Cannabinoids Show Promise for Cancer Patients
Braden Stevenson, a 17-year-old living in Longmont, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2016. A year later, after several rounds of chemo, doctors told him the disease was chemo-resistant and that it had actually grown as a result of the therapy, making any surgery overly hazardous. With nothing left to do, the doctors estimated Braden had a year to live.
Braden’s mother, Amy Ronzani, who works as a medical assistant, refused to accept this diagnosis and began to research alternative treatments. Almost immediately she heard stories of cannabinoids being used to successfully fight cancer. Despite warnings from her son’s doctors that the cannabinoids could have a negative reaction with the chemo, she figured she and Braden had nothing to lose and went searching for medicinal dispensaries.
Three months later, after Braden had been taking roughly 60 milligrams of THC pills and CBD oil each day, medical tests showed the cancerous pulmonary nodes in Braden’s lungs had stabilized and begun to calcify. Another four months later, the cancerous nodes had shrunk by a factor of eight.
This past September, Braden underwent another round of tests that showed the nodules were continuing to shrink even though two new, very small cancerous nodes had appeared.
Despite that minor setback, Ronzani remains confident the cannabinoids have kept her son alive and that the new nodes are simply a result of the aggressive strain of cancer affecting him. Despite the doctor’s prognosis, he turned 18 Monday.
“In hindsight, I’m really bummed that I waited to the point of the doctors saying there’s nothing else we can do to start using cannabinoids,” she said. “I always go back to ‘what if I had done this from the beginning? Would Braden have had to go through an entire year of chemo and feeling like crap?’”
Medical uses for millennia
While Ronzani said Braden’s doctors consider his recovery miraculous, the use of cannabinoids is not a novel treatment in other parts of the world.
According to the National Cancer Society, humans have known about the medicinal properties of the substances for millennia.
Chinese legends say Emperor Shen Neng, one of the first major leaders in the ancient world, in 2737 B.C. prescribed marijuana tea to treat various illnesses, including gout, rheumatism, malaria, and poor memory. Its medical properties are even mentioned in the fourth book of the Vedas, ancient Indian texts from around 2,000 B.C.
In 200 A.D. Hua Tuo, a Chinese surgeon, is the first recorded physician to use cannabis as an anesthetic during surgery. During the Middle Ages in Europe, cannabis was used in folk medicine to treat tumors, cough and jaundice. American doctors even studied the medicinal effects of cannabinoids up through the 1970s before the federal government designated it as a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use.
Despite that history, doctors today are wary of prescribing it as part of a treatment due to a lack of modern clinical studies.
“Since 1975 we have scientific literature about the cancer-fighting potential of cannabinoids, but a lot of them are rat studies,” said Dr. Gary Goodman, an integrative medicine physician at the UCHealth Cancer Center in Fort Collins. “Testimonials and anecdotes are always interesting, but it’s hard for me to tell another patient ‘you should do this because this one patient had that.’ I really prefer to see a trial of multiple patients in a similar situation, some of which are given the substance, and some of which are not.”
The irony is that because marijuana is a Schedule I drug in America, it can be difficult getting permission to study it here, keeping any possible applications out of the public eye.
However, since being legalized in 32 states for medicinal purposes, a growing number of “miracle testimonials” like Braden’s have begun to ease the stigma around cannabinoids and prompt further experimentation — albeit mainly by desperate patients.
The good news, Goodman said, is that as more and more of these testimonials begin to stack up, there appears to be “a chipping away of this ridiculousness about how terrible cannabis is” in the medical community.
Promoting natural cell death
The first chip came in June when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its first CBD-based medicine, epidiolex, which helps with rare forms of epilepsy.
“This approval serves as a reminder that advancing sound development programs that properly evaluate active ingredients contained in marijuana can lead to important medical therapies,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottliebwrote in a statement.
“But, at the same time, we are prepared to take action when we see the illegal marketing of CBD-containing products with serious, unproven medical claims. Marketing unapproved products, with uncertain dosages and formulations, can keep patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”
While studies on cannabinoids continue to be spurned in America, scientists in Europe have shown that cannabinoids can reduce the growth and spread of cancerous cells by triggering processes in the brain known as apoptosis and autophagy.
By promoting natural cell death, apoptosis and autophagy rid the body of unhealthy cells that are unable to fight off cancer and return a sort of natural balance to a patient’s brain chemistry that reduces the likelihood of cancer returning — especially when used in conjunction with more traditional therapies, such as chemotherapy or surgery, that kill many of the affected cells in one fell swoop.
It’s kind of like the Marines going into a war zone and eliminating all of the really dangerous factions before the U.N. peacekeeping forces arrive to oversee a healthy transition of power.
The first human testing to study these effects took place in Israel in 2006. Of the nine subjects whose glioblastoma multiforme had previously proved resistant to standard therapies like surgery and radiotherapy, two saw their tumors shrink after THC was directly injected into their tumors, even though all nine patients died eventually from the advanced stages of their disease. .
While this certainly does not prove that cannabinoids can cure cancer, it does show signs of promise and has prompted further study, particularly in terms of using cannabinoids as an adjunct to conventional anticancer drugs.
A study conducted earlier this year in Spain reported that “observations from the study on pancreatic adenocarcinoma showed that gemcitabine (a type of chemo) administered with cannabinoids synergistically inhibited cancer cell growth.”
‘Nothing to lose’
David Threlfall, owner of Trill Alternatives, the medical dispensary in Boulder that helped Braden Stevenson, has a file cabinet full of medical examinations showing miraculous recoveries by clients using cannabinoids to supplement their care.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a cure for cancer, and it doesn’t work for everybody, but using THC and CBD can be very beneficial if used in the right way,” he said. “It’s really important that if people are going to be using this as a medicine, they should come to an established space so you can understand what you’re taking and how you’re taking it.”
While he’s the first to say that he is not a doctor, after years of research following his mother’s death from cancer, Threlfall devised a regimen for his clients that appears to be working. Rather than just using various forms of cannabinoids at will, he sets them up on a carefully thought- out program in which patients micro-dose throughout the day to bring about the desired cancer-fighting effects of apoptosis and autophagy, without making them “loopy.”
Henry Aguire, another of Threlfall’s clients, has had cancer three times. Having already gone through several rounds of chemo and surgery, only to have the cancer return, when the cancer in his thyroid and lymph nodes spread to his lungs in 2012 and doctors gave him a year to live, he decided he had nothing to lose by trying THC and CBD.
Working with Threlfall, Aguire determined the most effective dose for him was one-tenth of a milliliter of hash oil, 20 milliliters of a form of THC that does not have psychotropic affects, and 100 milligrams of CBD oil.
Six months later, when Aguire went back to the hospital to start treatment for the lung cancer, he said his doctors were amazed to see that it had stabilized. Six years later, he’s “doing just fine.”
“Every single doctor I saw told me it’s not clinically proven so use it at your own risk, and it sends everybody into a tailspin that scares them into not using it,” he said. “From a recreational standpoint I don’t believe in it, but from a medicinal standpoint, you better believe I believe in it. Spending a lot of time in hospitals over the years, I’ve seen a lot of things with cannabis that would shock you.”
The Facebook page “Green Oil Machine users group” is filled with similar testimonies. But without scientific evidence proving the cancer-fighting potential of cannabinoids, most American doctors stick to using cannabinoids for palliative care rather than a treatment itself.
“What we know is that THC is very useful for cancer symptom management and diminishing the need for pain management,” Goodman, the integrative medicine physician at the UCHealth Cancer Center, said.
“The best way for it to be used is as an adjunct, as long as the oncologist knows about it. It’s important for people who have cancer to talk with a pharmacologist to separate the information from the misinformation before going forward. But I don’t think it hurts anything in general if it’s a clean, governmentally inspected product.”
John Spina: 303-473-1389, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jsspina24