The negatives of chemotherapy are well-known. For starters patients often deal with fatigue, hair loss, bruising, bleeding, and infections.  Then there is the anemia (low red blood cell count), nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and constipation. To some, this cancer treatment seems more threatening than the disease itself. To this end, the medical community is always looking for more effective alternatives to chemotherapy, the prevailing approach to shrink tumors and stop cancer spreading.  Cannabis for cancer is well-known due to its ability to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by the often harsh chemo drugs. 

Many proponents of natural healing wonder if cannabis could be a substitute for chemotherapy.  A powerful medicine in its own right, not only have scientists explored the possibility, but thousands of patients have anecdotal reports of their trials, including Dr. William Mcdougall who attempted to heal his own Hodgkin’s lymphoma with very high doses of 1:1 CBD to THC oil. 

Dr. Mcdougall says, “The only statement I can make is cannabis did not cure my cancer.”  

It’s crucial in the discussion of disease to be clear that the concept of treatment encompasses three distinct tiers of success. Curing, what everyone hopes for,  means an intervention completely destroys all cancer in a patient’s body. Cannabis does not cure cancer from what we know at this point.

The next level of treatment is control, which means preventing cancer from spreading to other parts of the body and slowing the growth of what bad cells are already present. Often times tumor’s can be isolated, minimizing their destruction and size. The third level of treatment is known as palliative care, which aims to ease the symptoms caused by a disease. Often a cure or even the ability to control cancer isn’t an option, but therapies including cannabis still exist to address the pain, weight loss, sleeplessness, nausea and weakness associated with the condition.

It’s not only important to define what treatment actually means when dealing with this disease, but also what exactly cancer is. All of us actually have cancerous cells inside of us right now. Every human cell has a life cycle at which point it needs to be replicated. Things go wrong from time to time in this process, but the system identifies errors using enzymes to either destroy or repair the bad cell before it has a chance to grow. 

What the general public knows as cancer is the point at which the correction system has failed. Cancerous cells are then able to replicate themselves and wreak havoc throughout the body. Even if the replication system gets brought back to normal, it can be too late. There may have been enough destructive cancerous cells created to take on a life of their own literally. 

Curing cancer is a matter of both destroying the existing errant cells and fixing the faulty cell replication system. The whole problem is very intricate., Various forms of cancer share similarities but also having many differences. Have you ever heard the expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” There’s a big advantage to keeping the replication system of the body’s cells functioning well enough to prevent allowing a significant amount of bad cells to slip by in the first place.  The more often cells are forced to replicate, the higher the chances of mistakes showing up in the form of cancer. Healthy lifestyle choices put less stress on cells which is why prevention is critical.

Prevention is one place where cannabis does fit in. CBD specifically seems to normalize the activity of the body’s endocannabinoid system which functions “like a ‘dimmer switch’ for presynaptic neurons, limiting the amount of neurotransmitter (e.g., dopamine) that gets released, which in turn affects how messages are sent, received, and processed by the cell.”1 Endocannabinoids also play a vital regulatory role in the secretion of hormones related to reproductive functions and response to stress. Taking CBD can aid in keeping the forces that accelerate cancer generation in the first place under control. 

THC also has evidence of being a potent antioxidant. Scientists hypothesize that this is why cannabis smokers don’t seem to suffer from lung conditions whereas tobacco users do. Cannabis is also a phenomenal medicine for palliative care easing both the symptoms of the disease and the side-effects of other treatments like chemotherapy. THC stimulates the appetite by reducing levels of the hunger hormone leptin. This can help those who have trouble eating during chemo. THC and CBD both help to ease related nausea through multiple pathways. CBD oil for cancer treatments is becoming more common. 

Cheyenne Shaw was 23 when she was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. Cannabis helped her immensely during her fight though she had believed it wasn’t a real medicine her entire life. “In fact,” she says, “even when I was on one of the more intense forms of chemo, called Doxil, for about seven rounds, the only side effect I got were blisters on my tongue from citrus. My doctors and nurses were shocked that I hadn’t gotten sick once from this chemo.” 

Cheyenne continues, “Another huge benefit of taking medical cannabis was that it helped with my appetite. After my surgeries, my stomach became very sensitive and small. I’d get full very quickly. I’d also get so frustrated with myself: I wanted to eat full meals, but my body just couldn’t handle it. I was already on a strict diet because of surgery, and with a sudden new allergy to dairy along with an ileostomy bag in place, I was losing weight very quickly.”2 

Chemotherapy left Cheyenne both exhausted and unable to sleep, at times for up to 72 hours, but the introduction of THC help her “go to sleep with no problems and wake up the next morning feeling well-rested–even on chemo days.”2

Cannabis is not a substitution for chemotherapy, but it is a valuable medicine to deal with side-effects while fighting cancer. The unique herb may also lead to an eventual medical breakthrough. Many important drugs have been based on natural compounds. In the paper Molecular Targets of the Phytocannabinoids-A Complex Picture, Dr. Paula Morales points out that we have only studied a few cannabinoids in-depth, but more than 120 have been isolated from the cannabis plant. Selective breeding has made THC and CBD more concentrated in marijuana than other cannabinoids, so until we have isolated and examined others in similar concentrations, it’s hard to say definitively what the potentials of cannabis oil are. For now, it can be seen as an excellent palliative and preventative, but unfortunately, it does not replace chemotherapy. Cannabis for cancer has a long history and should not be overlooked when seeking ways to cope with chemo side effects. 



“Endocannabinoids.” Sickle Cell Anemia Differential Diagnoses. January 26, 2018. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1361971-overview.

Goyal, H., U. Singla, U. Gupta, and E. May. “Role of Cannabis in Digestive Disorders.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports. February 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27792038.

2“I Tried Medical Cannabis During Chemo, and Here’s What Happened.” Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/ovarian-cancer/medical-cannabis-helped-me-beat-cancer#7.

Morales, Paula, Dow P. Hurst, and Patricia H. Reggio. “Molecular Targets of the Phytocannabinoids: A Complex Picture.” Progress in the Chemistry of Organic Natural Products Phytocannabinoids, 2017, 103-31. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-45541-9_4.

“Ovarian Cancer: Types, Diagnosis, and Treatment.” Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/ovarian-cancer.

1“The Science of the Endocannabinoid System: How THC Affects the Brain and the Body.” The Science of Marijuana: How THC Affects the Brain | Scholastic: Nida. http://headsup.scholastic.com/students/endocannabinoid.

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