Cancer sucks. It’s an unpredictable, unfair, and unmerciful illness that 39.6% of men and women will be diagnosed with at some point in their lifetimes. Most of the time, chemotherapy drugs are able to destroy rapidly proliferating cancer cells and are responsible for saving many lives; however, despite its therapeutic potential, chemotherapy kind of sucks too. Chemo can affect all of the body’s systems and make life unbearable for those receiving treatment.

Physical Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs can damage cells in the bone marrow, resulting in anemia. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, mental fogginess, and faintness. Chemo can also lower the white blood cell count, making patients more susceptible to infection.

Certain chemo drugs can even affect the heart’s rhythm, causing arrhythmia or increasing the likelihood of heart attack

Chemotherapy can also have a detrimental effect on the nervous system. Some drugs can cause memory deterioration, fogginess, or confusion. It can also result in nerve pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling, resulting cannabis and chemotherapyin slowed reflexes and motor skills and a loss of balance and coordination.

Chemo can have a major effect on the digestive system. Some patients complain of mouth sores, a coating on the tongue, an unpleasant taste, and, perhaps most well-known, nausea and decreased appetite.

Chemotherapy drugs may also result in temporary or permanent infertility in both men and women. In women, it can cause early menopause or unusually heavy menstrual flow. It can also cause vaginal dryness and pain during intercourse.

The Emotional Side Effects of Chemotherapy

The many physical side effects of chemotherapy take an emotional toll on patients. Chemo patients struggle with feelings of depression, fear, exhaustion, anxiety, and insecurity. Day to day activities like going to work, exercising, or hanging out with friends can become overwhelming.  For some, the mental war waged during chemotherapy is the worst symptom of all.

This is just a short list of the symptoms patients may experience from chemotherapy, and those are on top of whatever symptoms the cancer is causing.  Like I said… chemo helps, but it sucks, and researchers, patients, and doctors are all looking for ways to alleviate its symptoms or potentially replace it.

Cannabis and Chemotherapy

Though the American Cancer Society will not take an official position on the legalization of cannabis for medical use, it “supports the need for more scientific research on cannabinoids for cancer patients, and recognizes the need for better and more effective therapies that can overcome the often debilitating side effects of cancer and its treatment.”

While more research is always better, current research clearly demonstrates that cannabis ccannabis and chemotherapyan be an excellent source of relief for chemotherapy patients in addition to potentially being a treatment for cancer, too.  Studies show that both cannabidiol (CBD) and THC, two of the most widely studied cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant, can effectively reduce nausea and stimulate the appetite.  Additionally, cannabis has been found to reduce pain without compromising the efficacy of chemotherapy; moreover, cannabis was found to be more effective at treating patients with intractable pain that opioids.  That’s a huge deal given the current epidemic of opioid abuse taking over the country.  Finally, the anti-inflammatory properties in THC and CBD may be able to reduce chemo-induced swelling in the hands and feet of patients.

The therapeutic potential of cannabis to relieve the symptoms of chemotherapy is a big deal.

For one, cannabis reduces and even eliminates the need for patients to take pharmaceutical drugs that often come with uncomfortable or even debilitating side effects.  Furthermore, cannabis is one medicine.  Patients who are using cannabis to treat their symptoms don’t have to worry about drug interactions between the 10 other synthetic drugs prescribed to them by their doctors.  And cannabis is a relatively non-toxic, organic substance that we can’t overdose from and that, in some ways, seems to be made for our bodies.

In the early 1980’s, the endocannabinoid system was discovered by researchers, and it was a game changer.  Our endocannabinoid system is comprised of cannabinoids from external substances such as cannabis, endocannabinoids produced by our own brains, cannabinoid receptors located throughout our bodies, and the enzymes needed to break these substances down.  The endocannabinoid system’s primary function is to maintain homeostasis, so it regulates pretty much all of the day to day processes that we take for granted: breathing, mood, appetite, etc.  When our endocannabinoid systems are healthy and stimulated, we feel better, and that explains cannabis’ utility as medicine; it pretty much treats everything.

Some pharmaceutical companies have tried to tap into this great phenomenon by creating synthesized versions of cannabinoids, some of which have been FDA approved.

Synthetic versions of CBD or THC are not nearly as powerful as whole plant cannabis since they fail to initiate the “entourage effect,” or the benefits harnessed by the synergistic relationship between all of the compounds contained in the cannabis plant.

For example, studies show that whole plant cannabis has greater therapeutic utility than “pure” CBD, and this is probably because pure CBD lacks the benefits of THC and the terpenes inherent in the natural plant.  And both CBD and numerous terpenes including linalool, limonene, and pinene have been found to have anti-tumor properties, or the ability to kill cancer cells.  While more research needs to be done in this area, this suggests that cannabis could either replace or supplement chemotherapy.

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of cannabis is its ability to give chemo patients a mental break and an enhanced mood.  Patients and oncology doctors overwhelmingly believe that cannabis is an effective palliative treatment, and the increased quality of life it brings patients is a gift.  Cancer is unpredictable, difficult to control, and devastating.

While chemotherapy has been an important treatment of cancer, it produces debilitating side effects in patients that might go away once treatment is completed, but that can also have permanent effects.

Cannabis gives many patients hope and the sense that they can at least control some of the way they feel, and those are powerfully therapeutic weapons against cancer, especially when so much of the battle—the will to live, the strength to fight—is waged in a person’s soul.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.