CBD and Cancer: What the research tells us

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CBD is known to help treat varying forms of physical and mental pain and stress because of its natural effects on certain receptors throughout the body and brain. CBD has also been shown to help treat skin issues and seizures caused by epilepsy. With all its known health benefits, CBD has also become an avenue of promise for cancer treatments and therapies, but what has research shown us so far about CBD and cancer and what does the future of CBD and cancer research look like?

Many signs – or in this case, studies – show great potential in how CBD may help people living with cancer manage some symptoms of the disease, as well as side effects of traditional cancer treatments. First, the facts. Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death worldwide. In Canada alone, it was estimated that in 2020, 617 Canadians on average would be diagnosed with cancer every day, and on average, 228 Canadians would die from cancer every day. There are more than 100 types of cancers, but the most common types include breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer and colon and rectal cancer.

What is cancer exactly?

Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells develop and spread in the body. The human body is made up of trillions of cells that contain genes that direct or tell each cell to grow, work, divide and even die. The direction from the genes sometimes doesn’t work well or gets mixed up, which causes the cells to grow and divide uncontrollably. When abnormal cells grow and divide, they can form tumours, but it’s important to note that not all tumours are cancer. Non-cancerous (benign) tumours have cells that don’t spread and don’t usually return after they are removed. 

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Cancer can occur in any part of the body, and cancers are named after the part of the body where they start. The cause of cancers and the various types can be a mix of risk factors; smoking, sun exposure, obesity, age, chemicals, infections, and genetics are just a few of the risk factors that can lead to cancer. However, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, about 4 in 10 cancer cases can be prevented through healthy lifestyles.

Common cancer therapies and their side effects

No matter the type, the most common cancer treatments are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Other treatments include hormonal therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy and stem cell transplants. Cancer treatment will vary depending on the type of cancer a person has, their age, stage of cancer, and personal treatment preferences.

Chemotherapy helps to kill fast-growing cells, which makes chemotherapy treatment and drugs effective against cancer. However, they can also kill healthy growing cells, which causes side effects of the treatment or drugs. Common side effects include hair loss (as chemo kills hair follicles), nausea, fatigue, bruising and bleeding, and changes in appetite, among others.

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Radiation therapy kills cancer cells or slows their growth with high-energy beams by damaging their DNA. Common side effects of radiation include fatigue, skin reactions, and also changes in appetite. 

All treatments will impact people differently, not everyone’s experience is the same. Side effects may also be short-lived, clear up after treatment, or last throughout; it’s not necessarily possible to predict how someone will react to treatments.

CBD and cancer treatments

Cannabinoids – naturally occurring active compounds found in cannabis or hemp – are currently being used by some cancer patients as part of palliative care to help alleviate pain, suppress nausea and stimulate appetite. There are currently 144 known cannabinoids; CBD is the second most prevalent cannabinoid found in cannabis, next only to THC. CBD offers a host of therapeutic benefits for the mind and body without the psychoactive effects of THC (meaning it won’t get you high).

A recent study found that CBD could boost or enhance traditional cancer treatments. The study found that CBD positively affects cancer cells in how they react with the endocannabinoid system and when combined with some more common cancer drugs, may create a synergy that enhances the positive effects of the drugs. 

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) is a biological system that helps to regulate and balance processes in the body, including immune response, communication between cells, sleep, mood, appetite and metabolism, memory, and even fertility and reproduction. CBD stimulates ECS receptor responses that create calming or therapeutic effects for the mind and body. 

The reaction created by CBD and the ECS is an area of interest for cancer researchers and scientists. One study found that CBD can effectively reduce tumour growth, however, the anti-tumour effects are dependent on the cancer type and drug dose or concentration. The study says CBD can interact with components of the ECS or other cellular pathways and can therefore affect the development and even progression of certain diseases, including cancer.

CBD is also an immunosuppressant, meaning CBD helps to reduce the immune system’s inflammatory response, promoting apoptosis, and preventing rapid cellular growth. These effects of CBD on the immune system are also a potential benefit as a supplement to other cancer therapies and drugs.

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A study published in 2016 found that CBD and other cannabinoids not only have anti-tumour effects, which may help prevent cancer cells from spreading or growing but also discovered that CBD helps to relieve common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, in particular pain, lack of appetite and nausea.

As mentioned above, radiation therapy can cause skin reactions in some cancer patients. Inflammation is the body’s immune response to foreign substances entering the body, which is one reason radiation can cause skin issues. Inflammation on the skin can manifest in different ways, and as an anti-inflammatory agent, CBD may help to reduce the side effects of radiation on the skin. Whether applied topically through CBD cream or balm or taken as an ingestible like CBD oil, CBD is able to migrate immune cells responsible for inflammation.

The anti-inflammatory effects of CBD don’t only work for the skin, but also help to reduce muscle and joint pain, which would be beneficial to some cancer patients depending on the type of medications and therapies they are undergoing. A study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has linked CBD and its ability to reduce side effects associated with chemotherapy, which include pain, vomiting and reduced appetite.

National Cancer Institute CBD and Cancer

There are no indications that CBD can cure cancer or even help to prevent it. However, from the evidence and research discovered so far, researchers say CBD can help to enhance the effects of cancer treatments while also being able to help those with cancer better handle side effects from common cancer therapies. There are still quite a few unknowns, and while CBD has been proven safe for most people, incorporating CBD oil or other products as health supplements to current cancer treatments should be done in coordination with your doctor or specialists. 

In all, CBD and cancer research is ongoing but has promising findings so far. As more information is found and as interest in the area grows, more positive news for CBD and cancer may soon be reality.

Is one type of CBD better than another for cancer treatment? 

No conclusive facts, however, full spectrum CBD oils and other products contain the full spectrum (more than 100) cannabinoids and terpenes that work together to achieve pain relieving effects as the body is able to benefit from the entire plant – this is known as the Entourage Effect

When looking for the best CBD product for cancer, it’s important to consider personal preferences and the type of pain or side effects you’re trying to treat. 

When choosing a full spectrum CBD, consider the suggested dosage, extraction processes and contents to help you find the best one for you that will contain the right level of CBD to relieve your pain. These oils contain different combinations of compounds and it’s a slow but steady process of trying out different products that will help you find the right one. The variety of CBD products, from oils to topicals and more give those wanting to try CBD different options that would suit personal preferences and health needs.

CBD’s therapeutic effects for mental and physical ailments are helping to treat different types of pain for many people. Its ability to naturally react with the body’s ECS along with its antitumor and anti-inflammatory components provide strong support for its ability to help those with cancer and going through cancer treatments. CBD continues to be a go-to natural alternative for pain relief and other ailments but shouldn’t be used as a replacement. There are a ton of benefits CBD provides and how they can continue to help with cancer is still yet to be fully discovered, but research so far shows promise.

Written by Rosalyn Solomon

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