Given that 39.6% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, cancers affects nearly everyone. Chances are, someone close to you has battled cancer.
Oncologists, more than doctors in any other discipline within medicine, support the option of recommending cannabis as part of a treatment program for patients suffering from cancer. However, while the positive effects of using cannabis to alleviate cancer symptoms have been well documented, the U.S. government continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule I drug — high potential for abuse and no known medical use. Consequently, the federal government’s position on cannabis stifles much-needed research on cannabis as a “cure” for cancer.
Moreover, the federal government’s position has fueled massive misinformation about cannabis as a potential cure for cancer. On the one hand, the federal government officially claims cannabis has no medicinal value. On the other hand, many pseudoscience “cancer quacks” unethically exaggerate claims of cannabis as the ultimate cure for cancer providing unsubstantiated help to thousands of cancer patients.
So what is the truth?
What is a Cancer “Cure?”
“Cure is a huge word in oncology. It usually implies that the patient has survived 5 years without evidence of their cancer. We are able to cure more cancers today than we were when I began my career as an oncologist. That has been through advances in diagnosis and treatment with conventional therapies.”
As a cancer and integrative medicine specialist at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Mount Zion in San Francisco and an oncologist for more than three decades, Dr. Abrams observes:
“[After] 33 years of being an oncologist in San Francisco, I would guess that a large proportion of the patients I have treated have used cannabis. If cannabis definitively cured cancer, I would have expected that I would have a lot more survivors. That being said, what we do know is that cannabis is truly an amazing medicine for many cancer and treatment-related side effects — nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia.”
Dr. Abrams’ opinion reflects a consensus within the credible oncologist and cancer scientific community: there is no doubt that cannabis is effective at treating cancer-related symptoms and treatment-related side effects, but the jury is still out on whether cannabis can actually “cure” cancer.
If It’s on the Web, It Must Be True, Right?
Because cancer affects so many people, it’s natural to want confirmation that cannabis can, without question, cure cancer. The Web is rich with stories from people who claim cannabis, particularly “cannabis oil,” cured or reversed their cancer. When we asked Dr. Abrams why he thought there are so many anecdotal claims of cannabis curing people’s’ cancer, he cautioned:
“I note that many of the people who are very vocal about how cannabis oil cured their cancers seem to forget that they also received conventional therapies. If people really have used only cannabis oil and can truly document that they have cured their cancer (other than a skin cancer), they need to submit that data to the National Cancer Institute’s Office on Cancer Complementary and Alternative Therapy’s Best Case Scenario website so that evidence can be documented.”
Further, note that many of the numerous articles available that make declarative claims that cannabis cures cancer misrepresent studies, exaggerate claims, or omit key facts.
Cannabis Cancer Research Shows Promise, But We Need to Do More
As we search for anti-cancer treatments, the anti-cancer potential of cannabis has been examined in numerous scientific studies on cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids, resulting in promising leads. Significant research has demonstrated that cannabinoids may inhibit or stop the growth of cancers — including breast, brain, liver, pheochromocytoma, melanoma, leukemia, and other kinds of cancer — from spreading or growing. Moreover, cannabinoids have proven to promote apoptosis, the programmed death of tumor cells, while stopping angiogenesis, blood vessel production to the tumor. One study, conducted by Madrid’s Complutense University, showed that in one-third of rats treated, the injection of synthetic THC eliminated malignant brain tumors while extending life in another third.
The research is promising, but thus far it has been limited to preclinical studies, which are studies of drugs or treatments in animals prior to being carried out in humans. While the preclinical research offers hope, before anyone can confidently claim that cannabis can provide a “cure,” clinical research needs to be done.
Further, because cancer describes a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth, it’s unlikely there will be a single “cure-all” cannabis remedy. Likewise, naturally-derived or synthetic cannabinoid agonists may be need to be combined with traditional chemotherapeutic regimens or supplemental alternative medicines.
In order for cannabis to find its way into routine clinical cancer treatment, rigorous pharmacological and clinical studies need to be done. And to accelerate this process, the federal government should lift the federal ban on medical cannabis.
Paradoxically, the federally-funded National Cancer Institute has warmed up to cannabis as a cancer treatment and has even quietly acknowledged that cannabis has been shown to kill cancer cells in preclinical studies. Nonetheless, the federal government has yet to make any significant strides to align their position with the scientific community and the overwhelming number of Americans.
With more and more states legalizing medical usage and the majority of Americans supporting medical cannabis, we can hope the federal government will finally modify its draconian prohibitory position and if indeed, cannabis can cure cancer, those suffering will no longer have to turn to questionable sources to learn how cannabis may help them.