Leukemia, often referred to as “the silent killer”, is a cancer that attacks the blood and bone marrow. A deadly and indiscriminate cancer, leukemia affects children as well as adults. The symptoms can be acute as well as chronic in nature and the rate of progression will depend on how it affects the body’s white blood cells. Unfortunately there is no known cure for leukemia and the treatment options that are available are complex and not without their own disadvantages. The positive news is that new research is showing that the chemicals found in medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, have substantial benefits for leukemia patients and can even lead to the death of cancer cells. Let’s take a closer look at the 3 things you should know about Medical Cannabis and Leukemia.
1. Understanding Leukemia. In order to fully understand how medical cannabis and it’s chemicals can help to treat leukemia, it’s important to also understand leukemia and how it affects the people diagnosed with it. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of leukemia, and its hallmark characteristic, is that it causes a person’s body to create an excess of white blood cells. These excess cells, called leukemic cells, are abnormal and do not contain the same infection-fighting properties as unaffected cells. The increased production of white blood cells in bone marrow has the added effect of crowding out the regular cellular activity present in bone marrow. As a result, this leaves fewer cells available for important cellular functioning such as supplying oxygen to the rest of the body and clotting of the blood.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of leukemia are not always apparent, which is why it has the nickname of “the silent killer”. In the beginning, a patient dealing with leukemia may often experience no other symptoms beyond perhaps shortness of breath or bruising. Those with chronic leukemia may also continue to have normal cell functioning for up to two years before the progression of the disease presents any more obvious problems. However, for the patients with acute leukemia, they may experience a variety of more obvious symptoms such as: fevers and chills, persistent fatigue, weakness, frequent or severe infections, unexplained weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver, bruising easily, recurrent nosebleeds, excessive sweating, and bone pain or tenderness. Ultimately, what leukemia does is reduce the body’s ability to fight off any infections it may encounter. The 5 year survival rate for adults is a pretty grim 57 percent.
2. Current Treatments and their Side Effects. Before doctors can begin a treatment protocol, they must perform several tests in order to properly diagnose the patient’s status. These examinations include a complete blood panel as well as tissue biopsy from the bone marrow and possibly biopsies from organs such as the spleen and liver. The doctor will then recommend what he or she believes is the best treatment plan based on the patient’s age, overall health profile, the type of cancer, and whether or not the cancer is spreading to other areas of the body. The common treatment options typically prescribed for patients with leukemia include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplants.
Chemotherapy is one of the major types of leukemia treatments available. It consists of chemicals that are introduced to the body in order to neutralize the leukemic cells. Doctors may give patients a single dose or a mixture or medications depending on the type of leukemia present in the body. Chemotherapy medications may be injected or administered in the form of a pill. Common side effects of chemotherapy may include: pain, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, throat and mouth sores, constipation, diarrhea, and blood disorders. Targeted therapy attacks the vulnerabilities within specific leukemic cancer cells. An example of this is the medication Gleevec (imatinib) which works to stop the action of proteins in affected cells and help to control the spread of leukemia. The side effects of targeted therapy medications can include high blood pressure, skin problems such as rashes and depigmentation, gastrointestinal perforations, and issues pertaining to wound healing and blood clotting.
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy beams similar to an X-ray that target and damage leukemia cells, effectively stopping them from spreading. Doctors can apply radiation over the body or target a specific area in the case of concentrated clusters of leukemic cells. Doctors will often prescribe radiation therapy to patients before they receive a stem cell transplant. The side effects of radiation therapy can include fatigue, skin problems such as itching and dryness, dry mouth, shortness of breath, and diarrhea. Stem cell transplants replace unhealthy bone marrow with bone marrow that is still healthy. The patient undergoing a stem cell transplant will receive a high dose of radiation or chemotherapy before the transplant in order to destroy the diseased bone marrow and then will receive an infusion containing stem cells to rebuild healthy bone marrow. These stem cells can be from the patient or from a donor. The side effects of stem cell transplants can include nausea and vomiting, throat pain, mouth pain, infection, graft failures, and lung problems such as interstitial pneumonitis.
3. How Medical Cannabis can Help. New scientific research has shown that the chemical components found in medical cannabis known as cannabinoids can increase the effectiveness of therapies such as chemotherapy as well as lead to the target cell death of cancer cells through a process known as apoptosis. A recent paper published in the International Journal of Oncology explored the anti-cancer effects of cannabinoids when used in conjunction with chemotherapy and found that the cannabinoids THC and CBD performed effectively against leukemic cells when combined. THC and CBD were also more effective when used with chemotherapy agents and the patients that used these cannabinoids after chemotherapy resulted in a greater rate of cancer cell death. The scientists stated, “Our results suggest that when certain cannabinoids are paired together, the resulting product can be combined synergistically with common anti-leukaemia drugs allowing the dose of the cytotoxic agents to be dramatically reduced yet still remain efficacious.”
Another scientific study published in the journal BioMed Central Cancer states that THC is proven to harbor anti-tumor activity. In this study, researchers appraised the effectiveness of Dronabinol, a synthetic version of THC, against leukemia cells. What they found was that the medication had an antiproliferative effect. In other words, the THC-based medication stopped the growth of cancer cells. The scientists also found that the cell death was due to the mediation of the CB1 and CB2 receptors found within the body’s own endocannabinoid system. The paper’s authors concluded that their study “provides rigorous data to support clinical evaluation of THC as a low-toxic therapy option in a well defined subset of acute leukemia patients.” Even further, a study published in Molecular cancer research found that THC not only stops the cancer from spreading but actually causes the cells to die in a process known as apoptosis.
For patients with leukemia who are interested in beginning a medical cancer protocol, it is also important to know that there are various methods of using medical cannabis, each with their own benefits and a few with some negative drawbacks. Smoking cannabis may be the most known way to use medical cannabis. but is not advised. Instead, a full extract cannabis oil (FECO) is the route of administration preferred by medical cannabis experts. Full extract cannabis oil needs to be taken under the care of a qualified medical cannabis practitioner and with a responsible treatment plan as the dosage must be taken with precision and increased over time. Other methods of administration include cannabis oil tinctures, topical oils and salves, vaporizers, and edibles. As each of these methods has its own unique way of working with the body’s chemistry, it is highly recommended that each patient speak with their doctor and/or a licensed and experienced medical cannabis practitioner before beginning a medical cannabis protocol.