Medical Cannabis and Brain Cancer: 3 Things To Know

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It’s almost possible to go through life today without being impacted by cancer. The odds are very high that a friend or relative will be diagnosed. A cancer diagnosis can often be a difficult and scary situation to be faced with and this is especially true when the cancer affects the brain. Even with aggressive treatment, the average survival rate for brain cancer is less than a year. The conventional treatment options are invasive, expensive, and unfortunately do not offer a cure or extend a patient’s life expectancy. Many patients have begun to search for alternative treatment options with medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, quickly becoming the most attractive option. These patients have been encouraged by multiple reports showing how cannabis can stop the growth of brain tumors, kill the cancer cells directly, and help to increase the efficiency of radiation and chemotherapy. If you or a loved one are considering using medical cannabis as a treatment for brain cancer, please read about the three things you should know before making this important decision.

1. Understand brain cancer. There are various types of brain tumors and each can be classified as either benign, malignant, metastatic, or primary. When a tumor is benign, it does not spread to nearby areas and, though not as serious as malignant tumors, a benign tumor can press on adjacent brain tissue and cause other brain problems. A tumor classified as malignant can grow and rapidly begin to overpower nearby healthy cells. Malignant tumors may also possibly spread to other areas of the body such as the spine or lymph nodes. When cancer cells spread from one part of the body to the brain this is known as a metastatic tumor. These metastatic tumors are the most common form of brain cancer. A primary tumor is one that begins with abnormal cells growing a tumor directly in the brain. Some of the more common types of brain tumors are gliomas, pituitary adenomas, and meningiomas. 

Though the symptoms of metastatic and primary brain cancer share many similarities, the symptoms of brain tumors in general will vary greatly depending on the size, location, and rate of growth. Some of the more common brain cancer symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • A gradual increase in both the severity and frequency of headaches
  • Difficulty with balance
  • Vision problems such as blurred vision or loss of peripheral vision
  • Issues with hearing
  • Speech delays
  • Unexplainable personality changes
  • Seizures

2. Current treatments and their side effects. The treatment plans for brain tumors vary and are largely dependent upon the patient’s age, general health before diagnosis, and the characteristics of the brain tumor itself- such as its size, location in the brain, and the type of tumor. The more common treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Many patients with brain cancer do receive surgery to remove their tumor. If a doctor is unable to remove the cancerous tumor they will take a small sample of it to determine what type of tumor it is. Occasionally, as in the case of a benign tumor, the surgical removal of the tumor will cure the patient’s symptoms. As with any surgery, there are risks of bleeding and infection. Additionally, patients may be at risk for loss of vision if the tumor being removed is near any eye nerves. 

Chemotherapy is a medication administered to kill brain tumor cells which can be taken orally or intravenously. The side effects of chemotherapy will depend on the type of medication taken but generally will include hair loss, nausea, and vomiting. Radiation therapy is where a doctor will use high-energy beans such as protons or X-rays directed at tumor cells in an attempt to kill them. Usually these beams are used outside of the body but in some rare cases a type of radiation therapy known as brachytherapy is used where the radiation is placed inside the body. The most common side effects of radiation therapy are headaches, fatigue, memory loss, and scalp irritation. 

3. How medical cannabis can help. Brain cancer continues to be one of the most difficult types of cancer to treat, but fortunately it is also the subject of many medical cannabis research studies. In one of these studies, a group of researchers from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Complutense University in Madrid, looked at the relationship between compounds in cannabis known as cannabinoids and brain tumors. This team extracted THC- the main psychoactive cannabinoid- and applied it to glioblastoma cells. The results were shocking; the tumor cells stopped growing and, later on, began to die. Further researchers have found that in addition to stopping tumor growth, the cannabinoids present in medical cannabis initiate cellular apoptosis (cell death) and prevent cells from obtaining access to the blood supply they require to stay alive. 

In yet another fascinating clinical discovery, scientists published a report in the American Association for Cancer Research stating that THC in combination with the chemotherapy drug temozolomide (TMZ), enhanced autophagy (programmed cell death), in malignant brain cells which were otherwise resistant to conventional anticancer treatments. In other words, the patients using cannabis medicine in addition to their chemotherapy medications received better results than with chemotherapy alone.

Though brain cancer can be particularly aggressive, medical cannabis research is giving hope and options beyond the available conventional treatments. Like the conventional treatments mentioned, the correct dosage, strain, and method of consuming medical cannabis will depend on each patient’s specific needs and health profile. While smoking cannabis is well known, it is not the recommended method of ingestion for brain cancer. Instead, a full extract cannabis oil (FECO) is the route of administration preferred by medical cannabis experts. This strong and sticky 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. Each of these methods has a unique way of working with the body’s chemistry and some take effect sooner while others are best for long-lasting effects. It is highly recommended that each patient speak with an experienced medical cannabis practitioner before beginning a medical cannabis protocol.

Further reading:

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/brain-spinal-cord-tumors-adults/about/key-statistics.html

https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2017/glioblastoma-research-making-progress#targetText=What%20is%20glioblastoma%3F,40%25%20of%20malignant%20brain%20tumors.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15313899?dopt=Abstract

https://www.nature.com/articles/nm0300_313

https://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/64/16/5617

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9771884