Cannabis for Chemotherapy

By Gooey Rabinski - Oct 7, 2015

Most people understand that chemotherapy is a common treatment for cancer, a condition that afflicts 1.6 million Americans each year, killing 600,000 during the same period. However, many don’t fully understand exactly what chemotherapy (also known as “chemo”) really involves and the side effects it delivers to patients.

This is especially significant due to the fact that, unknown to most Americans, chemotherapy is used to treat patients of many diseases other than cancer. These include multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and even psoriasis, among others.

Medically speaking, the side effects of chemotherapy include a decrease in the production of blood cells within the bones (myelosuppression), inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract (mucositis), and hair loss (alopecia). In terms of patient suffering, chemotherapy brings on severe nausea, vomiting, and dry heaves, in addition to a slew of other negative side effects.

Frightening History

The concept of chemotherapy emerged during World War II, when doctors noted that soldiers who had been exposed to mustard gas had low white blood counts. It just so happens that white blood cells behave in a manner very similar to cancer cells; both multiply rapidly. Surmising that the low blood counts were the result of the mustard gas, doctors began experimenting with cancer patients by injecting them with mustard gas in an effort to kill their cancer.

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Results of the experimentation revealed a significant improvement in cancer patients, although the improved state didn’t last long. While modern chemotherapy employs advanced pharmaceutical drugs that are certainly safer and more proven than the mustard gas from 70 years ago, the idea behind this approach remains the same: Hit cancer patients with chemicals and radiation at a level so great that cancer cells can no longer tolerate it and die, eliminating the spread of the disease and possibly putting it into remission. Oh, and do so without killing the patient during the treatment regime, which also zaps plenty of good cells.

Not killing the patient with the treatment: This is the ironic and very grim challenge of chemotherapy. However, when one supplements chemotherapy with cannabis, in whatever form, it can significantly decrease a patient’s suffering as a result of the side effects of these powerful drugs while simultaneously employing marijuana cannabinoids and terpenes to fight the disease requiring the chemotherapy in the first place.

In many respects, chemotherapy is a very crude treatment therapy. It is administered to patients who are already suffering from a severe and potentially terminal disease, along with the stress and anxiety associated with such a realization. Many patients, when faced with the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of the chemotherapy so commonly used to combat it, become unable to work, socialize, or properly care for children. Often, they slide into depression or alcoholism, worsening their condition and decreasing their chance of overcoming the disease.

Killing Good and Bad Cells

The problem with chemotherapy, of course, is that it employs harsh pharmaceutical drugs with the purpose of killing cancer cells that rapidly divide and expand their territory (such drugs are categorized as cytotoxic). Unfortunately, these aren’t “smart” drugs that can distinguish between the body’s good cells that behave in this manner and the cancer cells that threaten their life.

Because of the blind cellular-level killing spree pursued by conventional chemotherapy drugs, they also damage healthy cells in other parts of the body, including bone marrow, the gastrointestinal tract, and — probably most famously — a patient’s hair follicles. While the loss of one’s hair, especially for females, is a red flag to the world that they are undergoing chemotherapy, what those around them do not see is the damage being inflicted on their bones, blood, and various organs of their body with each chemotherapy treatment.

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A new category of anti-cancer drug has emerged, called targeted therapy, that is not so indiscriminate in its destruction of quickly multiplying cells. New drugs like monoclonal antibodies target proteins that are abnormally expressed in cancer cells (and critical for their successful growth and spread). Despite potentially fewer negative side effects, like damage to bone marrow and the resulting decreased blood count, patients of these leading edge pharmaceutical drugs that are entering the world of chemotherapy still suffer from debilitating nausea, vomiting, and dry heaves — often for hours on end.

How Cannabis Helps

Cannabis can help relieve the often debilitating negative side effects of chemotherapy treatment. First and foremost, it is one of the best anti-nausea medications known to humans. According to oncology social worker Wendy Gwinner:

“[Cannabis] is far and away the best medication that we have for chronic wasting and for increasing appetite in cancer patients.”

Dr. Jack Hensold is an oncologist who has recommended cannabis to his cancer patients as a last resort when conventional opiates didn’t work and his patients were suffering from the extreme nausea of chemotherapy. “There’s probably nothing that works as well for appetite stimulation that we have as marijuana,” he said, stressing that, while there are effective anti-cancer drugs for which he is a strong advocate, no pharmaceutical treatment is as good at stimulating appetite as marijuana.

Second, cannabis acts as an anti-inflammatory, meaning it can decrease suffering due to the inflammation of the digestive tract. To learn more about how cannabis can be used to treat conditions involving gastrointestinal inflammation, check out “Cannabis Cures Crohn’s” and “Does Cannabis Treat IBS?”

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In addition to successfully alleviating nausea and vomiting and stimulating appetite, cannabis is also effective in helping cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to deal with pain and diarrhea. But probably more important is how it can effectively treat depression and anxiety, two potentially severe conditions that can be a knockout blow to a patient already suffering from the psychological and physical ravages of cancer — not to mention the distress of undergoing chemotherapy.

Patients who prefer not to smoke have the option of vaporizing either raw cannabis flowers or concentrates like oils (BHO, CO2, and live resin). Another popular option is edibles. Some companies are helping patients explore new ways of allowing their bodies to absorb the cannabinoids from marijuana, including topical creams and ointments, sublingual sprays (which feature much faster absorption than edibles), and suppositories.

Cannabis for Cancer

This article doesn’t go into detail regarding how the various cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis have been shown to kill cancer by shrinking tumors (for this info, see “Cancer and Medical Marijuana,” “CBD-A: Cannabidiol Acid Cannabinoid Profile,” and “Pinene: Cancer-Killing, Memory Enhancing Terpene“). However, each week, more and more cancer patients — many of whom have self-medicated with cannabis or cannabis oil with, or without, the approval of their doctors — are providing personal testimonies of how cannabis not only helped alleviate the symptoms of conventional treatments like chemotherapy, but also shrank their tumors or put their cancer into full, long-term remission.

In other words, anecdotal reports from patients throughout North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe are showing that cannabis, especially when processed as a concentrate (typically an oil or tincture), may, in many patients, cure cancer. It should be noted that many who choose to treat their cancer with something like a cannabis oil do so only after all other treatment approaches have been exhausted, often after doctors have delivered the dreadful news that no cancer patient wants to hear: “There’s nothing else we can do.”

Sharon Kelly is a 54-year-old British woman who, in 2013, contracted lung cancer. Doctors informed Kelly that her cancer had progressed to her lymph nodes and the lining of her stomach; she was already at Stage 4. She also had a 5 cm tumor on her left lung (see below). Kelly was told that chemotherapy and radiation weren’t valid treatment options for a lung cancer patient at this stage of progression and would simply make her more sick. Doctors predicted that she had six to nine months to live. They said there was nothing else they could do.

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When researching the disease, Kelly’s daughter learned about the efficacy of cannabis oil and how it had worked for many other cancer patients. Kelly began taking the oil on a daily basis, consuming two grams per day and adopting a healthy, alkalizing diet (involving no red meat, dairy, bread, or sugar). After a few months, Kelly’s tumor had decreased to less than half its original size and her lymph nodes were back to normal.

After continuing the cannabis oil treatment and diet for seven months — with no other medical therapy or drug — Kelly was tested as cancer-free in September 2014. She has remained so to this day.

Why Chemo Patients Should Use Cannabis

Those undergoing chemotherapy for whatever reason, be it cancer or Crohn’s or severe arthritis, can gain significant relief if they do nothing more than smoke, vaporize, or eat cannabis prior to their sessions. Because most chemotherapy patients are treating cancer, cannabis delivers the dual advantages of eliminating nausea and vomiting while also fighting cancer cells and reducing the size of tumors.

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While difficult, and illegal, for those living in prohibitionist states that don’t offer their citizens medical or recreational cannabis legalization, the many pronounced benefits of cannabis for cancer and it’s most common treatment, chemotherapy, are undeniable. All cancer and chemotherapy patients should seriously consider the benefits of the herb and how it can dramatically improve their quality of life, giving them renewed energy and a positive attitude to better combat their disease.

The sad reality is that additional research, especially in the form of human trials, is necessary to learn more about how the miracle molecules in cannabis, cannabinoids and terpenes, are able to relieve the symptoms of a variety of cancer treatments and even put cancer into remission. Until cannabis is moved out of the list of Schedule I drugs maintained by the federal government and the DEA as part of the antiquated Controlled Substances Act from the 1970s, valid studies will be stymied in the U.S. and occur only in other countries.