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For people living with mesothelioma, it can seem as if there is little hope. The disease is an aggressive type of cancer that spreads rapidly, is often diagnosed late, and is difficult to treat with nearly no chance of a cure or remission. Many patients are drawn to alternative therapies to find hope of better treatment and even just a better way to get relief from symptoms.

One of these alternatives is growing in popularity, not just for mesothelioma patients, but for all types of cancer patients and people living with other types of chronic and painful diseases: medical marijuana. Twenty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories Puerto Rico and Guam have legalized marijuana, also known as cannabis, to be used for medical treatment. While it still remains illegal according to federal law, the expansion of medical marijuana use is giving patients hope.

medical marijuana mesothelioma

What is Marijuana?

Marijuana comes from the plant called cannabis, which is native to Asia but grown nearly around the world today. A resin from the plant contains compounds called cannabinoids that are psychoactive. This means that they act on the central nervous system and affect consciousness and mood. The cannabis plant has long been used for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes. In the U.S., marijuana is a schedule I controlled substance, illegal for any type of use by federal law. Along with the many jurisdictions that have legalized it for medical use, eight states have also legalized it for recreational use.

Cannabinoids

The compounds in the cannabis plant that are of medical interest are called cannabinoids. Although there has been a push lately to legalize the drug, and many states have done so to some degree, it remains illegal by federal law. This means that medical research of cannabinoids is limited. There is potential that these substances could help people with mesothelioma and other types of cancer, but getting permission to research it is difficult.

There are many different cannabinoids in marijuana, but the main psychoactive one is called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or just THC. This is the substance that causes people to get a high when using the drug recreationally, but it also may have medical benefits, including possibly reducing inflammation, pain, and nausea. Another cannabinoid of interest is called cannabidiol, which is used to treat seizures and may be helpful in treating anxiety without causing a high.

Cannabinoid Drugs Currently Available for Cancer Patients

There are currently two prescription drugs that have been developed based on cannabinoids and that are available for patients. Dronabinol contains THC and can be prescribed to cancer patients to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. It can also be given to HIV and AIDS patients to improve appetite and reverse weight loss. Nabilone contains a substance similar to TCH that treats nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy when other drugs have failed to bring relief.

In Canada and some countries in Europe, a drug called Nabiximols has been approved to treat pain in cancer patients. The medication is an extract that contains THC and cannabidiol and is used as a mouth spray. It is currently under study in the U.S. and may be approved for pain relief in the future.

Cannabis Cancer Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects

One of the most proven effective uses for cannabis in cancer patients is for the relief of nausea and vomiting triggered by chemotherapy. These side effects can be severe enough to prevent patients from continuing with treatment, but cannabis-related medications have been proven to help patients get relief and continue with potentially life-saving treatments. These tested drugs include Nabilone and Dronabinol. These medications can also help restore appetite and help patients maintain or put on weight.

Pain is a major and debilitating symptom for many cancer patients, including those with mesothelioma. As cancer advances and spreads it often causes a great deal of pain that is difficult to control with conventional medications. A few studies have been conducted with cancer patients and marijuana to control pain. One found that combining cannabinoids with morphine helped bring relief and in another, cannabinoids used as a mouth spray helped patients get more relief than with narcotics.

Living with mesothelioma puts patients at risk for emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, and difficulty sleeping. Small studies have found that cannabinoids can be useful in reversing these symptoms. Animal studies with cannabidiol have shown that this substance has an anti-anxiety effect. In a small human study, inhaled cannabis reduced anxiety in cancer patients and improved mood and overall feelings of well-being.

Cannabis and Antitumor Activity

While studies of cannabinoids in humans with cancer and other illnesses have been limited, studies that investigate how these substances may affect cancer cells are even more limited. There is, however, some evidence that compounds in cannabis could do more than just treat symptoms. Small studies in laboratories and in animals have found that these substances can kill cancer cells.

One study, for instance, showed that cannabinoids could slow and stop tumor growth in mice and rats. In another study, cannabinoids killed breast cancer cells while having no effect on healthy cells in a laboratory cell culture. Another laboratory study with mice found that cannabinoids given along with chemotherapy may make the traditional cancer treatment more effective.

While there are no studies yet on how cannabis may affect tumors and cancer cells in living people, and therefore no evidence, there are plenty of anecdotal stories of people who claimed to have used marijuana to cure their cancer. These include a handful of people with mesothelioma who have used cannabis oil to achieve remission and live years after a diagnosis.

Side Effects of Cannabis

As with any kind of medication, using cannabis can cause side effects. These vary in type and severity depending on how much is used and how it is taken. For instance, using cannabis oil may produce fewer symptoms than smoking marijuana. It can serve as a safer alternative to smoking cannabis. Possible adverse side effects of using any cannabis product include low blood pressure, blood shot eyes, paranoia, hallucinations, a rapid heartbeat, depression, and dizziness.

Smoking marijuana is also considered to be harmful in the same ways that smoking cigarettes is, including damage to the lungs. Studies have found that smoking marijuana can lead to chronic bronchitis, acute bronchitis, chronic cough, and damage to the cells lining the major airways. Marijuana smoke has also been found to contain many of the same cancer-causing compounds as cigarette smoke.

The potential benefits of using marijuana as part of mesothelioma treatment are important. However, it is also important to realize that the research into these benefits is seriously limited. It is strongly recommended that, despite the amazing stories of a few people, patients with mesothelioma and other types of cancer do not rely on cannabis products to actually treat the cancer.

If you are living with mesothelioma and you live in a state with legal options for medical marijuana, talk to your medical team about your options. You may be able to find relief from some of your symptoms, like nausea or weight loss by using these products. Never try a new medication of any type without guidance from your doctor and never use alternatives as a substitute for real cancer treatment.

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