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Is Cannabis a Potential Lung Cancer Treatment?

In this Article

In this Article
In this Article
  • What’s in Cannabis?
  • How Do You Take Cannabis?
  • Potential Uses of Cannabis for Lung Cancer
  • Research on Cannabis as a Lung Cancer Treatment
  • Cannabis Side Effects

Cannabis, better known to most folks as marijuana or pot, might have the potential to ease pain and other symptoms of lung cancer. But so far, there’s no evidence it can work as a treatment for the disease.

Cannabis is a drug made from the dried leaves and buds of the Cannabis sativa plant. Some people smoke or eat marijuana for the “high” it gives, but it’s also getting a look from experts for the chance that it can play a role in helping with certain medical conditions.

What’s in Cannabis?

The active ingredients in cannabis are chemicals called cannabinoids. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) gives the “high” people get when they use marijuana. Cannabidiol (CBD) doesn’t cause the same euphoric feeling, but it does relax the body.

Both THC and CBD may help relieve the side effects of cancer and its treatments.

CBD oil is an extract from the hemp plant — a relative of cannabis — mixed with oil. Unlike THC, CBD oil doesn’t cause a high when you use it.

Cannabis and CBD products aren’t FDA-approved to treat lung cancer. They shouldn’t replace proven treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted therapy. If you want to try cannabis for medical purposes, ask your doctor whether it’s safe for you.

How Do You Take Cannabis?

Cannabis products come in a few different forms. You can:

  • Breathe them in as smoke or through a vaporizer
  • Eat or drink them
  • Apply them to your skin as a cream, patch, or spray

Your doctor can suggest a form based on your symptoms and which types of cannabis are legal in your state.

When you smoke marijuana, it goes to work within seconds, but the effects only last for about 1 to 3 hours. When you eat marijuana, it starts to work more slowly, but the effects can last for up to 8 hours.

Potential Uses of Cannabis for Lung Cancer

Cannabis acts on your central nervous system and the immune system — your body’s defense against germs — in ways that could help ease symptoms of lung cancer or its treatment, like these:

Pain. There’s some evidence that marijuana eases pain, both from the cancer itself and from the nerve damage that treatments like chemotherapy can sometimes cause. It might help people who don’t get enough relief from opioid pain medicines.

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Nausea and vomiting. Medical marijuana may help relieve these symptoms, which are common chemotherapy side effects. The FDA has approved two man-made cannabinoid drugs to treat nausea and vomiting: nabilone (Cesamet) and dronabinol (Marinol).

These drugs may help when other anti-nausea drugs haven’t worked. Your doctor can give you a prescription for them.

Weight loss. Dropping pounds is a common lung cancer symptom. You may lose weight because you don’t have an appetite, or because your treatment causes nausea and vomiting.

Cancer can sometimes cause muscle loss, called cachexia. Marijuana may also help with this symptom.

Anxiety and sleep. Sleepiness is a side effect of cannabis. If you have cancer, cannabis may improve sleep and ease anxiety.

Research on Cannabis as a Lung Cancer Treatment

Studies done in cells and animals show that cannabis slows or stops the growth of certain cancer cells — including lung cancer cells. But so far, there’s no evidence that it works as a treatment for cancer in people.

There’s also no evidence that CBD oil treats cancer or its symptoms, although it may ease anxiety, pain, and problems with sleep.

Research on marijuana as a cancer treatment has been slow because the federal government considers it an illegal drug. More studies are needed to learn how it might help with lung cancer and other types of cancer.

Cannabis Side Effects

Although medical marijuana is safe overall, it can cause side effects like these:

  • Changes in heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Mood changes
  • Sleepiness

Except for the two FDA-approved cannabis drugs, it’s hard to know how much CBD or THC is in the products you buy. How strong the doses are varies with the type you take.

There have been reports of contaminants like lead, pesticides, or dextromethorphan (an ingredient in cough medicines) in cannabis and CBD products. A small number of people have gotten infections after using one of these. People with cancer are already at a higher risk for infections because their immune system is weaker than usual.

CBD oil might also affect how well your cancer drugs work. For these reasons, it’s important to let your doctor know before you use CBD products, even if you can buy them over the counter.

Sources

American Cancer Society: “Signs and Symptoms of Cancer.”

Cancer.Net: “Weight Loss.”

CDC: “How is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?”

Harvard Medical School: “Cannabidiol (CBD) — what we know and what we don’t.”

Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology: “The antitumor activity of plant-derived non-psychoactive cannabinoids.”

Journal of Thoracic Oncology: “Cannabis Use, Lung Cancer, and Related Issues.”

LungCancer.org: “Medical Marijuana and Cancer.”

Mayo Clinic: “Marijuana.”

MD Anderson Cancer Center: “CBD oil and cancer: 9 things to know.”

National Cancer Institute: “Cannabis and Cannabinoids (PDQ) — Health Professional Version.”

National Conference of State Legislatures: “State Medical Marijuana Laws.”

Medical marijuana may relieve some lung cancer symptoms, but whether it treats this cancer is still unknown.

Lung cancer: medical cannabis as a therapy option

Bronchial carcinoma is the most common cause of cancer death in men after prostate cancer and colon cancer and the second most common cause of cancer death in women after breast cancer and colon cancer. Medical cannabis can be used in chemo/radiation therapy to help alleviate the side effects. In addition, interesting in vitro studies show that cannabinoids may be able to inhibit the growth of lung cancer cells.

There are two types of lung tumours. Approximately one in five patients suffers from small-cell bronchial carcinoma. This aggressive tumour grows very quickly and usually forms early metastases in other organs.

A less aggressive type of lung cancer is non-small-cell lung cancer, which affects approximately 80 percent of patients. Since this tumour consists of larger cells, it usually grows only slowly in a limited area of the lung. The formation of metastases is also slower, so that the tumour can often still be removed in the early stages.

Causes and symptoms of lung cancer

Tobacco smoking is one of the main causes of pulmonary cancer. Only 15 percent of all lung cancer patients are non-smokers. However, other carcinogenic substances, such as asbestos dust or radioactive substances, can also damage the cells of the lung tissue, causing tumours to form.

In addition, lung scars, which can result from inflammation or injury, can also increase the risk of lung cancer. The same applies to an inherited predisposition.

At the beginning of the disease, lung cancer usually causes no symptoms. The first signs could be shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue and chronic coughing. In the advanced stage, affected persons lose a lot of weight within a short time and frequent sputum with or without blood occurs. Other symptoms such as breathing difficulties, night sweats and fever can also occur.

Lung cancer: division into stages

There are two stages of small cell bronchial carcinoma:

  • Stage LD (limited disease): In the limited stage, the tumour is limited to one lung and one side of the chest.
  • Stage ED (extensive disease): In the extensive stage, the tumour has spread to the surrounding tissue and the ribcage. In addition, metastases have already formed in the body.

The tumour in non-small cell lung cancer is assessed using the TNM classification. Here, the letter T (tumour) describes the size of the tumour and how far it has spread. N (node) indicates whether the lymph nodes are affected and M (metastasis) indicates whether the tumour has metastasised.

Based on this stage classification, doctors can then plan treatment and follow-up care. It also enables doctors to better assess the course of the disease and the chances of recovery.

Therapy options for pulmonary cancer

The therapy depends mainly on the type of tumour and the stage of the disease. A non-small-cell tumour can be surgically removed, provided that no metastases have yet formed. The chances of recovery are correspondingly good. If the tumour has grown into the neighbouring tissue or if the lymph nodes in the vicinity of the tumour are affected, radiotherapy is usually used. Chemotherapy is usually only given if metastases have formed in other organs.

The treatment of a small-cell lung tumour is far more difficult, because in about 75 percent of all cases metastases have already formed in other organs. Surgical removal of the tumour is only possible if it is still very small. This is rarely the case with small cell tumours. The treatment options available are chemotherapy with cytostatic drugs and then radiotherapy.

Studies: influence of cannabinoids on cancer cell growth

In 2019, researchers from Rangsit University in Thailand published the interesting results of their study (1). In a mouse model they were able to show that the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) were able to inhibit the growth of bronchial carcinoma. The researchers attribute the anti-cancer properties mainly to the combination of THC and CBN.

Based on the positive results, the researchers are now planning clinical trials. They also announced that the Medical Research Institute at the university is already working on a manufacturing method to extract pure cannabinoid compounds such as THC and CBN from the cannabis plant. This extract will then be used to develop a new drug.

The fact that the combination of individual cannabinoids seems to play an important role in the inhibition of cancer growth is also confirmed by Israeli researchers in their in vitro study (2). They investigated the effects of twelve cannabinoid combinations on twelve different cancer cell lines. It turned out that especially the combinations with a high THC content showed a strong cytotoxic effect on the cancer cell lines.

Again, Italian researchers came to a different conclusion. In their in vitro study they examined the antitumoral activities of the cannabinoids cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromes (CBC), cannabidiol acid (CBDA) and THC acid (THCA) on tumor cell lines (3). Here it was shown that CBD was the strongest inhibitor of cancer cell growth.

Medical cannabis in the treatment of lung cancer

Chemo- and/or radiotherapy is a heavy burden for cancer patients, both physically and psychologically. Medical cannabis can be used here to alleviate the side effects and improve the quality of life of patients. To date, there are no conclusive studies that would allow a reliable statement to be made as to whether the inhalation of medical cannabis additionally damages the lungs in lung cancer.

In a case-control study at the University of California in Los Angeles, the researchers investigated whether cannabis users showed an increased risk of lung cancer (4). This control study involved 611 lung cancer patients, 601 patients with head and neck cancer and 1040 healthy people. Here, even regular cannabis users did not show an increased risk of lung cancer.

However, researchers from the Medical Research Institute in New Zealand came to a different conclusion (5). In this case-control study, 79 lung cancer patients and 324 controls were enrolled. Here the researchers found that the risk of cancer increased by eight percent for each year of cannabis use. The researchers concluded that long-term cannabis use may increase the risk of lung cancer.

Because of the uncertain study situation, lung cancer patients are advised not to inhale/vaporize medical cannabis. Instead, prescription drugs (oily solutions) or ready-to-use drugs can be used.

(3) Istituto di Chimica Biomolecolare, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche Pozzuoli, Italy, Ligresti A1 et al., 2006, “Antitumor activity of plant cannabinoids with emphasis on the effect of cannabidiol on human breast carcinoma”

(5) Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, Wellington, 2008, „Cannabis use and risk of lung cancer: a case-control study“

About Mary Biles

Mary Biles is a British journalist and blogger with a background in complementary therapies and holistic health. Through her writing she is committed to providing accurate reporting and education about the medicinal uses of cannabis.

Can medical cannabis be a therapy option? Cannabinoids can alleviate the side effects and improve the quality of life of patients.