Research suggests that cannabis may have the efficacy to treat an array of conditions, and cancer is frequently at the top of that list. In addition to the palliative care facilitated by cannabinoid interactions with the endocannabinoid system, there is evidence suggesting that cannabis can actually stop the proliferation of cancer cells. The problem with existing research is that there is not enough of it—there is a multitude of cancer diagnoses, and cannabis may interact differently with each.
An Overview of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is the uninhibited growth of skin cells that have been damaged by UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds. The ensuing cell mutations multiply cell production at a rapid pace and can lead to the formation of malignant tumors. There are several forms of skin cancer.
Actinic keratosis (AK) is a precancerous slow-developing, crusty growth. It is triggered by exposure to UV radiation, and if left untreated, can evolve into cancer. AK typically appears on areas of the skin that are exposed to sunlight (or artificial UV radiation from tanning beds) such as the face, shoulders, or arms. AK starts off small, sometimes only distinguishable by touching it. It can also recede only to reemerge later. The growth may itch, become inflamed, or bleed.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common of all cancers. Because it very rarely metastasizes, it is not considered life-threatening cancer. However, if left untreated, it can cause permanent disfigurations. BCCs appear as open sores and/or shiny, red growths on the skin. They are the result of sun exposure.
Melanoma is the most dangerous of all skin cancers, claiming about 10,130 lives in the United States each year. It is the result of occasional but intense exposure to the sun, often the kind that results in sunburns. Melanomas look like moles and may even develop out of moles. In fact, people with atypical moles are at an increased risk of developing melanoma. Because melanoma does metastasize, it is important that it is caught and treated early.
Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare but highly aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer. It is fatal for one-third of the patients who receive the diagnosis, though people are 40 times less likely to develop MCC than they are melanoma. Fair-skinned people over the age of 50 are the most vulnerable population to develop MCC.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common form of skin cancer resulting from a lifetime of intense sun exposure. SCC can appear anywhere on the body, but most commonly on areas that are exposed to the sun. The growths may look like warts, raised areas of the skin with central depressions, scaly red rashes, or open lesions. Though this type of cancer is common, it is very treatable and not fatal—over one million people are diagnosed with SCC a year, and up to 8,800 people die from it annually.
The loudest evidence supporting the use of cannabis to treat skin cancer has been anecdotal. One of the most well-known proponents is a former cancer patient himself, Rick Simpson. Simpson was one of the rare patients whose basal cell carcinoma metastasized. He decided to take his health into his own hands and created a cannabis oil which he applied directly to his skin cancer. After doing this for a few days, his cancer was gone. While this story is difficult to believe, Simpson has demonstrated nothing but sincerity in his attempts to educate the world on the benefits of cannabis in treating cancer. Instead of selling the oil he used to heal himself, Simpson has published the recipe for free and encourages patients to make it themselves so that they can know with certainty that they are indeed using the real thing.
Simpson has claimed to save countless lives, and there is an extensive amount of testimonials upholding his claim. The problem is that, while these stories are encouraging and very likely point to something scientifically sound, there isn’t enough research out there to guide patients and their healthcare providers in their decisions involving cannabis treatment.
The Medical Research Concludes That… We Need More Research
There is a paucity of research on cannabis and cancer, and when it comes to skin cancers, there simply are not any clinical trials investigating the question of cannabis’ medical efficacy on the condition. However, there is some research on cannabis’ effects on cancer in general as well its place in dermatology.
In 2003, Nature Reviews Cancer published a study concluding that, in addition to the palliative care offered to cancer patients suffering from nausea and pain, the cannabinoids present in cannabis may have the ability to inhibit the growth of tumor cells in animal models.
In a groundbreaking research review called “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids” published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in January 2017, researchers concluded that there is substantial evidence supporting the use of cannabis to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and chronic pain, two conditions related to cancer treatment. The report also determined that “there is no or insufficient evidence to support or refute the conclusion that cannabis or cannabinoids are an effective treatment for cancers.” The report also called for a loosening of current regulatory hurdles to the advancement of cannabis research, including the plant’s federal designation as a Schedule I substance.
A March 2018 analysis published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine concluded that cannabis is a well-tolerated palliative treatment for breast, lung, pancreatic, and colorectal cancer patients, the majority of whom were in stage 4 of the disease. This study did not investigate the plant’s ability to cure cancer, but its ability to mitigate the painful symptoms of malignancy. Of the 1,211 cancer patients who completed the survey, 95.9 percent reported an improvement in their condition.
In October 2017, the Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery published a report highlighting the potential risks and benefits of using cannabis in the dermatology clinic. The report stated that “there are several approved medical indications for cannabis use, including psoriasis, lupus, nail-patella syndrome, and severe pain. In addition, very preliminary studies have suggested cannabis and its derivatives might have use in acne, dermatitis, pruritus, wound healing, and skin cancer. Further well-controlled studies are required to explore these potential uses.”
As long as cannabis retains its classification as federal contraband, it will be exceedingly difficult to conduct the research necessary to determine exactly where cannabis belongs in our health care. What preliminary research and anecdotal evidence suggest is that, without a doubt, there is a place for medicinal cannabis. It’s just up to Congress to make room.