Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment of disease with chemical substances, particularly with drugs that are toxic to living cells. It works by killing cancer cells that are in the process of splitting and replicating.
The first iteration of chemotherapy originated in the 1940s, when World War II naval officers were exposed to mustard gas. While studying the effects of mustard gas, researchers discovered that a compound called nitrogen mustard could work against lymphoma.
Continued research of nitrogen mustard unearthed “alkylating agents” that rapidly killed cancer cells, leading to the development of the chemo treatment known today as methotrexate.
Chemotherapy Side Effects
Individuals undergoing chemotherapy often experience side effects, ranging from mild to severe. It is uncommon for every chemo patient to experience every side effect. The length and severity of chemo side effects also varies from person to person.
Side effects of chemotherapy include:
- Hair loss
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Anemia (low red blood cell counts)
- Appetite changes
While fatigue, hair loss, and infection are some of the most common side effects of chemotherapy treatment, nausea and vomiting are ranked the two most severe among chemo patients. The loss of appetite caused by nausea results in nutrient deficiency, making the body’s fight against cancer even more difficult.
Cannabis and Chemotherapy Side Effects
Cannabis is a substance derived from the cannabis sativa plant. Historically, ancient Chinese, Greek, and Egyptian cultures all used cannabis for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ‘80s in the United States, that AIDS and cancer patients reported relief from chemo side effects with regular medicinal cannabis use.
The National Cancer Institute expands on cannabinoids:
The main active cannabinoid in Cannabis is delta-9-THC. Another active cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD), which may relieve pain, lower inflammation, and decrease anxiety without causing the “high” of delta-9-THC.
Medicinal cannabis is currently legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, making it the most widely used illicit drug in the United States. Dr. Donald Abrams is chief of hematology-oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2015, he told Newsweek magazine that marijuana "is the only anti-nausea medicine that increases appetite."
In a blog poll conducted by The New England Journal of Medicine, the authors reported that 76% of the 1,446 physicians responding from around the world were in favor of medicinal cannabis, even though many came from jurisdictions in which it is illegal.
The results of a WebMD survey of 1,566 physicians in the United States reported that 82% of oncologists and hematologists were in favor of patients having access to medical cannabis, reflecting the strongest approval to date by the medical professional community.
Researchers Pursuing Cannabis Treatment Options
The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research and Innovation in New South Wales, Australia, is currently overseeing “the world’s largest, and most definitive clinical trial ever of medicinal cannabis for the prevention of nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.”
According to a statement on their website: “The research will be using an oral, plant-derived, pharmaceutical-grade capsule containing consistent amounts of delta-9-THC and Cannabidiol (CBD), developed by Canadian medicinal cannabis company Tilray.”
The sample group will consist of participants over the age of 18 who are undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and have significant symptoms during their first cycle of chemotherapy.
Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society confirms that two synthetic THC-modeled cannabinoids, pills called dronabinol and nabilone, have already been approved in the U.S. for the reduction of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
The Future of Cannabis and Chemotherapy
Dr. Wai Liu, who led the aforementioned study at St. George's, said: "We have shown for the first time that the order in which cannabinoids and chemotherapy are used is crucial in determining the overall effectiveness of this treatment."
This lower dose of chemotherapy would potentially mean fewer and less severe side effects.
Early clinical trials have so far shown that while cannabinoids can be safe in treating cancer, they do not help control or cure the disease. Always consult a physician for more information about available treatments best suited to you.