Breast cancer is one of the top health concerns for women around the globe. Current treatment options are expensive, painful, and invasive. This often forces patients to make very difficult decisions in regards to their health. Fortunately, a wealth of new evidence has shown that there are several ways that cannabis can help fight the disease and even save lives.
It’s well-known that cannabis kills cancer cells
Breast cancer is second to skin cancer as one of the leading causes of death in women. On average, 1 in 8 women will develop the disease in their lifetime. In men, this number drops to 1 in 1,000. In some cases, breast cancer is genetic. In others, environmental factors are thought to play a major part in the development of the disease. While breast cancer rates have been slowly declining since 2000, last year alone a little over 40,000 women were expected to die from the disease.
Last year, the National Cancer Institute (ran by the U.S. government) made headlines after it updated its website to include positive information about marijuana’s anti-cancer effects. The site now summarizes several studies that link the compounds found in marijuana to a reduction in tumor size, the actual death of cancer cells in animal models, and the treatment of symptoms related to chemotherapy.
But, with all the claims that cannabis can help a variety of illnesses, why are people so convinced about cancer? It just so happens that cannabinoids, molecules like psychoactive THC, have a unique ability to interact with a much larger system in our bodies–the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system and cancer
The endocannabinoid system is like a giant communication highway in your body. It’s made up of a series of cell receptors called cannabinoid receptors and the corresponding molecules that attach to them, known as endocannabinoids. It is through the endocannabinoid system that our brain and different parts of our bodies send messages to each other to help maintain an optimum state of health.
Research from 2012 found that CB2 receptors are overexpressed in tumor cells. The CB2 receptor is one of the primary cannabinoid receptors in the body, and imbalances pertaining to the cell receptor and its corresponding endocannabinoids may play a role in the development of a wide range of illnesses. In 2011, Israeli researchers found that:
Changes in endocannabinoid levels and/or CB2receptor expressions have been reported in almost all diseases affecting humans, ranging from cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, liver, kidney, neurodegenerative, psychiatric, bone, skin, auto-immune, lung disorders to pain and cancer, and modulating CB2 receptor activity holds tremendous therapeutic potential in these pathologies.
The endocannabinoid system is responsible for many things. Not only does it regulate things like cognitive thought, metabolism, mood, appetite, and sleep, but it also plays a key role in maintaining the overall health of our cells. This is where cancer comes in. Cancer is a disease caused by mutations in the DNA of certain cells. Turns out, the endocannabinoid system is a therapeutic target for stopping the progression of cancer and potentially eliminating tumors altogether.
Marijuana slows tumor growth in breast cancer
Cancer is caused when, for some reason, cells in a certain section of your body mutate and stop following the normal cycle of cell life and death. This is why scientists call cancer cells immortal. DNA in normal cells programs them to only live so long. In cancer cells, DNA is changed and the cells no longer die. Instead, they just continue to grow and divide, eventually creating tumors.
Recent research has found that the active compounds in cannabis put an end to this process. In a way, they help return the body to a more balanced state by re-activating programmed cell death. In the science world, this phenomenon is known as apoptosis. Different cannabinoids, however, help fight cancer in different ways. Here’s a short summary of the available research on cannabis and breast cancer:
In 2011, a group of Israeli researchers found that CBD inhibited the development of breast cancer tumors. The exact way it does this remains unknown, but the scientists did find that CBD helped facilitate apoptosis. The compound also fought tumor cells by helping them self-destruct. This is process is known as autophagy. When a cell in your body has been damaged due to things like stress or malnutrition, those cells will auto-digest themselves and die.
The Israeli research found that CBD targets breast cancer cells by facilitating both apoptosis and autophagy. This means that the cannabinoid helps the body kill cancer cells more effectively by assisting its own natural processes.
But that’s not all. Once cancer cells take hold in the body, they continue to divide and make more of themselves. Eventually, these cells may break away from their original tumor and travel through the bloodstream. This process is known as metastasis, and once it begins, cancer can spread throughout the body.
Oddly enough, metastatic cancer is actually linked to one specific gene–the Id-1 gene. In 2007, researchers from California found that CBD inhibits this gene, turning off the trigger which causes aggressive breast cancer cells to grow like crazy and proliferate.
Non-psychoactive CBD tends to get a lot of credit for its ability to kill cancer cells. But, THC also has potent anti-cancer effects. In 2014, Spanish Dr. Guillermo Velasco, one of the researchers responsible for discovering marijuana’s potent anti-tumor properties, told Cannabis Network Radio:
I’ve been working with [cannabis] for quite a long time. THC is the compound that has the most potent anti-cancer activity. CBD is helping—we tried a lot of combinations of THC and CBD because it’s good for avoiding the side effects of the therapy, and actually it seems, at least in animal models, that you can reduce the doses of THC by using also CBD at the same time. But, definitely, THC is important.
Several other studies conducted by Velasco and his teammates Manuel Guzman and Christina Sanchez at the Complutense University of Madrid have found that THC causes cancer cells to “commit suicide”, or die via autophagy. Though, THC does this in a different way than CBD. THC helps regulate the cycle of cell life and death by activating cannabinoid receptors which are over-expressed on tumor cells.
Yet another study published in 2014 found that high doses of THC significantly reduced the size of breast cancer tumors in mice. It did this by activating two less-frequently discussed cannabinoid receptors, the CB2 receptor and the GPR55 receptor.
The entourage effect
Both CBD and THC have been shown to be effective in fighting cancer on their own, but marijuana’s true cancer-fighting abilities are amplified when you combine different cannabinoids into a truly powerful medicine. A study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that the most effective way to kill breast cancer cells was to harness the anti-cancer powers of both THC and CBD.
In the study, researchers treated mice synthetic cannabinoid called O-1663. The synthetic blocked the Id-1 gene like CBD has done, as well as activated the CB1 and CB2 cell receptors like THC. But, you don’t necessarily need O-1663 in order to get the full cancer-fighting effects of cannabinoid therapy. “In agreement with this hypothesis,” tells the research team, “the combined administration of CBD and THC produced a similar magnitude of anti-metastatic activity when compared to O-1663 alone.”
This finding supports what many cannabinoid scientists know as the “entourage effect.” The idea is that cannabinoids have a greater therapeutic value when they’re combined. The molecules work synergistically with each other, producing a cascade of effects that amplify the medical value of the plant.
THC and CBD aren’t the only cannabinoids to show anti-tumor qualities. CBC (cannabichromene) and CBG (cannabigerol) are two others that have shown some promise in reducing breast cancer growth. These cannabinoids have been studied significantly less than THC and CBD, but when combined with the two primary compounds, they may prove to be effective medicines.
Coping with chemotherapy
Whether you buy that marijuana kills cancer cells or not, there are several other auxiliary benefits to adding weed to your breast cancer treatment plan. Just to name a few:
One major pharmaceutical company is currently undergoing stage 3 clinical trials in the U.S. on a cannabis-based drug for cancer pain. GW Pharmaceuticals hopes that their drug Sativex, approved for the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis elsewhere in the world, will get FDA approval to go on the market as a treatment for pain in cancer patients.
Sativex is a drug made out of real marijuana, and it’s unclear when and if it will actually hit the shelves. But, in the meantime, medical cannabis has been proven to be an extremely effective pain-reliever. It’s even comparable to opioid pain relievers, which have harmful side effects.
Nausea and appetite
The FDA has already approved a synthetic THC for the treatment of nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy. That drug is Marinol (dronabinol), and it’s usually prescribed only after other anti-vomiting medications have failed. One major downside of Marinol is that it may ease a violently upset stomach, but it does little to help with other symptoms like the extreme pain and difficulty sleeping which often accompany traditional cancer treatments.
Compounds like THC and CBN are potent appetite stimulants. THC and CBD are also strong treatments for nausea. These properties (coupled with pain) are actually some of the reasons why cancer patients are legally allowed to have medical marijuana in several states.
Insomnia often plagues cancer patients and cannabis can help with that. If you choose an edible, tea, or some flower from a heavy indica strain like Afghan Kush, you’re sure to pass out for the night. Marijuana helps you fall asleep faster and sleep a little longer. This extra rest gives your body some much-needed time to recover from taxing chemotherapy treatments.
Stories from breast cancer survivors
Research on marijuana as a treatment for cancer is becoming more readily available. Naturally, more and more breast cancer patients are coming out and sharing their stories with the world. Here are a few true testimonies from medical cannabis patients:
Stefanie LaRue was 30-years-old when she was diagnosed with stage metastatic 4 breast cancer. The doctors gave her an expiration date: she had one year left to live. Now, 10 years after her initial diagnosis, she has stopped chemotherapy and uses the Rick Simpson whole plant oil method. Since switching to cannabis, the tumors that had spread from her chest to her bones are now gone. In a speech at the 2015 NORML hosted Global Marijuana March in Fort Worth Texas, she tells the audience:
I did my homework, and I did my research, and I weighed the pros and cons on the medicinal benefits of cannabis and I weighed the pros and cons of chemo. I made the most well-educated, best-informed, life-saving decision for myself. And that’s truly what I wish for all of you. To educate yourselves, to get to know the plant spiritually as well as intellectually, on every level. So you can understand the medicinal benefits that you or your mother, or your sister, or your girlfriend, or your boyfriend, or whoever that is in your life have the same fair chance to save your life.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Grammy Award-winning singer Melissa Etheridge discusses how marijuana helped her after being diagnosed with breast cancer. First diagnosed at stage 2, she had undergone surgeries and chemotherapy. To her, chemotherapy was like death. “Light hurt, sound hurt,” she tells Cooper, “I couldn’t read anything. I just laid there.” Seeking to avoid relying on prescription painkillers and steroids to overcome the side effects of chemo, she turned to medical marijuana.
It instantly, within a minute, relieves the neausea, relieves the pain. And all of a sudden I was normal. You don’t take medicinal marijuana to get high. It’s not a high, it’s a normal. And all of a sudden I could get out of bed. I could go see my kids. It was amazing.
During chemotherapy, she used cannabis every four hours to manage the side effects of the treatment.
Arlene dropped from 120 to 85lbs when she began traditional cancer treatments. Desperately needing to keep calories in her body, she began using marijuana. Without fail, about two hours after consuming, her appetite would return and she would have to eat. She goes on to explain:
Later I had to use it for pain. I was on morphine, I was on dilaudid. I mean, it was totally unessesary. And it really does relieve the pain. I mean, it did for me.
Recipes for breast cancer patients
Ingesting cannabis is one of the best ways for cancer patients to get the high doses of medication they need. These recipes have the added bonus of being nutrient-dense, which gives your body the extra boost it needs to heal itself and restore internal balance.
- Marijuana Tea – If smoking or vaping is too difficult, this tea is the perfect way to medicate in a gentle, soothing way.
- Blueberry Canna-Bliss Smoothie – It’s a well-known fact that blueberries are a superfood. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, the antioxidants, fiber, and high levels vitamin C found blueberries helps protect against several different types of cancers.
- Salad With Budsamic Vinaigrette – This spinach salad is rich is folate, which is key to preventing DNA mutations like those that cause cancer. Coupled with an infused dressing, this dish is a great way to medicate with marijuana while getting a highly nutritious meal at the same time.
- Thai Shrimp Salad – The shrimp in this dish will give you a hefty dose of vitamin D. Vitamin D is another natural compound that’s thought to slow the growth of cancer cells. Peanuts also add in a little extra folate.
- Lime Curry Chickpea Salad – To up the nutrient quality, swap out canned beans for soaked dried chickpeas. This is another dish rich in folate and dietary fiber.
In the United States, there no clinical trials are underway which test the efficacy of cannabinoids as potent anti-cancer medicines. But, the wealth of research out there gives strong indications that medical marijuana may be one of the most effective new therapies when it comes to combatting breast cancer. Many patients are already using Rick Simpson oil to either supplement or replace their chemotherapy. There’s also a confirmed fact that marijuana helps ease the symptoms associated with the traditional invasive, grueling, and painful cancer treatments.
Have you or someone you know used cannabis to treat breast cancer? What does it do for you? Share your thoughts and experience with us on social media or in the comments below. We’d love to hear your story!