For as long as human history has been documented, we have been using cannabis in rituals, recreation and medicine. The human story is undoubtedly intertwined with the plant. After a relatively short hiatus, it is back in the public discourse as a topic that no longer has to be spoken about in hushed tones. One of the leading ways in which the cannabis plant is used medicinally is with those suffering from cancer. Let's take a look at how doctors and patients are incorporating cannabis into treatments around the world.
The most common treatments for those diagnosed with cancer are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy; all of which, while useful, can ravage the patient’s body and immune system even further. As medical science advances and the restrictions around the study of cannabis and its cannabinoids shrinks, more evidence is beginning to surface that points to the plants' efficacy in treating some of the significant and most debilitating side effects of these traditional treatment options.
Chemotherapy refers to the use of any drug to treat any disease. But to most people, the word chemotherapy means drugs used for the treatment of cancer. The goal of chemotherapy is to control and/or kill cancer cells that have metastasised throughout the body, away from the primary tumour. Chemotherapy can produce an array of side effects including nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, hair loss and Anaemia.
Several studies have shown the positive effect that cannabinoid medications can have on reducing nausea, vomiting, pain relief and appetite loss following chemotherapy treatment. These symptoms often develop during treatment and can persist well after the therapy has finished, severely impacting a patient’s long-term quality of life. With more survivors than ever, and survivors living longer lives, it is vital to address these symptoms to maximise survivors' overall quality of life. Another benefit that is being reinforced through scientific research is cannabinoid medications ability to reduce appetite loss brought on by chemotherapy. Many animal studies have previously demonstrated that THC and other cannabinoids have a stimulatory effect on appetite and increase food intake. Further studies involving human participants showed an improved appetite and increased caloric intake when compared with a placebo group.
Radiation therapy is another standard cancer therapy option which involves radiation waves aimed at specific areas of the body. Ionising radiation works by damaging the DNA of exposed tissue, it is also believed that cancerous cells may be more susceptible to death by this process as many have turned off their DNA repair machinery during the process of becoming cancerous. Radiation therapy uses intense energy beams to destroy genetic material inside the body to control the way our cells divide and grow.
Common side effects of radiation therapy include lethargy, localised skin problems, hair loss and inflammation of the throat, liver and lungs. Longer-term issues can consist of skin damage, stiff joints, hormone problems and even secondary cancers caused by exposure to radiation. A viable alternative to opiate-based pain medicines for dealing with the vast array of side effects is cannabis. As the access to medicinal cannabis becomes more widespread, so too does the evidence to support its efficacy. Some physical benefits of medicinal cannabis for treating the side effects of radiation therapy are stimulation of appetite, easing of nausea and pain symptoms and counteracting potential weight loss. It may also help with other emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, anger and frustration.
Cannabis as an alternative to opiates
Another critical factor for the recent shift towards cannabis as a treatment, or at least, as part of the treatment of various cancers, is patients desire to move away from prescription opiates and opiate-based pain medicines. Common opioids used for cancer pain include Tramadol, Hydromorphone, Methadone, Morphine, Oxycodone and Fentanyl amongst others, with each having their own range of side effects. While not everyone experiences side effects from opioids, some can include drowsiness, nausea and vomiting, hallucinations, nightmares, shortness of breath and constipation.
Relief from pain is by far the most common condition that people are reporting they take medicinal cannabis for in markets where it’s available. Some studies have been conducted to try and determine the effect or relationship between opiate use and cannabis. One study found that about half of the study group (46%) used medicinal cannabis as a substitute for other prescription drugs. Another study involving about 3,000 patients found that 97% reported using fewer opioids when using medicinal cannabis for managing pain, with 92% preferring any side effects from medical cannabis over the ones from opioid-based medications. A total of 93% would consider using cannabis on its own if it was more readily available.
More research is beginning to substantiate the claims that many have made throughout history of the ability of cannabis to reduce chronic pain and side effects from other more potent treatment options. However, further scientific analysis and study is required to build the depth and breadth of peer-reviewed literature to support the claims and to better understand other health implications when consuming cannabis.
There is still a lot more research needed in the ability of cannabis to offer any hope of a "cure" for the complicated family of diseases that make up cancer. At no stage should cannabis be used as a complete replacement for other medically approved cancer treatments. If you would like to speak to someone about medicinal CBD in Australia and how to access it, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can point you in the right direction!