Cancer represents a massive healthcare burden around the world. In 2018, 9.5 million people died from cancer and another 17 million were diagnosed globally. And with an aging population, researchers predict that these numbers will continue to grow over the next few decades.
As a result, national healthcare systems are feeling the pressure. Our knowledge about the causes and remedies for cancer is enormous compared to a few decades ago. But there’s still a lot we don’t know. Finding unique and more effective cancer therapies with fewer side effects will help patients and their doctors fight this disease.
There’s been a lot of hype around CBD lately, but medical research shows that CBD has the potential to treat cancer from multiple angles. In this article, we’ll go over the evidence for CBD as a cancer therapy, caveats and all.
Cancer: The Basics
What is Cancer?
Most people think of cancer as a single disease. But it’s actually a general term for a large group of related diseases.
Even though each cancer is different, they all have one thing in common. In every type of cancer, a group of cells in the body starts to grow and divide uncontrollably.
Cancer can occur in any part of the body. Every person is made up of trillions of cells. That’s an almost unthinkable number of cells. But somehow the human body has a remarkable ability to keep tabs on when each cell grows, divides, and dies.
Cancer takes this orderly process and overrides it. When a cell has cancer, it starts to grow and divide no matter what it’s surrounding environment tells it to do.
Uncontrolled growth of cancerous cells leads to the formation of malignant, or dangerous, tumors. Malignant tumors can invade nearby tissues, making it hard for the surrounding organs to function properly. Small pieces of malignant tumors can also break away and invade other areas of the body, causing the cancer to spread.
What Causes Cancer?
In the most basic sense, cancer is a genetic disease. A cell can only become cancerous—growing and dividing uncontrollably—when there are genetic mutations in its DNA.
But that doesn’t mean cancer is a heritable disease. Yes, your parents can pass down cancer-causing genes. But only about 5-10% of cancers are caused by mutations that you inherit from your parents.
Many other factors contribute to your risk of cancer. In fact, you’re more likely to pick up a cancer-causing mutation from something in your environment. Here are some common risk factors besides your parents’ genes that researchers have found can cause cancer:
- Cancer-Causing Substances: Certain chemicals, both naturally-occurring and man-made, damage your DNA and cause cancer.
- Alcohol: Drinking alcohol raises your risk of getting cancer in the mouth and throat, esophagus, larynx (voice box), liver, breast, and colon.
- Tobacco: Most people know smoking causes lung cancer, but it can also increase your risk of bladder, kidney, liver, and pancreatic cancer.
- Sunlight: Too much exposure to UV radiation can damage the DNA in your skin cells and lead to skin cancer.
The good news is that many of these factors are within your control. By limiting your exposure to these cancer-causing risk factors, you can reduces your chances of getting cancer.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Because there are so many types of different cancers, cancer can cause quite a wide variety of symptoms. And certain cancers cause very unique and specific symptoms. But it’s still important to know some of the general signs and symptoms. These can include:
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
- Unexplained swelling or lumps
- Skin changes
- Persistent cough or hoarseness
- Changes to bowel or bladder function
It’s important to note that these are just general symptoms. Many of these symptoms can be caused by an illness other than cancer. But identifying cancer early makes a big difference in the success of treatment. Make sure to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.
Only a physician can accurately diagnose cancer. A cancer diagnosis usually involves:
- A physical exam
- Reviewing medical and family history
- Lab tests
- Imaging tests or scans
- A biopsy
Some of the most commonly diagnosed cancers are:
Who Gets Cancer?
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide and rates are rising each year. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of new cancer cases is expected to increase by 24%. In 2018, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States.
Cancer affects all populations, both young and old, rich and poor. But age is a major predictor when it comes to cancer risk.
Demographic shifts are taking place in the United States and around the world. The U.S. population is growing older. This means the number of new cancer cases will continue to increase each year. As a result, researchers are hard at work trying to identify newer and better treatments.
The type of cancer treatment that a doctor will prescribe depends on the type of cancer. Doctors usually use a combination of treatments to fight the disease. The most common types of cancer treatments include:
- Radiation Therapy: This treatment delivers a concentrated dose of radiation to a tumor to kill the cancerous cells.
- Surgery: Surgeons can attempt to remove cancerous tumors from the body. This can involve removing the entire tumor or only removing part of the tumor to avoid damage to surrounding areas and increase the effectiveness of other treatments.
- Chemotherapy: Doctors can administer medications that slow tumor growth and kill cancer cells.
Unfortunately, these treatments often have severe side effects. For example, chemotherapy can potentially cause a long list of negative side effects like nausea and vomiting, hair loss, and mood changes.
Doctors and medical researchers are constantly searching for new treatments with fewer side effects as well as remedies that can help patients cope with their current cancer treatments.
That’s where CBD comes in.
CBD: What You Need to Know
A Quick Overview
Cannabidiol or CBD is one of the naturally-occurring cannabinoid compounds found in the cannabis plant. Humans have been cultivating cannabis for thousands of years and using it as a therapeutic substance. But only in the past century have researchers started to unlock the science of cannabis.
CBD was first identified in 1940 by a team of researchers at the University of Illinois. Since it’s discovery, CBD has proven to be an incredibly useful compound.
CBD has especially garnered wide interest from both researchers and consumers in the last decade. Without the intoxicating high of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, CBD allows people to experience the therapeutic benefits of cannabis without getting stoned.
CBD Is Safe
Since CBD extracts are made from cannabis, some still worry whether it’s really safe. We’ve covered this issue before on CannaHealth and the research shows that CBD is generally quite safe. In one study looking at the effects of CBD, researchers found it was well tolerated with only minor negative side effects in adults.
That’s just one study. But governing agencies around the world agree. In 2018, CBD passed through the FDA’s rigorous process of drug approval. As a result, the FDA approved CBD in the form of Epidiolex for treating certain types of epilepsy.
In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a comprehensive review of CBD. The WHO concluded that “CBD is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile.” Importantly, the WHO also found that CBD has a very low potential for dependence and abuse.
CBD Is Legal
CBD is generally very safe and has great potential as a therapeutic medication and supplement. Despite these positives, many people still avoid CBD because they think it’s illegal. After all, CBD comes from the cannabis plant which the DEA classifies as a Schedule I substance.
But laws in the U.S. are changing. In 2018, the U.S. passed a new version of the Farm Bill. This bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, removed hemp—a low-THC and high-CBD variety of cannabis—from the DEA’s list of controlled substances. With this new law, CBD produced from low-THC hemp plants on licensed hemp farms is now legal in the U.S.
Can CBD Help Treat Cancer?
It’s important to note that CBD research is still ongoing. For decades, scientists have had a hard time getting their hands on cannabis or any other compound derived from cannabis like CBD.
As a result, CBD science is still catching up to its popularity. Researchers are working hard to rigorously test the therapeutic properties of CBD. But there’s still a lot we don’t know.
Several companies have come under fire from the FDA for making claims about CBD’s ability to treat diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s That’s because CBD is only approved by the FDA to treat rare forms of epilepsy. CBD hasn’t gone through the rigorous FDA approval process for any other disease.
But there’s emerging evidence that CBD has the potential to stop tumor growth in certain types of cancers and improve the effectiveness of cancer treatments. However, it’s important to note that the evidence for these two benefits is pre-clinical. That means the experiments haven’t been confirmed in humans.
But that doesn’t mean CBD has no value as a health supplement. Many cancer patients may find value in CBD for its ability to help them cope with the painful negative side effects of radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery.
Let’s take a look at the most current evidence for CBD as a cancer treatment.
Slowing Tumor Growth
Over the past several decades, researchers have started to make the case that CBD can slow the growth of tumors in different types of cancer.
Glioma is cancer that occurs in the brain or spinal cord and is usually very aggressive and invasive. But researchers showed that CBD can reduce the growth, invasiveness, and migration abilities of glioma cancer cells.
A review published in 2014 looked at the results of 34 different studies of cannabinoids (including CBD) and glioma. The authors of the review found that in all but one case cannabinoids helped to kill tumor cells.
They also found that the cancer-killing abilities of CBD are selective. A selective treatment means it targets and kills cancer cells while not harming healthy cells. More selective cancer treatments tend to have fewer negative side effects.
Like, glioma, lung cancer is another highly aggressive and invasive form of cancer. Researchers found that CBD treatment greatly reduced the invasiveness of lung cancer cells.
CBD also has an anti-tumor effect in Leukemia, also known as blood cancer. Leukemia cells were more likely to die when they were treated with CBD. CBD treatment was also highly selective. This is a significant finding because selective treatments for blood cancer have been particularly elusive for medical researchers.
Improving Other Cancer Therapies
Another emerging benefit of CBD is its ability to improve the effectiveness of other cancer therapies like radiation and chemotherapy.
A 2018 study evaluated whether CBD could improve the effectiveness of radiotherapy for lung and pancreatic cancer cells. The researchers found that CBD enhanced tumor cell death when combined with traditional radiotherapy.
That study was done with cells in a petri dish. But another 2018 study looked at pancreatic cancer in mice (much closer to humans than cells in a dish). The researchers wanted to see what effect CDB would have on pancreatic cancer.
They found that CBD reduced pancreatic cancer cell growth in mice when combined with gemcitabine. Gemcitabine is one of the most common chemotherapy drugs that doctors use to fight pancreatic cancer in humans. Mice survived three times longer when treated with CBD and gemcitabine than when they were treated with gemcitabine alone.
In 2019, researchers at the Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts reviewed 10 different studies looking at the interaction between CBD and cancer treatments. The authors noted that CBD can have different effects on different cancer treatments. For example, CBD can improve the effectiveness of chemotherapies and the survival rates of multiple myeloma, a type of bone cancer, and glioblastoma, a severe form of brain cancer.
The authors also caution that while in some cases CBD can make cancer treatments more effective, it can also have the opposite effect. This highlights the need for more research exploring the effect of CBD on different types of cancers and cancer treatments.
Helping Cancer Patients Cope
CBD clearly has cancer-fighting abilities, but the research is still in the early stages. Medical scientists will need to confirm these results in clinical trials with human patients before any type of CBD cancer treatment gets approved by the FDA. Unfortunately, it could take another decade before doctors begin using CBD alongside chemotherapy and radiation to treat cancer.
But CBD still has a lot to offer cancer patients as a health supplement. Let’s take a look at how CBD can help improve the quality of life for people diagnosed with cancer.
One way CBD can help cancer patients cope with their illness is by relieving pain. Cancer can cause pain directly as a result of tumors creating pressure or invading healthy parts of the body. But cancer treatments like surgery can also cause pain. And people with cancer may find that they suffer from day-to-day pains like headaches and muscle strain more frequently.
Humans have been using cannabis as a pain reliever for centuries. And studies show that THC and CBD can help treat hard to manage pain.
But CBD on its own can also help ease pain without the intoxicating effects of THC. You can find plenty of anecdotal evidence for this effect and the research also points to CBD being an effective treatment for chronic and acute pain.
Many people with cancer have to deal with nausea on a daily basis. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are common causes. A compromised immune system can also make people with cancer more likely to get sick.
Nausea and vomiting can be detrimental when it comes to the fight against cancer. If you’re feeling nauseous, you’re less likely to eat enough. And without enough calories and nutrients, your body will have a hard time healing itself.
It’s not surprising that cancer patients are prone to anxiety. The entire process from getting screened, being diagnosed, and receiving treatment is incredibly stressful, both physically and emotionally.
Most people go through a period of adjustment after being diagnosed. It takes time to process the new reality of the illness. While some patients handle the stress well, others develop anxiety disorders. These can include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Social anxiety disorder (anxiety about social situations)
- Panic disorder (a condition that causes sudden panic attacks)
- Agoraphobia (the fear of places and situations that could cause helplessness, embarrassment, or panic)
Again, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that CBD helps to ease anxiety. And so far, the research agrees. CBD has a positive effect on anxiety. One 2015 review concluded that CBD has great potential as a treatment for anxiety disorders.
Cancer can cause major disruptions to the sleep cycle. Patients with cancer have to deal with many different factors that disturb their nightly sleep. These include pain, negative side effects from treatments, depression, and anxiety.
Luckily, CBD can help. As we discussed, CBD helps alleviate many of these sleep-disturbing factors (see above). But it can also target sleep directly. In rats, researchers showed that CBD increases total sleep time. And a 2017 review concluded that CBD has the potential for treating insomnia.
Side Effects of CBD
One of the other major benefits of CBD is that it has few negative side effects. A 2018 study showed that people taking high doses of CBD most frequently experienced diarrhea, nausea, headache, and drowsiness.
These symptoms occurred with very high doses of up to 6,000 mg of CBD. And they’re relatively mild when you compare them to the side effects of cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy or pain relievers and anti-anxiety medications.
The Need for More Research
CBD clearly shows potential as a cancer therapy. Pre-clinical studies demonstrate that CBD can:
- Slow the progression of tumors
- Increase the effectiveness of certain chemotherapy treatments
- Help cancer patients cope with secondary symptoms like pain, nausea, loss of sleep, and anxiety
But scientists have a long way to go before CBD can be approved by the FDA as a cancer treatment. This fact highlights the need for more medical research into the effects of CBD when it comes to cancer.
Cancer represents a major cause of death in the United States and places a huge burden on our society. Novel cancer treatments that can improve survival rates and help patients better cope with their illness are desperately needed. CBD has the potential, but cannabis research has been bogged down by its illegal status.
Even members of Congress have urged the DEA to loosen restrictions to speed up the progress of medical cannabis research. Hopefully, the medical community will continue to explore the utility of CBD as a treatment for cancer.