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Cannabis and Cancer: A Patient’s Guide

Medical cannabis can help with symptoms and treatment side effects, including pain & nausea.

Did you know that communities throughout the world have used cannabis as an herbal remedy for centuries? Now, scientists have discovered that cannabis has hundreds of bioactive compounds. These phytonutrients contain some amazing properties, including helping to heal cancer. 

The Basics About THC and CBD

Before we get into how medical cannabis can help for cancer specifically, let’s take a little tour into the important compounds that make the cannabis plant such a healing plant. 

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive compound in cannabis. THC has been shown to help relieve cancer pain as well as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. 
Cannabidiol, or CBD, on the other hand, has been shown to lower inflammation, slow tumor growth, and potentially prevent cancer spread (or metastasis).[1] CBD can also be used to relieve cancer-related anxiety. 

The cannabis plant has over 100 cannabinoids and over 200 phytonutrient substances called terpenes. Although THC and cannabidiol (CBD) are the most investigated phytonutrients in the cannabis plant, other cannabinoids that contain healing properties are cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC), cannabinol (CBN), and cannabidiolic acid are under investigation (CBDA). 

All of the phytonutrients in the cannabis plant, including THC and CBD, work together in what is called the “entourage effect” to fortify and support the endocannabinoid system. It is by helping this system that all other systems and organs in the body benefit too. 

What Is Cannabinoid-Based Therapy for Cancer?

Cannabis-Based Therapy is defined as the use of the active ingredients in cannabis (i.e., cannabinoids, terpenes, and other phytonutrients) to treat different medical symptoms and conditions such as pain, insomnia, epilepsy, anxiety, and even cancer. 

There is more and more evidence that proves that medical cannabis is a cancer inhibitor. A 2019 review highlighted the potential of cannabinoids to modulate tumor growth in in vitro (laboratory) studies. The study researchers noted that the inhibited effect was largely dependent on the type of cancer and also the dose and concentration. [1] 

Other lab studies have shown the potential of cannabinoids in slowing the growth of tumors as well as instigating apoptosis, or programmed cancer cell death. 

This is an exciting time for cannabis and cancer research since these preliminary studies are laying the foundation for larger randomized investigations. If you would like more information about how different cannabis modalities can help you with symptoms on your cancer journey, be sure to connect with one of WholesomeCo’s certified, licensed pharmacists. 

WholesomeCo pharmacists are all required to hold a Doctorate of Pharmacy and many of them have decades of experience. Feel free to get a hold of them anytime for knowledge, advice, or recommendations on your health journey. Unlike your traditional pharmacist, our team is totally dedicated to giving you the time, energy, and support you need to get all of your medical cannabis questions answered. They are there to help you! 

To schedule a free, remote or in-person consult with a board-certified WholesomeCo pharmacist, click here

Does Cannabis Help with Chemo-Induced Nausea?

Nausea and vomiting (N & V), sometimes severe, is an unfortunate side effect of most chemotherapy protocols. These responses serve as the body’s natural safety valves.  When you eat or are about to eat something that may be harmful to your body, you may feel nausea and get the urge to vomit. Vomiting allows you to expel the harmful substance. 

Some illnesses, infections, and medications may also trigger N&V. This is the body’s natural response as it retreats into a healing mode. In this same vein, nausea and vomiting are common side effects of chemotherapy as the body tries to expel the toxic chemotherapy drugs. Patients on chemotherapy may also experience anticipatory N&V, a psychosomatic response, before they actually ingest chemo drugs. 

Countless studies have confirmed the fact that medical cannabis can help in suppressing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting so that a patient can rest and even eat again. The endocannabinoid system is involved in the regulation of N&V through the CB1 receptors. [3] THC, by binding to the CB1 receptors, is the main substance responsible for suppressing the urge to vomit. 

A study that was carried out in 2001 demonstrated the effectiveness of cannabinoids in suppressing nausea and vomiting in patients receiving chemotherapy treatment. In this study, cannabinoids were found to be more effective than traditional antiemetics such as metoclopramide, chlorpromazine, and haloperidol. [2] 

Dronabinol and nabilone, both FDA-approved cannabis-based pharmaceutical drugs, have also been approved for the treatment of nausea and vomiting that is not responsive to other antiemetics.

What About Cannabis for Cancer Pain?

Other studies have shown that cannabis helps to relieve neuropathic pain (i.e., nerve pain) in cancer patients.

Pain is one of the most distressing symptoms experienced by cancer patients and is often severe and excruciating. At times it may be caused by the cancer itself as the tumor invades surrounding tissues, nerves, or bones. The pain can also be a result of treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy, but sometimes pain is caused by a combination of factors. Typically, severe cancer pain is more common in those with advanced cancers.

Cancer pain can be acute (breakthrough) or chronic. Breakthrough pain is a sharp pain that is experienced in between doses of pain medication. The pain may also vary in characteristics. Cancer that has infiltrated or is pressing against a bone will trigger bone pain. If the cancer has affected the nerves, it will cause nerve pain. Cannabis can relieve both chronic and neuropathic (nerve pain) in cancer patients. 

A 2018 review examined scientific evidence from recent randomized controlled trials (RCTs) investigating the effectiveness of medical cannabis in relieving neuropathic pain. [3] The patients involved in the study had different kinds of neuropathic pain and were offered medical cannabis with different concentrations of THC. The review demonstrated that medical cannabis was significantly effective in treating neuropathic pain.

What About the Side Effects of Medical Cannabis?

Yes, medical cannabis with high concentrations of THC may cause some negative effects. They include the following:

If you experience severe side effects when consuming medical cannabis, it is advisable that you stop taking it and inform your prescribing doctor. He or she may adjust the dosage or stop the treatment altogether. 

You can also contact one of our PhD-level WholesomeCo pharmacists for a free consultation. Everyone is unique and a lot of times side effects can be lessened or alleviated altogether by discovering just the right product, dosage, and strain that works for you. 

What About Smoking Cannabis for Cancer?

Smoking anything, including cannabis, can be harmful to the respiratory system and the entire body for some people. This is because the combustion process that happens in the course of smoking produces toxic substances that may be harmful to the lungs.

If you have lung-related issues already or are concerned about smoking cannabis, vaporizing can be a safer method. “Vaping” involves inhaling cannabis too, yet it eliminates the combustive process. Make sure that any vape product you use contains 100% organic materials. Other health concerns exist for people using sub-par vaping methods. 

Can I Use Medical Cannabis for Cancer in Utah?

Cannabis (defined as containing more than 0.3% THC) is listed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I controlled substance. All substances that fall under this class are illegal under U.S. federal law. 

That being said, so far the FDA has approved two cannabinoid-based drugs at the federal level. As stated before, Dronabinol is a form of THC and Nabilone is a manufactured form of cannabinoid. These oral drugs are used to treat pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

As far as naturally sourced cannabis goes, some states such as Utah have legalized non-synthetic, plant-based medical cannabis for medicinal use only. In total, 38 states have legalized medicinal cannabis in this way while 18 have legalized adult-use cannabis only. In medical cannabis states, patients with qualifying conditions can access cannabis if they have a medical card

Smokable forms of cannabis, as well as edibles, are prohibited. Fortunately, cancer patients in Utah still have a wide range of options to choose from. In the Beehive state, the following forms of cannabis consumption methods are allowed:

Medical cannabis was legalized in Utah in November 2018 when Proposition 2 (the Cannabis Act) came into effect. Patients with conditions that qualify for medical cannabis can access cannabis within the state by legally purchasing it from any licensed Utah dispensary. Patients with a medical cannabis card (or their guardians if a child) are only allowed to possess a 30-day supply of cannabis at any given time. This amount should not exceed 113 grams of unprocessed flower or 20 grams of THC (total composite). 

Qualifying conditions in Utah include cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, HIV, Epilepsy, and Crohn’s disease, among others. If you think that you can benefit from cannabis treatment for cancer, be sure to talk to a qualified medical provider listed with the Utah Department of Health (UDOH).

I Want to Give Medical Cannabis for Cancer a Try, How Do I Start?

In the state of Utah, cannabis can be ingested, inhaled, or applied to the skin. For cancer-related nausea and pain, ingestible or smokable forms (if allowed in your area) are ideal. Transdermal patches can also be used for the slow release of cannabinoids into the body.

Cannabis Tinctures:

Tinctures come as a liquid in a dropper bottle. Patients just need to place a drop or two beneath the tongue and hold it there for 20 seconds before they swallow. This area has many blood vessels, and the cannabinoids will be quickly taken up into the bloodstream. It is a simple method of consuming cannabis that can work well for cancer patients. On the flip side, some patients may not like the strong herbal taste that usually comes with this form of ingestion. 

Cannabis capsules:

Capsules, like tinctures, are easy to consume. Gel capsules are usually tasteless which means that they are likely to be less nauseating than tinctures. Unless the cancer patient has difficulty swallowing, cannabis capsules should work well. 

Inhalable cannabis:

Cannabis in this method can either be smoked or vaporized. This method ensures that the cannabinoids hit the bloodstream minutes after consumption. Although, combustion of cannabis is not allowed in Utah. 

Transdermal Applications:

These could be patches that release a “low and slow” dose of medical cannabis into the bloodstream through the skin or lotions and creams that are used as rub-ons. 
Cannabis Gummies: These are very similar to capsules, only they come in a variety of colors, shapes, and flavors. They work well when the cancer patient has no swallowing difficulty and can withstand the different flavors of gummies.

Cannabis Edibles:

Edibles may come in the form of baked treats (cookies, biscuits, and brownies), or infused beverages. There are a lot of exciting options to choose from but remember that they will only work if the cancer patient can withstand their taste. Edibles may not work for patients with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. The only edibles allowed in Utah are gelatinous cubes. 

A Note About Cannabis Ingestibles: As much as ingestible forms of cannabis are effective, you should bear in mind that it will take a while before you can experience any significant symptom relief. This is because once the cannabis has been ingested, it will have to go through the digestive process before the cannabinoids can be finally released into the bloodstream. For most people, this usually takes 30-60 minutes. If you are taking cannabis for cancer pain, other options such as tinctures (or inhaling if your region allows it) may be better options. The good news is that consuming medical cannabis as an ingestible can last for up to 6-8 hours. 

The Choice to Use Medical Cannabis for Cancer is Up to You

Conventional cancer organizations do not, for the most part, overtly endorse the use of cannabis to treat cancer. That being said, preliminary evidence does suggest that patients with cancer can benefit from consuming it. Some institutions, such as the American Cancer Society, also acknowledge the benefits of additional comprehensive research into cannabis for cancer. 
Be sure to talk to one of Wholesome’s certified in-house and phone-based pharmacists regarding the best course of action for you before you begin.  We are always here to help you on your journey. A free, 15-minute consult can often be scheduled within 24 hours with a WholesomeCo pharmacist Here

Cannabis for cancer has worked for thousands of people. Through responsible use and a concrete plan that addresses your unique cancer journey, it may be able to help you as well.

 

 

References
1.      Dariš, B., Tancer Verboten, M., Knez, Ž., & Ferk, P. (2019). Cannabinoids in cancer treatment: Therapeutic potential and legislation. Bosnian journal of basic medical sciences, 19(1), 14–23.
2. Sharkey, K. A., Darmani, N. A., & Parker, L. A. (2014). Regulation of nausea and vomiting by cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system. European journal of pharmacology, 722, 134–146. 
3.      Tramèr, M. R., Carroll, D., Campbell, F. A., Reynolds, D. J., Moore, R. A., & McQuay, H. J. (2001). Cannabinoids for control of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting: a quantitative systematic review. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 323(7303), 16–21.
4.      Lee, G., Grovey, B., Furnish, T., & Wallace, M. (2018). Medical Cannabis for Neuropathic Pain. Current pain and headache reports, 22(1), 8.
5.      WebMD: Medical marijuana and cancer. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/cancer/medical-marijuana-cancer
6.      Cancer.org: Marijuana and Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/marijuana-and-cancer.html

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