One of the most common reasons medical marijuana has been prescribed over the years, is to assist people with cancer who are going through chemotherapy treatments. It has been common knowledge that symptoms and side effects of both treatment and the disease itself can be minimalized due to cannabis, but research in the past two decades have shown that marijuana may be a bigger aid against cancer than we thought. Science has begun to show us just what this miracle plant is capable of.

Medical Marijuana – Combating Side Effects Caused by Cancer and Chemotherapy

The symptoms from cancer and chemotherapy can be extremely debilitating for many patients. Extreme nausea and vomiting (emesis), pain, loss of appetite, fatigue, depression and insomnia are only a few of the side effects that a patient can experience. These issues make it difficult for patients to feel as though they can live normally, with the physical and mental tolls becoming unbearably difficult.

Fortunately, more doctors and patients are finding cannabis to be a successful option to help alleviate these symptoms and help patients feel better overall.

Anti-Nausea

Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV) is an extreme side effect that unfortunately comes with chemotherapy. CINV can happen immediately after treatment but tends to be at its worst 6 to 24 hours after treatment. Unfortunately, some patients have found prescribed anti-nausea medication to be ineffective. This is where cannabis steps in.

Marijuana cannabinoids are thought to react with a certain hormone receptor, serotonin (also known as 5-Hydroxytryptamine) functions as a neurotransmitter to the brain and digestive tract, although it holds other functions as well. The CB1 receptors in particular play an important role in the use of anti-nausea effects of cannabis. The vagas nerve in the body relays information from abdominal organs to the central nervous system. When nausea or vomiting is triggered, this nerve communicates that reaction to the brain. When cannabis is introduced, the many cannabinoid receptors in this system react, inhibiting nausea and vomiting.

Anti-Anxiety and Sleep Aid

The calming effects of certain strains of marijuana are both natural anti-anxiety and sleep aids. Indica strains are known to give a full body high, providing calm feelings and restfulness.

A small 2011 study used dronabinol (a synthetic marijuana medication) in cancer patients and found an increased quality of relaxation and sleep in patients treated with THC. In a different case series of five patients and relief of chronic pain, patients reported improved less anxiety, improved sense of well-being and improved mood.

Appetite Stimulant

A funny common side effect known by marijuana users is “the munchies”, leading cannabis to assist in loss of appetite. Cannabinoids, especially THC, trigger a surge of the ‘hungry hormone’, ghrelin, to be released. A change in the hypothalamus occurs, which is the part of the brain that senses the release of the ghrelin hormone. This information tells us that not only is the hungry hormone triggered, but the way our brain on marijuana reacts to that hormone is changed as well.

Pain Relief

Cannabinoid receptors are located throughout the central nervous system, which allows marijuana cannabinoids to bind to those receptors and provide relief from pain. A lot of pain associated with cancer is the result of inflammation, nerve injury or invasion of bone or other sensitive structures. Marijuana is a successful anti-inflammatory due to its reaction with the CB2 receptor.

In the past, pain was treated with opioids, but opioids are proven to be incredibly addictive, have a variety of negative side effects, and are not always effective in treating pain.  Although it may not be as strong as certain pain medications on the market, cannabis is a more natural choice with fewer side effects, and no chance of dependency.

Can Cannabis Treat Cancer?

Preliminary studies have shown promising evidence that cannabis may give us a way to stop cancer growth and possibly kill tumors and cancerous cells.

Studies have shown cannabis to possibly have an anti-tumor effect. One study shows a decrease in incidence of cancerous (hepatocellular carcinoma) and non-cancerous (hepatic adenoma) liver tumors in rats and mice. The study also observed decreased occurrences of benign tumors in other organs of the subjects. This study showed cannabinoids inhibited growth of lung cancer cells (Lewis lung adenocarcinoma cells). It states that endocannabinoids “have been shown to modulate key cell-signalling pathways involved in cancer cell growth, invasion and metastasis.”

Anti-tumor effects (by cannabinoids) are thought to be achieved through various methods, including inhibition of cell growth, and secondary malignant growth inhibition of the necessary blood vessels that tumors need to grow, as well as induction of cell death.

An in vitro study used the cannabinoid CBD to kill breast cancer cells, while having little effect on surrounding healthy cells. Additional studies show cannabinoids reduce cancer progression, invasion and development of secondary growths (metastasis). Other cancer cells found to be affected by cannabinoids include non-small cell lung cancer and colon cancer A 2008 study showed a 60% hinderance of tumor growth in mice treated with THC.

Many reports are beginning to show these exciting results, and hopefully future studies are able to utilize cannabis as a definitive cancer treatment.