The Real Story on Cannabis for Cancer

The Real Story on Cannabis for Cancer about undefined

I’ve had my doubts about medical marijuana from the beginning. This is not because I’m opposed to moderate recreational use – I’m not – but because the medical claims didn’t seem well-founded.

And the whole movement for “medical marijuana” got started as a stalking horse for legalizing recreational use. In that respect it’s been a huge success.

The problem for millions of innocent people who can’t spend their days poring over medical journals is that cannabis doesn’t have much going for it as a cancer treatment -- but lately it’s received more publicity than all other alternative and natural treatments combined – probably three or four times as much, I’d wager.

Some advocates, like Rick Simpson, even claim it cures all cancer.

A “cannabusiness” feeding frenzy is alive and well, promoting expensive and unproven products across the Internet. From what I’ve read about the “dispensaries,” they often seem more like hippie drug shops than professional medical suppliers.

Is cannabis a valuable cancer treatment, a treatment of some value, or something to skip altogether? This article will guide you through a reasoned, non-hyped approach to the role of marijuana in cancer treatment, in five minutes or less. . .

Sorry, no magic pills exist

I’ve been writing about cancer treatments for 14 years and I can tell you there is no one thing that cures or even controls all types of cancer.

There are 100 to 200 different types of human cancer (depending on how you classify all the subtypes).

Each has its own pathophysiology, genetics, causes, prognoses, and treatments. In other words, cancer is not one single disease with one defined course of treatment.

It’s well-nigh impossible to have any “one-size-fits-all” treatment. All responsible experts on alternative cancer treatment advocate protocols that involve tackling the disease in many different ways at once, and they often tweak and adjust the protocols depending on the type of cancer.

I can assure you, NO ONE has discovered a magic bullet. Meanwhile, it appears to me that all the most outspoken, celebrated cannabis advocates are selling products, so be wary.

Here’s the short summary of what I’m going to tell you: Cannabis is useful for reducing pain, nausea and loss of appetite. But there’s not much evidence it actually kills cancer cells or sets off a chain of events that would lead to cancer cell death.

Problems with the “cancer cure” claim

There’s nowhere near enough scientific evidence to back up claims like Simpson’s. And he does everyone a disservice by promising way too much on slender scientific backing.

Some early lab studies have shown promising results – others less so.

Unfortunately, killing lab-cultured cancer cells in a glass dish is much easier than killing them in a living, breathing human. Things that look promising in early-stage research can turn out to be lousy cancer treatments.

Until a potential treatment is fully tested on animals and humans, we can’t be sure it works. Or how consistently it works. True, it’s hard to conduct studies because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, and in many states as well.

But in the absence of convincing animal studies – at the very least -- any cure-all claim should be met with skepticism.

Another telling hint…

It’s wise to check any outlandish sounding health claims against the Cochrane Review – a highly respected research tool for finding the best information on evidence-based medicine.

A search shows not even one systematic review of THC or cannabis in cancer therapies… most likely because there aren’t yet enough high-quality studies to roll into a systematic review.

This doesn’t mean there’s no evidence, just not quite enough to make a life-or-death decision.

True, there was a promising study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 1974. Mice implanted with tumors were then treated for 20 consecutive days with THC – the ingredient in marijuana that produces intoxication in humans. The treatment shrank the size of their primary tumors.1

Ironically, that study was designed to show that THC was harmful to the immune system.

Twenty-five years later, a study by Dr. Manuel Guzman showed similar shrinkage in animal tumors.2

So does cannabis shrink tumors or not?

The bottom line is that we don’t know for sure. We really do need more studies.

Even if not a miracle cure,
it’s still a valuable adjunct

Though we certainly can’t say that cannabis cures cancer, there’s evidence that it does reduce cancer symptoms, mitigate side effects, and improve quality of life – making it a useful adjunct therapy i.e. something you may want to consider doing in addition to other therapies – in other words, as part of a protocol.

It may even allow you to forego prescription anti-nausea medications during chemotherapy.3

Dr. Donald Abrams, chief of hematology-oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, stated that “cannabis is the only anti-nausea medicine that increases appetite.”

That’s a strong statement. The weight loss experienced by cancer patients can be life-threatening, so anything that enables them to eat is a good thing.

Cannabis is also helpful for managing anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances that can accompany cancer.

And many say it helps relieve pain, although that hasn’t been specifically studied in chemotherapy-induced neuropathy (nerve pain that can be debilitating).

Beyond the hype. . .

Our goal is to dive beyond the hype and provide a balanced approach to this complicated topic.

Keep in mind: what’s presented here is intended for informational purposes only – a starting point. I’m not a doctor and I don’t treat patients.

According to WebMD, 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, some of which is cancer-related. Conventional medicine only has two anti-pain tricks in its bag. Both are dangerous.

Opioids are highly addictive, killing 21,900 people per year in the U.S. alone. The other option, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, and can cause gastrointestinal upset and ulcers. It’s estimated that 15 to 25% of long-term NSAID users develop an ulcer; many thousands are hospitalized each year and a great number of them die.

So I’m the last person who would criticize a safe, effective pain killer. The marijuana plant contains at least two.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are two naturally-occurring cannabinoids of the cannabis plant that show promise as potential pain relievers. I already described THC. CBD is a derivative that is NOT mind-altering and for this reason is being marketed very aggressively and widely.

Both compounds interact with your brain and body’s cannabinoid receptors. They have the same chemical formula, but the molecules are configured in two different ways. Hence their different effects.

THC is useful for modulating neurotransmitters that control sleeping and eating habits, pain, and more. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay messages between your cells, and they play key roles in the areas of pain, immune function, stress, and sleep, among other things.

CBD offers pain relief without the high.

Studies suggest that CBD fights inflammation and neuropathic pain. It also dampens the “high” effects of THC.4 I’ve personally tried CBD for back pain and I found little effect. Other people say it’s brought them huge relief.

The entourage effect

One key difference between Western medicine and Eastern is the tendency of Western medicine to isolate an individual molecule and apply it to a specific disease, symptom, or part of the body.

The term “entourage effect” was coined to describe the synergistic effect of treatment using the whole cannabis plant as opposed to only one part of it… similar to the difference between a whole food supplement and an isolate taken from the whole or made in a lab.

Curcumin, for example, is a popular isolate of the spice turmeric. But evidence indicates turmeric contains other valuable compounds and you’re better off consuming the whole herb.

Marijuana plants vary in their ratio of CBD to THC. So what’s the ideal ratio for you? That’s a hard one to answer…

High THC or high CBD for pain?

For pain relief, best results seem to be obtained with large quantities of both CBD and THC, plus a high CBD:THC ratio. CBD helps mitigate THC’s high, while boosting its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects.

But if you want to avoid any psychotropic effects, you’ll want a high-CBD, low-THC combination.

On the other hand, if you’re in horrible pain and need maximum relief, you might want to opt for a high-THC cultivar (i.e. variant) of the cannabis plant.

It’s important to note that the evidence in human clinical trials does support the use of THC and CBD for neuropathy (though not cancer neuropathy specifically), but fewer studies have examined CBD alone.5 One animal study found that oral CBD led to improvements in neuropathy in rats.6

Staying on the right side of the law

The legal status of CBD and THC changes almost daily. But here’s the general scoop…

Marijuana and THC are currently listed as controlled substances, prohibited under federal law.

However, about 30 states have legalized one or more cannabis compounds. In states where recreational or medical marijuana is legal, you should be able to buy CBD legally. Some CBD comes from hemp instead of marijuana. Hemp is a non-intoxicating form of the cannabis plant.

Please note: if you possess cannabis products in a state where they’re illegal, or if you don’t have a prescription in a state where they’re only permitted for medical reasons, you could face legal penalties.

I don’t know what the odds are of being caught – pretty low, I imagine – but the laws are on the books. I would not try to board a plane carrying these substances, or cross an international border, because of the rigorous searches.

And here’s something to give pause -- admitting cannabis use to your doctor in a state where it’s illegal could lead to legal trouble, refusal of medical care, and/or problems with your insurance coverage.

You can hedge your bets by finding a doctor who publicly embraces cannabis use.

If you live where medical cannabis use is legal, you can get a medical marijuana card, though you may have to jump through some hoops. As a cancer patient, you’d almost certainly qualify.

Bottom line: know your state’s laws before purchasing.

Cannabis is the Wild West of medicine

For pain relief, best results seem to be obtained with large quantities of both CBD and THC, plus a high CBD:THC ratio. CBD helps mitigate THC’s high, while boosting its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects.

The current medical marijuana industry resembles the old Wild West.

There’s no standard of care, no set dosage, and most doctors have no clue what they’re doing. And don’t count on insurance to cover the costs.

Dispensary products should be lab tested for purity and potency. Labels should reveal levels of THC and CBD.

Federal law prohibits use of the word “organic” for cannabis, but you’ll want it to be grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, using organic methods. If you’re fighting cancer, you don’t want to add to your toxic load.

Optimal dosage hasn’t been studied in any depth. According to sources my staff found, you should start at the lowest recommended daily dosage, and split that amount so you’re taking it two or three times a day. Do that for at least three days, paying close attention to how your body reacts. If needed, increase the dosage very gradually to find your optimal level.

Non-smoking options include:

  • Lotions/creams
  • Tinctures
  • Capsules/pills
  • Edibles (chocolate, candy, tea, or other infused foods)

Please note: It can take up to 90 minutes to feel the effects from edibles, so start slow and wait at least two hours before eating more. Stick to low-dose edibles (5-10 mg THC) at the beginning.

Choose full-plant extracts to get the full array of phyto-compounds the plant offers.


CBD seems to be well-tolerated, even in larger doses. Any side effects are usually the result of drug interactions between CBD and other meds you may be taking.

THC can trigger a faster heart rate, lack of coordination, dry mouth, red eyes, decreased reaction time, inability to concentrate while under the influence, and memory loss – thanks to its psychoactive effects.

Therefore, it’s a bad idea to mix cannabis with driving, or with alcohol. Stay at home when you first use cannabis. And stay well-hydrated.

My personal opinion:  I would not take THC at all as a cancer cure; the evidence isn’t good enough. I might try it for severe pain if everything else failed. I think I’d consider opioids first, because if pain is that bad we’re very likely talking about late stage cancer, and getting addicted would be the least of my problems. Opioids are the big leagues when it comes to reducing pain.

Looking ahead a few years, what would I do if future studies do confirm that THC (or whole marijuana) kills cancer cells? I would still prefer treatments that don’t alter my mind. There are plenty of them. I’m not seeing anything special in this over-hyped treatment.

About drug tests… Beware – since cannabinoids are stored in body fat, they’ll show up on drug tests for days or weeks after use. Also, note that hemp could cause a positive test result for THC, even though it has far lower levels of this substance than marijuana.

As for recreational use, there is good evidence that regular, long-term marijuana use does severe damage to memory and cognition. This might not be a factor for a cancer patient in severe pain. But the rest of us should take it into account. Plus, it IS addictive, whatever its fans may claim.

Cannabis could be a useful treatment...
let’s not kill it with hype

With ongoing legalization, it should be easier to conduct the large-scale human studies needed to find out how helpful it really is.

Preclinical studies are done in a lab. What we need now is to find out how well cannabis works in the real world on real people.

Readers of this newsletter know I have great respect for anecdotal evidence – personal stories of patients who experienced benefits. But they aren’t the last word, and because marijuana is so politicized – and is now becoming a source of billions of dollars in profits in a growth industry – I find it hard to trust case histories.

Best regards,

Lee Euler,



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