In the United States, cancer diagnoses occur at an alarming rate. Of the many types of cancers affecting Americans, leukemia stands out. This form of cancer attacks the tissues that allow us to create new blood cells, and as it progresses, our immune systems may become dangerously compromised. Medical research into the causes, treatments, and prevention of leukemia has made significant advances over the past 20 years. One of these advances has been the emergence of medical cannabis in leukemia treatment, helping to alleviate some of the symptoms of this life-threatening disease and the pain associated with its current medical treatments.
Leukemia is a cancer affecting the blood-forming tissues of the human body, attacking the bone marrow and lymphatic system that are crucial for the development of healthy blood cells. The exact causes of the disease are unknown, but may develop from a combination of factors including genetic, environmental, and abnormalities in DNA coding. There are several forms of this disease, including forms that are more common in children and others that affect adults. Primarily, leukemia affects the production of white blood cells, which are tasked with fighting infection. Abnormal white blood cells formed as a result of the disease cannot fight pathogens, leading to a host of serious or even fatal medical issues in patients afflicted with leukemia.
According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), approximately 380,000 people live with or are in remission from the disease in the United States, and about 60,000 people were newly diagnosed with leukemia in 2018. In 2018, nearly 25,000 people, both children and adults, lost their lives to this dreaded disease. Common symptoms of leukemia include:
Treatments for leukemia include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and stem cell or bone marrow transplants. These treatments may induce unpleasant side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and significant weight loss.
For a number of years, medical researchers have investigated the role of medical cannabis in treating numerous diseases. In 2005, a study demonstrated that one of the active chemical compounds in cannabis, a cannabinoid known as tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, had an active role in killing leukemia cells. Further research suggested that cannabis high in THC content could be used in conjunction with or as a replacement for other cytotoxic (cell-killing) agents, improving patient outcomes. There are hundreds of chemical compounds in cannabis, including dozens of cannabinoids. Some of these cannabinioids, in addition to the well-understood THC and CBD compounds, have also been shown to have a cytotoxic effect, targeting leukemia cells in limited clinical trials. In certain circumstances, the use of cannabinoids and chemotherapy agents resulted in dramatic improvements in health, allowing clinicians to reduce the doses and frequency of chemotherapy.
In addition to the cytotoxic effect demonstrated in studies, both THC and another cannabinioid – cannabidiol or CBD – can help control the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. Many cancer sufferers rely on medical cannabis to reduce discomfort, allowing them to regain their appetites after chemotherapy treatment sessions and to avoid weight loss. CBD is non-psychoactive; in other words, it does not produce the sensations of euphoria associated with cannabis use. CBD has been demonstrated to have powerful anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects, and is used by millions of people to help treat a wide variety of medical conditions. For patients afflicted with cancers – such as lung cancer, lymphoma, glioblastoma, prostate cancer, and breast cancer – this pain relief effect can be highly beneficial. THC, in addition to having a similar effect in managing cancer symptoms such as nausea, pain, appetite loss, and fatigue, has been a subject of numerous studies that have found an association between THC treatment and reduced tumor growth as well as tumor cell destruction. As the medical community continues to research the anti-tumoral properties of THC, today has already been established as an effective method of cancer-symptom management.
It is clear that more research is needed as to the effect of cannabis on leukemia cells, but the early research is promising. Medical professionals around the world are investigating the properties of and potential health benefits of medical cannabis. In the United States, 33 states and the District of Columbia have approved some form of legalized medical marijuana, allowing people with a range of conditions to access therapeutic relief. With continued study and clinical trials, the patients afflicted with leukemia may gain a new lease on life, reducing the symptoms associated with treatment and curtailing or even reversing the spread of cancer cells in the body.