Cancer and chemotherapy are two “c” words that we have really come to hate and dread. A cancer diagnosis is terrifying and devastating, and the chemotherapy that often follows can be painful, frightening and can leave you feeling helpless. But there’s another “c” word that just might help: cannabis. Cannabis is changing the face of chemo and is changing the way people are able to cope with all that comes after a cancer diagnosis.
First, let’s talk about cancer. It’s no surprise that this disease is unforgiving, relentless and affecting millions of people every year with no signs of slowing down. The American Cancer Society reports that an estimated 1,688,780 new cancer cases were diagnosed in 2017 and over 600,000 people have died from this disease in the past year alone. But the more optimistic (aka survival) side of the story is that thanks to early detection, early diagnosis and effective treatment such as chemotherapy, people are surviving this disease, and the survival rate is going up. As of January 1, 2016 more than 15.5 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive, and by January 1, 2026, “it is estimated that the population of cancer survivors will increase to 20.3 million: almost 10 million males and 10.3 million females.”
Now that we’re all clear that cancer is not necessarily a death sentence, let’s move on to chemotherapy, which is one of the treatment methods to combat cancer.
Chemotherapy is the Use of Drugs to kill Cancerous Cells
In the simplest terms, chemo is a drug treatment that uses powerful chemicals to kill cancer cells in your body and prevent the spread of those cells before they can attack the body’s normal, healthy cells. Cancer cells aren’t just strong, they also happen to grow rapidly, so rapidly that they can outgrow healthy cells and invade nearby tissues and organs. Chemotherapy is used to eliminate those dangerous cancerous cells before they can do more damage and continue to spread.
As you can probably imagine, the amount of chemicals needed, and the sheer strength of those drugs must be pretty powerful in order to beat a fast-spreading, deadly disease like cancer. This is why chemotherapy can take time (and several rounds of treatment) and why it comes with so many side effects.
Chemo can be a traumatic, painful, exhausting and terrifying experience on physical, mental and emotional levels. It can leave you fatigued, nauseous, weak, anxious, depressed and unable to eat or move comfortably. Which is why one of the keys to success where chemo is concerned is finding ways to help you cope with this treatment.
Cannabinoids and Chemotherapy
Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. And in the world of chemotherapy specifically, it has been used effectively to help soothe symptoms and make patients more comfortable as they battle cancer.
Marijuana, which refers to the dried buds or leaves of the cannabis plant, contains several biological components called cannabinoids. Two of the best-studied and most active cannabinoids are the chemicals delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (often referred to as THC), and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the chemical that makes you feel high when you consume it, while CBD doesn’t deliver a high but still affects the way your body feels.
Studies have shown that THC can “help relieve pain and nausea, reduce inflammation, and can act as an antioxidant. Cannabidiol (CBD) can help treat seizures, can reduce anxiety and paranoia.”
Clearly, many of the effects of CBD oil and chemotherapy can be helpful for a patient undergoing it who is experiencing many of those symptoms on a daily basis. And while there are other pharmaceutical medications that can be prescribed to offer similar effects, for some people cannabis is the only thing that works.
THC can help relieve pain and nausea, reduce inflammation, and can act as an antioxidant. Cannabidiol (CBD) can help treat seizures, can reduce anxiety and paranoia.
Is it true that Medical Marijuana Enhances Chemotherapy?
According to a recent article in the medical journal Current Oncology, “cannabis is useful in combatting anorexia, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, pain, insomnia, and depression. Cannabis might be less potent than other available antiemetics, but for some patients, it is the only agent that works, and it is the only antiemetic that also increases appetite.”
Beyond that, both patients and medical experts are in support of cannabis to help cope with chemotherapy. A 2014 poll conducted by Medscape and WebMD, reported in Newsweek, found that “82 percent of oncologists agreed that cannabis should be offered as a treatment option,” and that the potential therapeutic benefits are significant.
Are There any Concerns about Cannabinoids and Chemotherapy?
As with any form of drug or medical treatment, there are some concerns as well as some things you need to know.
First of all, it’s important to note that currently medical cannabis is legalized in 30 states across the U.S. plus Washington D.C. Which means that while the nation is certainly embracing cannabis as a way to treat medical conditions, marijuana is still a Schedule I illegal substance on a federal level, so it’s not available to everyone, everywhere, for medicinal purposes.
In addition, there is limited research and proof of how and why cannabis helps patients cope with chemotherapy symptoms and treat other medical conditions. Because it is hard to execute clinical research on medical marijuana, there is still a lot we don’t know about how this plant works to help patients feel better. According to Dr. David Casarett, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and the author of Stoned: A Doctor’s Case for Medical Marijuana, “marijuana is not as much of a science as it should be,” and researchers still don’t know exactly why cannabis can help people manage symptoms like nausea, vomiting, pain and anxiety.
That said, the use of cannabis during a chemotherapy treatment plan is becoming increasingly common, and it’s helping people with their cancer-related side effects. And perhaps equally exciting, recent studies are looking into whether to not cannabis also slows the growth of cancer cells. According to the American Cancer Society, recently scientists reported “THC and other cannabinoids such as CBD slow growth and/or cause death in certain types of cancer cells growing in lab dishes. Some animal studies also suggest certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce spread of some forms of cancer.”
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