CBD is in our lattes, moisturisers, and chocolates, but what about its use in a hospital setting instead of your local café or beauty shop? Although more study is needed, research suggests that CBD may have the potential to help relieve certain side effects of chemotherapy.
CBD is short for cannabidiol, which is one of the many compounds found in cannabis and hemp. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it’s non-psychoactive. Manufacturers have found a way to separate CBD from the plants, and the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (aka the Farm Bill) legalised hemp-derived CBD that contains no more than 0.3% THC and is made from hemp grown by licensed producers. (That’s why you’ve seen so many CBD products recently.) But so far, the Food and Drug Administration has only approved one form of CBD: Epidiolex, a drug containing a purified marijuana-derived form of CBD, which is used for preventing seizures caused by rare forms of epilepsy.
However, medical marijuana — which contains CBD as well as THC and other compounds — has been used by cancer patients for many years. In 1996, California became the first state to legalise marijuana for medical use. And although marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, it’s currently legal for medical use in 33 states — and it's approved for use by cancer patients in every state in which medical marijuana is legal. (For comparison, medical marijuana is approved for use by patients with Crohn’s disease in only 27 states.) Additionally, the FDA has approved two chemically pure drugs based on marijuana compounds to treat nausea and vomiting in cancer chemotherapy patients.
A 2016 review of medical marijuana’s use in oncology, published by the American Medical Association journal JAMA Oncology, notes, “Marijuana in oncology may have potential for use as an antiemetic [relieving nausea and vomiting], for refractory cancer pain, and as an anti-tumour agent. However, much of the data are based on animal data, small trials, or are outdated.” The authors concluded that more research is needed into medical marijuana’s therapeutic use for cancer patients.
There is even less research into CBD’s potential benefits for cancer patients. But still, some studies have been conducted. According to the National Cancer Institute, research indicates that CBD may slow the growth or reduce the risk of recurrence of certain kinds of cancers, including breast cancer; enhance the potency of certain medications; and reduce chemotherapy side effects including vomiting, nausea, and anxiety. However, all these studies are limited, and experts agree that further research is needed to understand just how CBD affects humans.
The American Cancer Society stresses that cannabis in any form should never be used as a sole form of cancer treatment. In a statement, they urge for more research into the use of cannabinoids for cancer patients and add, “Medical decisions about pain and symptom management should be made between the patient and his or her doctor, balancing evidence of benefit and harm to the patient, the patient’s preferences and values, and any laws and regulations that may apply.”
While CBD is non-psychoactive, it may cause a negative reaction when paired with certain medications. If you are a cancer patient who is interested in trying CBD (or medical marijuana, if it’s legal in your state) to relieve pain or chemotherapy side effects, talk with your doctor about the potential risks, benefits, and legality.