Cannabis and Cancer: Could Cannabinoids Treat Breast Cancer
Dope Magazine - By. Megan Rubio - 10/03/2016
Could cannabis cure breast cancer? Such a proposition may sound farfetched, but the few studies available indicate that while cannabis has not been shown to specifically kill cancer cells, cannabis use could indirectly assist with the many symptoms of cancer and combat the effects of chemotherapy. Cannabis has been used for years to treat symptoms and ailments associated with cancer, despite its Schedule I classification within the Controlled Substances Act.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women within the United States. Researchers are scrambling to find treatments for breast cancer as it becomes resistant to already established therapies. As it turns out, a recent study, published in 2011, concluded that CBD has been found to induce the process of programmed cell death in breast cancer cells. CBD itself is not killing the breast cancer cells, but instead activates autophagy.
The American Association of Cancer Research indicates that, “Recent studies have shown that cannabinoids also induce autophagic cell death,” lending hope that there may be other cannabinoids besides CBD that could have similar medicinal effects. Autophagy is a natural process within the body that deals with the destruction of cells. Essentially, CBD induces the process whereby the body would destroy unnecessary or dysfunctional cells in order for new, healthy cells to have the ability to form. The research concluded in the results of their study, “The desirability of CBD as an anticancer agent, because they suggest that CBD preferentially kills breast cancer cells, while minimizing damage to normal breast tissue.” Can you imagine? A substance with the ability to target compromised cells.
Of the 483 known compounds within the cannabis plant, at least 100 of those have been identified as cannabinoids. A cannabinoid interacts with cannabinoid receptors, which are located in cells throughout the body. The two main cannabinoids receiving the most notoriety are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound that produces a ‘high’ in users, and cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive cannabinoid often used by medical patients. Cannabinoids are the active chemicals in cannabis that cause drug-like effects throughout the body. The National Cancer Institute states that cannabis, “May be useful in treating the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.” Cannabinoids can, among other things, block cell growth, prevent the growth of blood vessels—which supply tumors—and have antiviral properties.
Both THC and CBD can be used to treat a variety of cancer-related ailments. While CBD is generally classified as more medicinal than THC, the application of THC cannot be underscored in regards to cancer. THC may not be as directly active in ridding the body of cancer as CBD, but it can still play a role in its treatment. THC can be helpful in relieving pain and nausea; reducing inflammation; and can even act as an antioxidant (American Cancer Society). Not only that, but smoked cannabis can also be helpful in treating neuropathic pain and can help improve food intake.
Besides all of the stated conditions that cannabis could treat, a factor not often given consideration is the relative absence of side effects attributed to cannabis use. While some drugs may contain warnings such as, “May cause nausea, vomiting, constipation,” there are other drugs that can lead to seizure, stroke, internal bleeding or even death. In contrast, the side effects of cannabis are minimal, including lower blood pressure, bloodshot eyes and muscle relaxation; with the most extreme side effects being dizziness, paranoia, or possibly auditory or visual hallucinations. Though any negative side effects are undesirable, the side effects attributed to cannabis are not physically harmful, long-lasting or detrimental to one’s health.
While there is certainly not an overwhelming amount of data supporting the medicinal uses of cannabis in treating breast cancer, the same statement could be made in regards to any medical condition. The DEA’s failure to declassify or even reclassify cannabis underscores what many already know. In continuing to ignore the potential medicinal benefits of cannabis, patients are being denied a natural compound that could serve as a panacea.
But let’s not place all of the blame on the DEA. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also states that they have not approved cannabis or cannabinoids for use as a cancer treatment. Despite its Schedule I classification, there have been two drugs developed based on marijuana compounds that have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting: dronabinol and nabilone. Of the clinical trials conducted thus far, results have indicated that both dronabinol and nabilone work as well as, if not better than other FDA-approved drugs used to relieve nausea and vomiting. Still, the FDA maintains that there is no indication that marijuana may be a safe and effective drug. The irony cannot be lost that while the FDA continues to deny the medicinal benefits of cannabis, they already have two approved drugs on the market containing cannabis compounds.
Cannabis has been used for years to treat chronic pain, seizures, depression, PTSD and a whole slew of other conditions. With recent data suggesting that cannabis could play a role in fighting breast cancer, there needs to be greater recognition of the potential for cannabis to be effective in treating other life-threatening illnesses. At some point consumers must decide to take action. Calls for more research fall on deaf ears. Instead of waiting on a call that the DEA is never going to make, states that have passed recreational and medical laws should pursue proposals and funding for research.
Marijuana has become more widely studied recently for its medicinal properties, but the area is no longer limited to people suffering from pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, sleeplessness or disease-induced anorexia. It has now been discovered that breast cancer patients are helped with marijuana through direct anticancer actions that the cannabis species is able to provide.
Marijuana contains 21 carbon-containing compounds called cannabinoids. They have been found to prevent, and even destroy, tumors by many different mechanisms. Cannabinoids can induce cancer cell death, inhibit cell growth and prevent spreading of the cancerous cells, while helping to prevent healthy cells from being damaged or invaded by the cancer. The cannabinoids do not harm or inhibit healthy cells in any way; they actually have protective effects on them. It is in this way that the use of compounds in marijuana has a potential as a treatment far superior to other existing ones, like chemotherapy, which also damages the healthy cells.
Breast cancer patients can be helped by marijuana if they merely want to have it as an adjunct to more standard Western medical practices. It can be ingested in capsule form, smoked, or added to a food. In these instances, marijuana provides relief to symptoms commonly experienced as side effects to chemotherapy and radiation. Cannabinoids have been consistently shown to alleviate symptoms such as pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, anxiety and loss of appetite.
A patient does not need to smoke or eat the marijuana in order to achieve these benefits. The sense of euphoria, time distortion, or short-term memory loss is not experienced from the cannabinoids used to combat cancer. In order for the anticancer effects to be optimized, highly concentrated extracts are put into capsules and administered to patients.
So far effective results have been achieved in lab animals, but have yet to be fully replicated in human subjects. Studies are underway that could open up a whole new approach to breast cancer treatment. In addition, research has found there to be significant protective effects that can help prevent cancers from developing to begin with.
This could prove especially useful for those who are aware that they possess a higher genetic predisposition to certain cancers. At this point in time, use of marijuana-based treatments for cancer have not been approved by the FDA. This will be very unlikely to occur anytime in the near future either. The production of these medications is much cheaper than standard current therapies and they also do not require ongoing intensive monitoring by healthcare professionals.
A patient can safely self-administer a cannabinoid medication at home, as it has extremely low toxicity and has virtually no associated side effects. This could open up a whole new frontier to breast cancer patients who are frequently overwhelmed by doctor’s appointments, chemotherapy treatments and tests. A breast cancer patient can be helped with marijuana to beat the illness while maintaining a normal day-to-day life. It is extremely necessary that the general population and those affected by cancer push for further research and to have that research acknowledged by the FDA. Until that happens, these treatments will continue to be forced underground and only perpetuate any stigma that still exists for medical marijuana.
By Lara Stielow
My breast cancer diagnosis at age 26 was an unwelcome and at times harrowing experience. What allowed me to endure the darkest days was the hope that my rigorous treatment — chemotherapy, surgeries and radiotherapy among them — would allow me to once again live a full and healthy life. It’s what propelled me to walk back into the hospital for more treatments.But then came A/C: The “A” stands for Adriamycin, a drug neon red in color and injected via large syringes by oncology nurses; its apt nicknames are “red devil” and “red death.” That probably should have been the red flag that I wasn’t going to escape without being slightly worse for wear.
After each of my four biweekly infusions, I lay bedridden for four days, debilitated by severe nausea, heartburn and overall discomfort. I also suffered deep bone pain, a consequence of the Neulasta shot given to keep my white blood cell counts up. I acutely felt all of these side effects, despite being given an intravenous anti-nausea medication, taking anti-nausea tablets every few hours and heartburn medicine and a low-dose prescription narcotic for the bone pain. None of this provided me with the relief for which I longed.
Eventually, though, I was lucky enough to take a medicine that did alleviate my suffering. Not so fortunate was the fact that it came in the form of a drug illegal under federal law: cannabis.
Though cannabis for medical purposes became legal in the District (where I live) in 2010, the city-sanctioned dispensaries that can supply it are only now inching closer to opening their doors.
Nevertheless, marijuana is still banned under the Controlled Substances Act — meaning it continues to be a federal crime to possess or grow marijuana, even in the 18 states plus the District that permit it for medicinal purposes. As a Schedule I drug, cannabis is deemed to have no “accepted medical use” and to lack “safety for use under medical supervision.”
Yet marijuana was the only thing that truly quelled my stomach, provided for restful sleep and allowed me to eat and drink. I was not a cannabis smoker prior to my diagnosis, and I am not one now. I used it only during my chemotherapy treatments, which ended a few months ago. I am willing to go public with my experience because, while the tide may now be turning, there remains a stigma — and many stumbling blocks for patients who would benefit from marijuana — where there should be none.
Legal efforts to shift marijuana to a different schedule under the Controlled Substances Act, thereby loosening restrictions on access to and research on the plant, have failed. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s refusal to change the drug’s classification because of a lack of “adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy” has been upheld. No studies of the drug have met the DEA’s criteria to prove that marijuana has an “accepted medical use.”
But a complicated process hinders marijuana studies. With cannabis on Schedule I, investigators interested in researching it must apply for a special license from the DEA and have their study approved by the Food and Drug Administration. To actually obtain the plant, researchers must then apply for access to the National Institute of Drug Abuse’s research-grade supply of the drug.
NIDA is known to refuse requests. When an agency whose mission is to bring “the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction” is charged with regulating who conducts research on cannabis, it’s easy to see why this is so. In a 2010 New York Times article, a spokeswoman for NIDA said that the group’s “focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use,” adding, “we generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial medical effects of marijuana.”
Prominent medical associations such as the American Medical Association and theAmerican College of Physicians have called for a review of marijuana’s Schedule I status. Others, such as the Institute of Medicine, have recognized cannabis’s potential and determined that it should be further researched. Yet, the DEA’s stance remains that “smoked marijuana has not withstood the rigors of science — it is not medicine, and it is not safe.”
I tell my story to illustrate the contrary: It was the safest medicine I took over the course of my cancer treatments. Only with further research can we better understand the palliative effects of cannabis — and perhaps finally make it more accessible to the many of us who suffer chronic pain and discomfort. For us, quality of life has special meaning.