When scientists first discovered that cannabinoids could be used to counteract the growth and spread of breast cancer cells, it opened a new and meaningful frontier in cannabis research.
This breast cancer awareness month, it’s important to recognize the new and significant role that medical cannabis now plays in the treatment of breast cancer, a disease that will affect one in every eight American women.
Cannabis and Breast Cancer Treatment
In over 30 states, medical cannabis can be used to ease the pain that comes with cancer and its various treatments. Often, cancer requires surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. These treatments help patients, but they come with some harsh side-effects, including pain, loss of appetite, fatigue, headaches, nausea, emesis (vomiting), and insomnia.
Medical cannabis has been used to successfully counter these side effects, and this is crucial in helping the patient endure while the curative treatment removes the cancer from the body. But, what about the possibility that medical cannabis could treat the cancer itself, and not just the symptoms?
Currently, there is a growing body of scientific work that supports the idea that oncologists can someday use the medicinal properties of cannabis to fight cancer. To understand the role medical cannabis can play in breast cancer treatment, it is important to know how cancer spreads throughout the body.
The Unregulated Growth of Cancer
The human body regenerates constantly. In a healthy body, new cells are made and old cells die. Many of the processes that take place inside of a cell are regulated by genes. Cancer is a genetic disease in the sense that it muddles up the body’s natural regulatory processes: instead of old cells dying, new cells are created when they aren’t needed, and those new cells may keep dividing. This unnecessary proliferation of cells forms a growth, called a tumor.
If a tumor is malignant, it will keep growing, eventually spreading to other parts of the body. When a tumor is metastatic, that means it has spread from the primary site, and it usually cannot be cured.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death for women in America, and once it metastasizes, it’s almost always fatal. Breast cancer is much easier to treat if detected early. This is why breast-cancer screening is so important. Most health insurance plans cover mammograms (X-rays of the breast), which can alert doctors and patients about the presence of a tumor long before it grows to the point where it can be felt.
Cannabidiol and Breast Cancer
The most promising research involving cannabis and breast cancer centers around the specific cannabinoid known as cannabidiol, or CBD. Strains of cannabis high in CBD are known for their many therapeutic benefits but few, if any, psychoactive effects.
Evidence from preclinical studies suggests that CBD interferes with invasion and metastasis, the two key mechanisms by which cancer grows and spreads. CBD does this by regulating one of the genes that is linked to the spread of breast cancer cells. This gene is known as Id-1.
In a normal cell, genes know when to produce proteins. If none are needed, none are produced. Known as gene expression, this is a tightly regulated process. In breast cancer cells, however, the Id-1 produces protein at an abnormally high rate. This overexpression of Id-1 is responsible for the proliferation and spread of cancer cells.
Studies show that CBD can be used to slow down Id-1 expression, which is associated with a reduction in the aggressiveness of malignant tumors. CBD can slow down the pace at which tumors grow, which may prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body. These remarkable findings have been built on, confirmed, and extended. There is now evidence that CBD can induce cell death in breast cancer cells and actually shrink the size of tumors.
These are the first steps in a long journey toward developing new therapeutic approaches to breast cancer. The potential efficacy of CBD, coupled with its nontoxic properties give hope that cannabis will yield less invasive treatments for patients. Understanding how CBD interacts with tumors is complicated, but the need to for new and less invasive therapies is not. Legislators need to lift bans on cannabis research so that its potential can be understood and put to use in the never-ending fight against cancer.