy is to affect the cancerous tissue with so much energy that its DNA is disrupted, and it dies. This energy can also damage healthy tissue, which makes it crucial that the rest of the body is protected. With such a destructive form of treatment, radiation therapy can often come with a host of adverse side effects of its own, many of which are similar to those experienced by patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Surgery treatment involves the removal of cancerous tissue via surgery. It is also common and sometimes sufficient to remove all of the cancerous tissue by itself. This solution is most sought-after if available, but many cancers cannot be fully removed by surgery alone. As such, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are commonly used. In treating these side effects, as well as cancer itself, cannabis has been shown to be an effective, natural medication.
Cannabis as Cancer Symptom Management
A study examined the effectiveness of cannabis-based medications in reducing vomiting in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The researchers made a few astounding discoveries.
Dronabinol, a particular cannabis-based medication, is more effective at reducing the incidence of vomiting in patients, than “conventional” drugs that aim to accomplish the same goal. The researchers also note that cannabis had some beneficial side effects: the ‘high’ sensation helped with depression, and the drug-induced sleepiness and sedation. All of these effects are beneficial to a patient suffering from the effects of chemotherapy.
When the subjects of the study were asked about which anti-vomiting drug they preferred, most patients chose the cannabis treatment. The researchers hypothesize that this was because nausea and vomiting are the most uncomfortable side effects of the chemotherapy process. Cannabis was most effective at treating those particular symptoms.
Lastly, the researchers make the point that the mechanism by which cannabis stops vomiting is distinct from the other anti-vomiting medicines. This is an important point because some medications react differently to the body than others. Because cannabis interacts differently, it may be the best option available for these patients in providing a safe alternative.
Therapeutic Effects of Cannabis
Researchers examined various therapeutic aspects of the cannabis plant, and particularly how it affects cancer patients. They noted that using cannabis increases both calorie intake and frequency of eating compared to a placebo. For cancer patients specifically, for whom maintaining a healthy body weight is often difficult, an improvement in appetite and body weight was also found when switching over to cannabis.
In the study, cannabis treatment was also a fairly potent pain reliever. Specifically, they state that it benefited those with cancer-related pain. Surprisingly, its strength was similar to codeine, but longer lasting. Codeine is an opioid, a powerful but highly-addictive class of drugs, which suggests that cannabis may be preferential due to a significantly reduced risk of addiction.
Additionally, the researchers examined the effects of another cannabis-based medication called nabilone. In patients experiencing anxiety, nabilone gave them dramatic improvements in their anxiety with minimal adverse side effects.Fighting with cancer takes a huge toll, both physically and mentally. As such, any mental health benefit included in the patient’s treatment plan is a huge bonus. The study finishes by noting that cannabis treatment is very safe in overdose. In other words, an ‘overdose’ on cannabis produces relatively harmless side effects when compared to the majority of other medications. This makes cannabis among the safest possible alternative to virtually any other medication and utilizing it minimizes the risk of further compromising the health of an already sick individual.
Cannabis as Cancer Prevention
One study cited a known link between chronic inflammation and the development of cancer. It states that reducing inflammation, is an effective way to reduce the likelihood of developing cancer. In the study, the researchers note that certain cannabinoids, have anti-inflammatory effects. As a result, cannabis treatment can be used not only to treat cancer, but prevent it from even developing. The best way to fight any disease is to avoid contracting it, and this exciting find makes cannabis treatment a potential candidate in a host of medications that ward off cancer.
Cannabis as Cancer Fighter
A 2012 study conducted on cannabis treatment and its relationship to cancer made a few interesting discoveries. In the paper, the researchers corroborate the studies mentioned throughout the article, noting cannabis’s ability to ease various symptoms patients struggle with. They also state that cannabinoids have anti-cancer effects. This turns cannabis into both a symptom-management medication and a disease-fighting one as well. Cannabinoids inhibited tumor growth in the study both in vitro (a test tube/petri dish) as well as in vivo ( a living organism). The study goes on to list the different types of cancers that cannabis’s intervention helped to inhibit, and the list is nine cancers long. The researchers suggest that more studies be done to get the full scope of what cancers that are treatable with cannabinoids.
Is Cannabis Smoke the Same as Tobacco Smoke?
On the subject of cancer and cannabis, some are worried that smoking cannabis poses the same or greater risk of cancer compared to cigarettes, A survey of thousands of studies was conducted in 2014 to see if smoking pot causes lung cancer. In their detailed analysis, the association between the cannabis smoking and lung cancer was found to be very weak. Further, the researchers say there is “little evidence” for an increased risk of lung cancer from habitual cannabis smoking.
An earlier study agrees. With the suggestive title, “Cannabis and tobacco smoke are not equally carcinogenic,” the researchers make a point that cannabis is way safer and healthier than cigarettes. The abstract concludes by stating that “…tobacco smoke, but not cannabis smoke, may result in lung cancer.” Clearly, smoking cannabis and smoking cigarettes do not have the same consequences, as the link between cancer and tobacco smoking is abundantly clear.
The Future of Cannabis Treatment for Cancer
Science is obviously supporting cannabis as an effective treatment for virtually all aspects of cancer. Cannabis treatment can prevent the disease from occurring, slow or stop it once it does occur, and effectively treat the symptoms associated with it. Fortunately, the opinion among experts is that more research should be done on the plant in light of these findings. The data suggests that we are on the cusp of discovering that cannabis and its extracts should be used for the majority of patients in at least some avenue of their treatment plan. Due to how innocuous and relatively harmless cannabis is, the prospect of replacing other more harmful medications with cannabis is an exciting one.