Cannabis and Cancer A to Z

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By Eric Danville

Photo: Cancer by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

The American Cancer Society endorses increasing research into the therapeutic uses of cannabis to treat cancer, adding that the continued classification of cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic causes unnecessary legal and social strains on medical professionals and the patients they treat. 

Preventing the onset of cancer is the ultimate goal of cancer research, but until that happens, blocking the growth of cancer cells once they develop is the name of the game. The U.S. National Cancer Institute has found that some cannabinoids are able to cut off the blood supply to the multiplying clumps of cancer cells we call tumors, thus stopping their growth in its tracks. 

The ability of cannabis to actually cure cancer is a highly debated topic of discussion lately. Extremely early testing has found that the compounds in cannabis have the ability to kill the cells that cause cancer—and they have been long known to be effective in alleviating symptoms of the disease and its treatment, giving its sufferers a higher quality of life overall.

Scientists are researching the effects of cannabis and its derivatives on the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) as pain relief from the symptoms of cancer and treatment. The ECS helps to regulate our bodies; allows for the euphoric feeling cannabis consumers want; and also makes sure that our bodies get just enough of the good stuff to function properly. 

A series of receptors bind with cannabinoids—for example, the CB1 receptor binds with THC to reduce the pain of nerve damage and the CB2 receptor connects with CBD to ease inflammation, a major cause of cancer and pain.

Can purps in fall be part of the cannabis + cancer puzzle? Credit: Danielle Guercio

Recent testing of flavonoids—one of the compounds that gives a fruit, vegetable or plant its color—could represent a major breakthrough in cancer treatment. Using a genetically modified version of the cannabis flavonoid FBL-03G (altered so plants could create enough of it to study), researchers at Harvard University were not only able to kill pancreatic cancer cells, they found that FBL-03G also attacked cancer cells the scientists didn’t initially go after. 

“We were quite surprised that the drug could inhibit the growth of cancer cells in other parts of the body, representing metastasis, that were not targeted by the treatment,” says Dr. Wilfrid Ngwa, assistant professor of radiation oncology at Harvard. “This suggests that the immune system is involved as well, and we are currently investigating this mechanism.”

Dr. Ngwa’s research is far-reaching. Audley Shaw, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries in Jamaica, recently announced Dr. Ngwa’s involvement in discussions to establish a plant-based research facility in the Caribbean country. 

According to Shaw, Jamaica’s unique climate makes it home to 51 of the more than 100 plants known to have medical applications—the most notorious is surely cannabis (which, according to Rastafarian teachings, grew on King Solomon’s tomb). Also involved in the proposed facility are Dr. Julius Garvey and Jamaican scientist and businessman, Dr. Henry Lowe, who Shaw acknowledged with developing a number of “world-renowned” plant-based medicines.

Some prominent women are speaking out in support of cannabis for cancer relief. In an interview with the website Vanyaland, musician Macy Gray reveals that her mother uses CBD to ease the pain of cancer treatment. Gray also touches on its use in massage oil for pain relief. She was inspired enough with her mother’s successful use of CBD that she plans to launch her own line of women-friendly cannabis products. 

For singer Olivia Newton-John, the decision to use cannabis during her cancer treatment is both practical and personal. She survived her first bout with cancer by undergoing a partial mastectomy in 1992. The cancer returned in 2013 and was discovered in her shoulder; it was found again in her lower spine. 

Newton-John uses cannabis as part of a holistic approach to dealing with the pain of radiation therapy as an option to taking prescription medication. “I use a lot of cannabis in my healing […] It helped me incredibly with pain and sleep,” she says. 

Her husband, businessman John Easterling, supports Newton-John in a very hands-on way. “He grows the plants and makes them into liquid [tincture] for me […] I take drops maybe four-to-five times a day,” she says. 

Newton-John sent encouraging words to Jeopardy! quizmaster Alex Trebek after he revealed his diagnosis with stage four pancreatic cancer. “I sent him a message saying, “I know you can get through this,” and, “Don’t listen to stage four and all of (that),” she said. “Don’t read the statistics, and stay focused and see how you can heal yourself. That helps.”

In 2018, actress and former television talk show hostess, Ricki Lake, took the topic of cannabis and cancer national when she served as executive producer on the film Weed the People. An examination of the use of cannabis to help treat the issues surrounding pediatric cancer, the film takes a bold, two-pronged approach to the subject, focusing not only on cannabis’s use for pain relief but also as a means of shrinking tumors—almost a year before the recent Harvard study was published this August.

Something Sticky Credit: Danielle Guercio

“I want to get people seeing it as a medicine,” Lake says, “seeing what it was able to do for these children, and fight for this medicine to be available to everyone who needs it. It’s a human rights issue.”

Cannabis terpenes such as pinene, linalool, and trans-nerolidol, don’t just give the plant its aroma and taste. Terpenes can also play an important role in treating some kinds of cancers too. Myrcene, for instance—the most prevalent cannabis terpene—has anti-inflammatory properties that make it effective in dealing with pain. Humulene, which has sedative and anti-bacterial properties, and is shown in some studies—such as the aforementioned Harvard report—to kill cancer cells.

A study conducted at the University of New Mexico published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine concluded that the most effective way to ingest cannabis for pain relief may be the most familiar: smoking or vaping. These delivery methods are deemed most effective because all the plant is used. 

While isolated elements like terpenes and flavonoids are quite rightly being studied to determine their individual effectiveness, as Mark Passerini, of Ann Arbor’s Om of Medicine puts it, “Overwhelmingly, when the whole plant is used rather than isolating one compound of the plant, inevitably it’s more effective.” 

The most important question about the role of cannabis in treating cancer symptoms, side-effects of cancer treatment like chemotherapy and x-ray therapy and finding a potential cannabis cure in the cells of this wondrous plant is, “Does more testing need to be done by the scientific community with the cooperation of the federal Government?” 

The answer to that question is yes

Then we can finally just say no to zero-tolerance.

Emerald contributor since September 2019

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