Medical marijuana and the treatment of melanoma
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New research suggests that cannabis may be able to help fight skin cancers and melanoma. This is good news, because melanoma is the deadliest kind of skin cancer.
According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, over 87,000 new cases of invasive melanoma will be diagnosed in the US alone in 2017, while close to 10,000 Americans are expected to lose their battle with melanoma.
What makes melanoma so dangerous is its ability to spread around the body. While treatment is very effective in the earlier stages of the cancer, its ability to spread to lymph nodes and vital organs means it is extremely deadly if left undetected.
Melanoma is a type of cancer that affects melanocytes. They are the cells that produce the pigments that naturally colour our skin, hair, and eyes. Melanocytes also form moles, which are often where melanomas develop.
While having moles can be a risk factor of developing melanoma, it is important to remember that most moles will not develop the cancer.
There are 3 general types of melanoma:
- cutaneous melanoma (affecting the skin)
- mucosal melanoma (affecting mucous membranes like the throat or nasal passage, for example)
- ocular melanoma (affecting the eye). Cutaneous melanoma is the most common type of melanoma
Melanomas are most commonly caused by exposure to the sun’s UV rays or artificial sources like indoor tanning beds. UV rays damage melanocytes and, over time, this damage can lead to the growth of abnormal cells. These cells then combine to form a tumor, which is then called a melanoma.
These tumors will grow over time if left undetected and treated. If that is the case, melanomas can eventually spread to other parts of the body. This usually happens in stages III and IV of the cancer.
Melanomas will typically first spread to the lymph nodes before spreading to other distant parts of the body, including vital organs like the brain. In fact, it is estimated that roughly 60% of patients with stage IV melanoma will also go on to develop brain tumors.
When melanomas spread they are extremely dangerous; the 5-year survival rates for patients with stage IV melanoma is usually between 15-20%. Meanwhile, the 5-year survival rate among patients who detect their tumor in stage I, is over 90%.
Because melanomas most commonly form on the skin, they are usually much easier to detect than other types of internal cancers. The most common sign of melanoma, for example, is an irregular mole, which can usually be detected with regular checkups.
If detected early, melanomas can be treated relatively effectively. Common treatment methods include surgery to remove a tumor, chemo/radiation therapy, or the use of targeted cancer drugs.
CANNABIS AND MELANOMAS
Medicinal cannabis is often mentioned in the discussion of new cancer therapy. For a long time, however, cannabis was only thought of as a solution to side effects caused by cancer treatment.
These side effects often included pain, nausea, vomiting, and appetite loss caused by chemotherapy, radiation, or other specific drugs.
However, a growing body of research is beginning to show that cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant might have unique anti-cancer effects. Studies have shown, for example, that cannabinoids can both kill cancer cells and hinder metastasis.
One of the most iconic stories of cannabis curing skin cancer is that of Rick Simpson. Following a work injury that left him with tinnitus, dizzy spells, and a variety of other symptoms, Rick began using cannabis medicinally to manage his symptoms, after claiming that his regular medication was ineffective.
In 2003 Rick was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. Already familiar with the medical potential of cannabis and some of the studies on its antitumor effects, Rick decided to turn to cannabis once again.
He applied a concentrated form of cannabis right to the tumors on his arm. He then covered the area with a bandage and let the oil work on his tumor for a few days. Four days later, the tumors had apparently vanished.
Rick’s story is outlined in greater detail in the 2008 documentary Running From The Cure. Today, Rick Simpson is a well-known medical cannabis entrepreneur and activist, formulating his very own medical cannabis concentrate, known as Rick Simpson Oil.
However, Rick’s story isn’t unique; he has worked with over 5,000 patients, and other patients with skin cancer have also published their successful stories online in an attempt to raise awareness of the anticancer effects of cannabis.
While these results are impressive, it is important to consider the limitations of this kind of evidence. Anecdotal evidence from patients is important, but it isn’t enough to warrant a conclusion that cannabis can cure skin cancers like melanoma. Luckily, scientists have begun researching the effects of cannabis on at least some kinds of skin cancers.
In 2003, for example, researchers from the Centro de Investigaciones Energéticas, Medioambientales y Tecnológicas, Madrid, Spain, replicated similar results to those mentioned above.
The researchers showed that cannabis receptors are found in regular skin and tumors in both animals and humans. Based on the results of other studies showing that cannabis receptor agonists can reduce growth in some tumors, the researchers directly applied cannabis receptor agonists to skin tumors in mice.
The study found that the activation of cannabis receptors induced the death of tumor cells and also slowed the growth of tumors.
In 2014, another study followed up on these results, this time testing the effects of THC on chemically induced melanoma cells in mice. The study showed that THC successfully reduced the size of skin cancer tumors in the mice, solidifying the value of topical cannabis medicines like Rick Simpson Oil.
The amount of literature on medicinal cannabis and its effects on skin cancer is still limited. However, a growing number of researches is beginning to look into the relationship between cannabis and cancer more generally.
Studies have explored the effect of chemicals like THC and CBD, as well as synthetic compounds designed to replicate these chemicals, on a wide variety of cancers, including those of the brain, lung, breast, and more.
Most of this research has produced similar findings; that the activation of cannabis receptors not only kills tumor cells, but it is also able to starve tumors and stop metastasis.
CANNABIS AND THE FUTURE OF CANCER TREATMENT
It is clear that there is a a variety of different evidence exploring the effects of cannabis on skin cancer and melanoma. Unfortunately, while this is all compelling research, it still hasn’t been enough to convince everybody in the medical community that cannabis can help cure cancer.
This is largely due to the fact that the existing research in this field doesn’t meet the standards needed to validify a new medical treatment. However, hopefully changing legislation and opinions towards cannabis will open the door to this kind of research in the future so we can finally come to concrete conclusions about the effects of cannabinoids on cancer.
Cancer is a qualifying condition for a variety of medicinal cannabis programs in the US, including those in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Washington D.C., Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and a few more.
Medical marijuana is also legal in Chile, Argentina, Australia, and many other countries in the world. To find out whether cancer qualifies for treatment with medical marijuana in your area, consult your local health authority.
Note: We have taken the utmost care and precaution whilst writing this article. That being said, please take note of the fact that we are not medical professionals of any kind. Cannabis.info is strictly a news and information website. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.