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Lung cancer has some of the highest mortality rates among cancer patients. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, approximately 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking or exposure to tobacco products. But, what about cannabis? You might have heard that cannabis contains potent anti-cancer compounds. So, does the herb heal or cause lung cancer? Here’s a brief summary on cannabis and lung cancer.

Does cannabis heal lung cancer?

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There is a growing number of cancer patients who use cannabis to either manage symptoms or aid in the treatment of cancer. Perhaps surprisingly to some, many of these patients include those with lung cancer. This might seem a bit odd, how could cannabis treat lung cancer if it often smoked?

You’re unlikely to find a lung cancer patient puffing on a joint or hitting a bong. Instead, cancer patients often use specific cannabis products recommended for high-intensity support.

While cannabis-infused foods, beverages, and teas often relieve difficult-to-treat symptoms like nausea and vomiting, most patients rely on high-dose medical cannabis oil as their primary product.

Medical cannabis oil is a concentrated extract made from the potent buds and perhaps some small leaves of the cannabis plant. This form of medical cannabis became popular after activist and patient Rick Simpson published the documentary Run From The Cure, in which he details how he cured his own skin cancer with both topical and oral medical cannabis oil.

While it may sound too good to be true, there may be reasons to believe that there is more to the cannabis and cancer question than meets the eye. Recent studies in cancer cells and animal models have shown that cannabinoids, the active compounds in cannabis, successfully kill and inhibit the growth of tumor cells.

Unfortunately, clinical trials in humans have yet to be completed. Though, there are a few groups hoping to put the herb’s power to the test in willing cancer patients. Until that time, scientists are stuck studying the anti-cancer effects of cannabis in the laboratory.

Fortunately, many of the pre-clinical studies on cannabis and cancer have been successful. Here is an extremely brief summary of why there is promise for cannabis as a future lung cancer treatment:

1. Cannabis has shown potent anti-cancer activities

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In laboratory and animal experiments, researchers have found that compounds extracted from the cannabis plant have demonstrated four specific ways of killing cancer cells. Cannabinoids are:

  • Anti-proliferative
  • Anti-metastatic
  • Anti-angiogenesis
  • Pro programmed cell death

Researchers speculate that THC and other cannabis components play many roles for the cannabis plant itself. One of these roles is pro-necrosis. That means that these chemicals seem to help the plant kill off diseased and aging parts of the plant.

Interestingly enough, some of the same principles may be why cannabis is suspected to be so helpful in cancer treatment. Cancer cells are more or less diseased cells that never stop growing or reproducing. Unlike a healthy cell, which will be phased out and broken down as it ages and becomes damaged, cancer cells fail to respond to the natural “switch” that determines cell life and death.

Unlike a healthy cell, which will be phased out and broken down as it ages and becomes damaged, cancer cells fail to respond to the natural “switch” that determines cell life and death.

This “switch” is called programmed cell death. One of the most meaningful forms of programmed cell death is apoptosis, which can be considered a form of cell suicide. THC treatment seemed to induce necrosis in cancer cells, like glioma, in both cell lines and rodent models, but it failed to kill off healthy cells in the same way.

The ability for cannabis compounds to “switch on” programmed cell death, notably apoptosis, is one of the reasons why cannabis is seen as a promising new tool for cancer patients.

But, that’s not all. Rodent and cell line studies have also found that treatment with THC or CBD prevents tumor cells from growing blood vessels (angiogenesis), essentially starving the tumor and cutting off its supply of vital nutrients. Other

Other research has shown that cannabinoid treatment has an anti-proliferative effect, preventing cancer cells from growing and spreading.

Compounds from the simple plant have also shown promise in metastatic cancers. In rodent and laboratory models, both THC and CBD demonstrated anti-metastatic properties. That means that these compounds may potentially prevent the spread of cancer to other parts of the body.

2. In the lab, cannabis has successfully killed lung cancer cells

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In laboratory and animal models, researchers have found that two cannabis compounds, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), are successful in killing lung cancer cells. In one lab experiment published in the journal Oncogene in 2008, THC reduced the ability of lung cancer cells to produce blood vessels.

After success with cell lines, the researchers took to rodents. After taking samples of tumors from THC-treated rats, they found evidence that the cannabinoid seemed to have antiproliferative and anti-metastatic effects on the lung cancer cells.

These anti-cancer effects have been seen in other lung cancer experiments. Similar to other forms of cancer, some preclinical research from 2013 shows that treatment with CBD has triggered cell suicide (apoptosis) in lung cancer cells. This is a good sign that cannabinoids may successfully kill and reduce the size of lung cancer tumors, which is why researchers should have easy access to this plant for further study.

This is a good sign that cannabinoids may successfully kill and reduce the size of lung cancer tumors, which is why researchers should have easy access to this plant for further study.

As a word of caution, there is also evidence that THC and other cannabis compounds may have varying effects depending on the cancer type and other unknown factors. In one cell line study from 2004, small doses of THC treatment seemed to increase the proliferation of lung cancer cells. Why exactly some cells seemed to proliferate while other cancer cells were killed are unclear at this point.

Why exactly some cells seemed to proliferate while other cancer cells were killed are unclear at this point.

Laboratory experiments are extremely limited in their application in the human body. Some of this early research suggests that cannabis may be a novel cancer drug sometime in the future, though how it works and what types of cancer the herb can treat are unknown at this point.

Cannabis for cancer symptom management

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Regardless of whether or not cannabis can successfully kill cancer cells, many patients find the herb helpful in managing debilitating symptoms of the disease. While smoking is out of the question for lung cancer patients, many find cannabis teas, tinctures, and edibles helpful for the management of:

1. Pain

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It’s well known that cannabis is a powerful analgesic. In fact, the herb is often touted as a safer, more natural alternative to opioid pain medications. Already, a cannabis-based drug is available in Canada for the treatment of cancer-related pain. Edible cannabis would be an excellent option for those hoping to ease chronic, intense body pain. 

2. Nausea and vomiting

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Cannabis is an anti-emetic, meaning that it can drastically reduce nausea and vomiting. In fact, many researchers believe that the herb may be especially useful in easing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Already, two synthetic cannabinoid medications, dronabinol, and nabilone, are available to cancer patients to ease debilitating symptoms of chemotherapy.

3. Mental health

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Though this benefit is highly subjective, the psychoactive nature of cannabis may be particularly helpful for those facing an end of life crisis. Other psychoactive substances like psilocybin, the active component in magic mushrooms, have successfully eased cancer-related depression and anxiety for months after treatment.

While cannabis is not nearly as powerful, the pleasant, euphoric uplift and silly mood boost the plant provides can often be helpful and nourishing for those facing chronic stress and mental health challenges.

Does cannabis cause lung cancer?

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No studies can say conclusively whether or not cannabis consumption contributes to lung cancer. However, studies have shown that smoking the equivalent to one cannabis joint a day for up to 20 years was not associated with negative impacts on lung function.

Though, studies on whether or not chronic, heavy cannabis smoking contributes to lung cancer have been inconclusive. With the evidence thus far, there is no way to rule out whether or not heavy, protracted consumers face greater risks.

Further studies have found no link between moderate cannabis smoking and negative lung health. While tobacco has been linked time and time again to high risk for lung cancer, researchers have been hard-pressed to find the same link with cannabis.

Instead, cannabis consumers often experience symptoms of chronic bronchitis and show signs of both visible and microscopic damage to large airways. However, both of these symptoms clear up with abstinence. The irritation and damage caused by cannabis can also be reduced with safer smoking devices.

In general, vaporization is considered the safest way to inhale the herb. This is shortly followed by bongs and other water pipes. Smoking joints, spliffs, blunts, or pipes without screens are the harshest ways to consume the herb.

For more information on the long-term effects of smoking cannabis, check out the full article here.

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Anna Wilcox

Anna Wilcox is a Pacific Northwest native with a passion for cannabis and natural health. Contact her on Twitter @delilahbfield.
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