Some patients living with mesothelioma turn to alternative therapies for relief from symptoms and to complement traditional treatments. Medical marijuana and CBD oil for mesothelioma have gained traction as treatments for symptoms and chemotherapy side effects.
What is Marijuana?
Marijuana comes from the cannabis plant. Although cannabis is originally native to Asia, it now grows worldwide. Resin from the cannabis plant contains psychoactive compounds called cannabinoids. These compounds act on the central nervous system, affecting consciousness and mood.
People have long used the cannabis plant for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes. In the United States, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance, making it illegal for use under federal law.
However, many states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, along with the jurisdictions that have legalized it for medical use.
Cannabinoids are compounds found in marijuana, many of which have medical applications. Although there has been a recent push to legalize the plant, it remains illegal under federal law.
Because of these strict federal regulations, medical research into cannabinoids is limited. While these substances could help people with mesothelioma and other types of cancer, getting permission for research is challenging.
Marijuana contains over 100 different cannabinoids. The primary psychoactive cannabinoid is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC is responsible for the drug high but may also have medical benefits. The primary medical benefits include reducing inflammation, pain, and nausea.
Another cannabinoid of interest is cannabidiol (CBD), which is used to treat seizures. Cannabidiol may also help treat anxiety without causing a high. Cannabidiol oil may also have anti-cancer properties and is known to help relieve cancer symptoms and the side effects caused by traditional cancer treatments.
The FDA has approved both THC and CBD for a handful of limited uses.
Cannabinoid Drugs Available for Cancer Patients
Three available prescription drugs were developed based on cannabinoids:
- Marinol® (dronabinol) contains synthetic THC and is FDA approved to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. It can also be prescribed to HIV and AIDS patients to improve appetite and reverse weight loss.
- Cesamet® (nabilone) also contains a synthetic THC. This drug is approved to treat nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy when other drugs have failed. Finally, Epidiolex® (cannabidiol) is approved to treat some severe and rare seizures.
- In Canada and many European countries, Sativex® (Nabiximols) has been approved to treat cancer pain. This medication comes in a mouth spray and contains a mixture of THC and cannabidiol. It is currently in phase III trials in the United States and could eventually be approved for pain relief.
Cannabis Cancer Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects
One effective use for cannabis in cancer patients is reducing nausea and vomiting triggered by chemotherapy. These side effects can sometimes be so severe that they prevent patients from continuing treatment; however, cannabis-related medications have been proven in clinical trials to help relieve these symptoms.
This is important not just for comfort but also because it allows patients to continue potentially life-saving treatments. Tested drugs for this use are nabilone and dronabinol. These medications could also help restore appetite and help patients maintain a healthy weight.
For many patients with cancer, pain is a debilitating symptom. As cancer grows and spreads, it can lead to severe pain that can be difficult to control with traditional medications. Researchers have conducted limited studies on marijuana use for pain related to cancer.
Living with mesothelioma puts patients at risk for emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, and insomnia; however, research suggests cannabinoids may help reverse these symptoms.
In a few human studies, inhaled cannabis reduced anxiety in cancer patients and improved mood and overall feelings of well-being, though researchers noted that the effect was different between strains of marijuana.
Cannabis and Antitumor Activity
Research regarding cannabinoids in humans with cancer has been limited, and studies investigating how these substances affect cancer cells are even more limited.
Still, some evidence indicates that compounds in cannabis could do more than treat symptoms. Small studies in laboratories and animals have found that these substances can kill cancer cells:
- One study showed that cannabinoids could slow and stop tumor growth in mice and rats.
- In another study that used laboratory cell cultures, cannabinoids killed breast cancer cells while not affecting healthy cells.
- Another laboratory study with mice found that cannabinoids given with chemotherapy may increase the effectiveness of traditional treatment.
While there are no studies on how cannabis affects tumors and cancer cells in living people, there are many anecdotal stories from people who claim marijuana cured their cancer.
Included in these anecdotal stories is a handful of people with mesothelioma. These people claim to have used cannabis oil to achieve remission, living years after a diagnosis.
CBD Oil and Cancer
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil is a non-psychoactive marijuana product. CBD is just one of many cannabinoid compounds found naturally in marijuana; however, unlike THC, CBD does not cause a high. Because of this, CBD is a prime candidate for medical applications.
As an oil, CBD is easily consumed and is currently used for various health conditions, although there is no direct evidence of its efficacy outside of seizures.
No studies have specifically investigated CBD oil for treating mesothelioma; however, there is evidence it could have anti-tumor properties. In animal studies, CBD has slowed the growth of glioblastoma, breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer.
A study from the UK, where CBD extracts were administered to mice with pancreatic cancer, produced a longer life expectancy. This type of study is exciting for patients with challenging cancers like mesothelioma.
Although this evidence comes from laboratory animals, there is hope it could also apply to humans. If so, CBD oil could be a useful tool for increasing life expectancy for aggressive cancers.
CBD oil is known to provide relief from cancer and cancer treatment symptoms. In one study, researchers compared the results of CBD and THC on patients. These researchers discovered that patients given CBD experienced greater pain relief. CBD can manage other symptoms, including nausea and vomiting triggered by chemotherapy, stress and anxiety, and insomnia.
Side Effects of Cannabis
As with any medication, cannabis may cause several side effects. These side effects vary in type and severity, depending on dosage and method of administration. Possible adverse side effects may include:
- Low blood pressure
- Bloodshot eyes
- Rapid heartbeat
Cannabidiol (CBD oil) may produce fewer symptoms and be a safer alternative to smoking marijuana. While CBD is not psychoactive, it can cause side effects for some users. The most common side effects of CBD are:
- Changes in eating habits and weight
- Dry mouth
The potential for side effects with CBD is much lower than for THC. Most patients experience mild side effects or none at all.
Another area of concern is the potential damage caused by smoking marijuana. Studies have found limited evidence that moderate or light use increases the risk of lung cancer. Nevertheless, smoking can cause damage to airways and create breathing difficulties, an important consideration for mesothelioma patients.
Despite amazing anecdotal stories, patients with mesothelioma and other cancers should not rely on cannabis products to actually treat their cancer.
Talk to your medical team if you have mesothelioma and live in a state with legal options for medical marijuana and CBD oil. You may find relief from symptoms like nausea or weight loss; however, never try a new medication or natural product without guidance from your doctor, and never use alternatives as a substitute for a physician’s recommended treatment.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Kyle J. Becker, PharmD, MBA, BCOP
Kyle J. Becker, PharmD is certified by the Board of Pharmacy Specialties in Oncology Pharmacy. Dr. Becker earned his pharmacy degree from Shenandoah University and he currently serves as an oncology pharmacist at Parkview Cancer Institute.