Treating Liver Cancer with Medical Cannabis

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The liver is the body’s largest organ. It sits just below the ribs on the right side of the abdomen. It serves as the body’s primary detoxification organ by filtering waste and harmful substances from the bloodstream. Additionally, the liver produces bile and other enzymes that aid in digestion as well as producing hormones that regulate many body processes, including blood clotting and the metabolization of drugs. As it serves as the body’s primary filtration center, the liver is notably vulnerable to specific types of cancers. Fortunately, recent medical research has discovered that chemical compounds present in medical cannabis, also referred to as medical marijuana, can impede the progression of liver cancer as well as relieve the symptoms associated with conventional cancer treatments. Let’s take a deeper look at liver cancer and how medical cannabis can work, both alone and in conjunction with conventional treatments, to treat the symptoms and prevent the progression of the disease.

Understand what Liver Cancer is and how it affects the body. 

Liver Cancer is one of the most common types of cancers and while both men and women can acquire it, it is more common in men.  Each year, an estimated 43,000 people are diagnosed with liver cancer; this is triple the amount diagnosed in 1980. There are many types of cancer than can affect the liver and these are classified as either primary or secondary. Primary liver cancer begins in the liver whereas secondary liver cancer spreads to the liver from other nearby parts of the body. The two most common types of liver cancer, Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC) and Cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer), are dangerous and deadly; only 15% of patients diagnosed will survive more than 5 years. An estimated 9,000 women and 18,000 men will die in the United States from liver cancer every year.

The effects of liver cancer can be quite unpleasant. Some of the more common physical symptoms associated with liver cancer are upper abdominal pain, weakness, appetite loss, weight loss, white or pale chalky stools, and jaundice or yellowing of the area of the eyes. A patient with a liver cancer diagnosis can also experience negative socio-emotional symptoms as well such as depression, anger, and anxiety. These symptoms can lead to patients feeling isolated and withdrawn from friends and family. The costs of treatment for the physical as well as psychological symptoms can become a financial burden on patients and their loved ones, further exacerbating what is an already unpleasant situation.

Current treatment options and their side effects.

The type of treatment that a patient receives for liver cancer varies and will depend on the patient’s age and overall health profile as well as the type of cancer and it’s severity. The current treatment types available for liver cancer include:

  • Surgery– In certain instances, such as when the liver function is still good and the size of the tumor is small, a surgeon removes the cancer as well as small samples of surrounding healthy tissue.  In other cases, a damaged liver will be removed and replaced with a healthy liver from a donor during a transplant operation. There are several factors that affect whether or not a patient is a candidate for a liver transplant, including whether the cancer has spread to nearby organs and the size and number of tumors. The side effects associated with liver transplants are serious and include organ rejection, infection, and in some cases the recurrence of the cancer in the new transplanted liver. General side effects of surgery include pain, swelling, bleeding, numbness, mental confusion, and seizures. After a liver transplant, the patient must take medications for the rest of their life in an attempt to prevent the body from rejecting the new liver. The medications for anti-rejection also have associated side effects including bone thinning, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diarrhea.
  • Freezing– Some doctors attempt to destroy liver cancer cells by freezing them in a process known as cryoablation. A doctor will use a cryoprobe containing liquid nitrogen directly on a tumor and freeze the cells with the aid of an ultrasound machine. The side effects of cryoablation include bleeding, numbness, and nerve damage.
  • Heating– A surgeon can perform a radiofrequency ablation on small tumors in the liver. First, a small needle-thin probe is inserted into the tumor. Then, a high frequency current is passed through the probe, thus heating and destroying the cancer cells. Side effects associated with this treatment option can include bleeding, nerve damage, infection, and possible long-term numbness or paralysis. 
  • Chemotherapy drugs– Chemotherapy is a treatment with pharmaceutical drugs and is generally used as an option for patients whose liver cancer has not responded to other therapies such as ablation and who are not candidates for surgery. By using a process known as chemoembolization, doctors inject strong anti-cancer drugs into the liver. The medication can also be taken orally or injected intravenously. Unfortunately, most chemotherapy drugs are not very effective in treating liver cancer. While some may shrink the size of tumors, the results do not often last long and there is no proof that patients treated with chemotherapy live longer. The side effects of chemotherapy include hair loss, loss of appetite, mouth sores, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea. Additionally, because chemotherapy lowers the white blood cell count, patients are also at an increased risk of fatigue, buising, bleeding, and infection.
  • Radiation Therapy– Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy sources to directly kill cancer cells. External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) carefully direct energy to the targeted tumors while reducing the radiation to the healthy tissues nearby. Radiation therapy is also not without its own set of side effects, the more common of these being skin changes in the area affected by radiation (redness, blistering, peeling, etc.), nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and loss of appetite. A more serious side effect of radiation therapy directed at the liver is radiation-induced liver disease (RILD) which can be fatal. Symptoms and warning signs of RILD are jaundice, enlarged liver and/or spleen, build-up of fluid in the abdomen, and abnormal blood liver tests.

 

How Medical Cannabis Can Help.

At present, studies on medical cannabis have yielded very encouraging results. Scientists looking at the chemical compounds in cannabis, such as THC and CBD, have discovered that these cannabinoids can work to not only stop the division and growth of tumor cells but also kill the cells directly. In 2015, a team of scientists researching Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC)  discovered that a form of the cannabinoid THC stopped the cancer cells from growing and dividing. In addition to halting the proliferation (growth) of cancer cells, cannabinoids have also been observed to contain anti-metastatic properties. Another study published in 2016 stated that, “cannabinoids have been shown to prevent the formation of distant tumor masses in animal models.” This study further stated that THC and other cannabinoids “exert anticancer actions in animal models of cancer” and “induce cancer cell death and inhibit tumor angiogenesis”. Over the past decade, published research has also shown that both THC and CBD prevent cancerous tumors from generating blood cells. This is very important because without the ability to generate their own blood supply, tumors cannot grow and in essence starve and die off. Perhaps most amazingly, the cannabinoids THC and CBD have been observed causing cellular apoptosis, otherwise known as cell death. During the process of apoptosis, the cancer cells are triggered to commit cellular suicide and are auto-digested, effectively killing the cancer without damaging nearby healthy cells.

Medical cannabis can also be beneficial for patients undergoing conventional treatment methods for liver cancer. As noted above, the treatment options for liver cancer (such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy) are often associated with unpleasant and dangerous side effects. Fortunately, medical cannabis is known to help ease symptoms such as nausea, pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression, and sleeping problems without adding any unpleasant side effects. The effects of cannabis when used for liver cancer can vary, however, depending on the strain and dosage of the medicine as well as the method of ingestion. The most long-lasting method of cannabis use is orally, either through an extracted oil, tincture, or what is known as an edible. Smoking cannabis, while a quick and direct method of administration, is not advised. Instead, the inhalation of cannabis oil through a vaporizer can be utilized as easily as smoking without the negative effects. Patients with liver cancer often find that the most effective method of treatment is a highly concentrated full extract oil (FECO). Other forms of cannabis medicine are also available, including topical ointments and suppositories. 

The research discussed here is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical consultations. Before a patient can begin a medical cannabis protocol it is advised that they speak to a qualified practitioner to ensure the appropriate dosage and method of ingestion for their specific needs. 

 

Further Reading:

https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/picture-of-the-liver#1

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/liver-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20353659

https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/liver-cancer/statistics

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000280.htm

https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/liver-transplant/about/pac-20384842

https://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=cryo#benefits-risks

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/liver-cancer/treating/tumor-ablation.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2673842/

https://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/68/6/1945.long

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278584615001190

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4791143/