By Roland Sebestyén
Today is World Cancer Day – a day used to raise awareness about our ongoing struggle to develop effective medications and treatments for all types of cancer. In honour of World Cancer Day this year, we are addressing the existing evidence – or perhaps lack of – for the use of cannabis as a treatment and for the alleviation of associated symptoms of the disease.
World Cancer Day is “a day that unites people, communities and entire countries to raise awareness and take action”. It is a singular initiative, led by the Union for International Cancer Control, with 172 member organisations around the world. You can find more about World Cancer Day, and donate to Cancer Research UK, here.
Medical Cannabis and Cancer
As medical cannabis use has been skyrocketed over the last few years, experts, researchers and patients wonder whether the drug can assist in fighting against some of the most severe health conditions, including cancer. Many of us have heard stories – mostly unconfirmed – of patients who have fought cancer with the help of cannabis.
While many of the claims supporting the use of cannabis to support cancer treatment are anecdotal, some clinical evidence does exist. Furthermore, a medical cannabis product – Nabilone – has been approved in the UK to alleviate chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
However, in the UK this is currently the extent to which cannabis use is recommended for treatment of cancer or management of symptoms. On the other hand, some countries, including Canada, cancer patients may be able to access medical cannabis for other symptoms, including loss of appetite, pain, and other symptoms of the disease or treatment.
Cannabis, in most forms, remains prohibited in most countries around the world, leaving many patients with limited options. Cannabidiol (CBD), however, is a cannabinoid that is freely available in most countries and has been credited with having the potential to reduce pain, aid sleep, and relieve stress and anxiety.
CBD is one of the many naturally occurring, non-psychoactive chemical compounds found in all strains of the cannabis plant. Cannabidiol products contain little to no THC meaning that they won’t cause the ‘high’ often associated with cannabis use, and they are usually consumed for their potential health and wellness benefits.
While a number of reports and studies suggest CBD can lower inflammation in the body and relieve pain, as well as reduce depression and anxiety, more research is still needed. The cannabinoid has been deemed safe for human consumption with very few side effects, however, it remains unclear if over-the-counter products are as effective as we might hope.
Despite the warnings, CBD has become an absolute star among people looking for an alternative treatment.
What Does the Evidence Say?
According to patients fighting with cancer, they use cannabis to reduce cancer pain during their recovery. Although, as there are simply not enough clinical trials being done, experts are unable to say whether the drug should be used to treat such severe health conditions as cancer.
At the same time, some promising results have already shown that cannabis may actually “cause cell death, block cell growth, reduce inflammation and reduce the ability of cancers to spread” in the body.
However, it must be noted others found that cannabis compounds may also encourage the growth of cancer cells as well as potentially causing damage to blood vessels.
Despite the legalisation of medical cannabis in the UK in 2018, patient access remains extremely low. Furthermore, GPs remain reluctant to discuss the use of cannabis or even the use of legal CBD products.
According to Cancer Research UK, the most commonly prescribed cannabis-based products in the UK are Nabilone and Sativex.
In addition, Epidyolex, a cannabis-based medicine that is used by people with two severe forms of epilepsy – Lennox Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome – has been approved by the authorities in last year so that GPs are able to prescribe it to children as well as adults require it.