According to the website www.breastcancer.org, there are an estimated 3.1 million women in the United States with a history of breast cancer. It is the second most common cancer among women behind skin cancer, and has the highest death rate of any cancer apart from lung cancer.
Anyone who has been around breast cancer knows how difficult it is to see someone they love suffer from this disease. Treatments are accompanied by severe side effects, and if the cancer does go into remission, it may still return years or even months later. Radiation and chemotherapy cause hair loss, nausea, weight loss, and compromise the immune system; making ailments such as shingles and pneumonia much easier to contract. Surgeries such as mastectomies, in which the breast is removed, have become more refined and less noticeable in recent years, but are still incredibly intrusive surgical procedures and difficult for many women to go forward with.
Since 2000, there has been an estimated 7% decrease in the overall number of new breast cancer diagnoses, this is a promising statistic stemming from the reduction of hormone replacement therapy. Hormone replacement therapy is a treatment used by women going through menopause that has been linked to higher instances of breast cancer. While this drop is a hopeful sign that our understanding of breast cancer is progressing, there are still hundreds of thousands of women fighting breast cancer in this moment. New developments in the treatment of breast cancer are continually being made. Currently, researchers are beginning to take traditional medicines more seriously in the fight against breast cancer. Amongst these traditional medicines, the use of cannabis has shown some of the greatest potential. As one of the oldest known medicines in the world, cannabis has been shown to help in the treatment of breast cancer.
While attitudes continue to positively shift surrounding the medical potential of cannabis, new studies are being conducted, looking into the effectiveness of cannabis in helping to fight breast cancer. Various legal challenges make it difficult for researchers to conduct scientific studies into cannabis and therefore have put restrictions on the ability to fund these types of studies. However, those that do exist are promising. There is evidence that cannabis, in some cases, not only shrinks tumors, but helps other drugs used to treat cancer to be more effective.
This article gives a broad overview on the history of cannabis, from theories that cannabis may be one of the oldest plants cultivated by humans, to tracing the origins of its medical use as far back as ancient Chinese medicine. I will also look into the prohibition of cannabis, how cannabis interacts with the body, and new studies examining the benefits of cannabis in breast cancer treatments.
Cannabis, Civilization, and Medicine
One of the most well-known theoretical scientists of our time, was also a regular marijuana user. Carl Sagan produced many writings on the subject of cannabis, including an essay titled Mr X that was published by Harvard professor, Dr. Lester Grinspoon in his book Marihuana Reconsidered (1971). In the essay, Sagan details his experiences with marijuana. Firstly, he noted a heightened appreciation for art and music, two fields which he previously had little interest in, while cannabis was active in his system. Another benefit he described from cannabis was experiencing insights into social issues, another field of different from his own, in which he was able to recognize parallels while experiencing the psychoactive effects of cannabis. For those suffering from a serious illness, one of the greatest challenges is to maintain a good quality of life. Even if cannabis has no effect other than to bring a smile to a patient’s face, those suffering from serious illnesses should be able to choose for themselves if they wish to use cannabis.
Sagan later revisited the topic of cannabis in his 1977 book, The Dragons of Eden. In this work, Sagan delved into different theories surrounding the “Evolution of Human Consciousness.” The Marijuana plant is referenced several times throughout the book. One of the most daring theories he presents on cannabis is in a footnote where he writes, “It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.”
The footnote is in regard to a section on the Pygmy people of Africa, a tribe of hunter-gatherers who cultivate only one plant and that plant was cannabis. Pygmy culture has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. Therefore, it stands to reason that for thousands of years they have cultivated cannabis. The latter part of the quote alludes to a commonly held theory that the development of agriculture led our hunter-gatherer ancestors to create permanent settlements that eventually led to the creation of civilization. If this theory is true and cannabis was the first plant used agriculturally by humans, then it can be concluded that cannabis led to the creation of civilization.
If this theoretical hypothesis seems too far-fetched for you, let’s consider the archeological evidence from 10,000 years ago that tells of an ancient village that still exists in modern day Taiwan. Revealed amongst the site’s artifacts were shards of pottery that were made with hemp cords, and tools that greatly resemble modern tools used to break hemp stalks. Scientists generally agree that agriculture came into existence around this time, so the fact that there were hemp artifacts found amongst these 10,000 year old ruins helps to make the case that cannabis is, if not the oldest, one of the oldest plants cultivated agriculturally by humans.
In addition to theories regarding the role of cannabis in the evolution to modern consciousness and civilization, evidence has also been found that cannabis is one of the oldest medicines used by humans. Most of the oldest writings in the world come from China. This is especially true of medical texts, including the oldest known pharmacopoeia (medical encyclopedia of drugs) dating from the first century AD in China. In this writing, marijuana is described as a treatment for over a hundred aliments, many of which modern medical technology and sciences have proven to be true. This pharmacopoeia comes from even older legends that claim the Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, discovered the medical uses of cannabis, ginseng, and ephedra in 2700 BC. Before emperor Shen Nung, it was believed that cannabis was used in China and India as a ritual intoxicant and in healing ceremonies. Cannabis was also well-known to the ancient Greeks, whom, according to Herodotus, used cannabis steam baths for ritual purification.
Medical and ritual use of cannabis in Asia and India has continued to this day, however during the Middle Ages there was a sharp downturn in the use of medical cannabis in the western world. At that time, the demand for hemp fiber endured regardless of various iron-fisted factors, including Christian based religion that outlawed all sacraments other than wine. This led to a decline in the use of cannabis for medical purposes. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that medical cannabis began spreading westward into doctor’s offices. An Irish doctor by the name of William O’Shaughnessy was the first one to begin modern clinical testing on cannabis. He encountered the substance while in Calcutta and after performing tests on animals, he discovered what non-western people had known for thousands of years that the Marijuana plant was completely safe for human consumption. He went on to promote the use of cannabis as an analgesic, sedative, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and anticonvulsant.
The prohibition of cannabis in the United States
Doctors in the United States eventually began prescribing cannabis to patients in the late 1800s. Around this time it was considered to be one of the most promising therapeutic drugs on the market. This was until 1937, when the Federal Government passed the Marihuana Tax.  Even though the American Medical Association (AMA) was opposed to the tax, it was signed into law. The tax made it incredibly expensive to obtain and use cannabis for medicinal use. It also marked the first steps toward the prohibition of cannabis. Many speculate that this tax was lobbied by paper and cotton companies to destroy the more cost-efficient hemp industry. Hemp offered fiber and paper at a fraction of the cost of cotton and tree pulp. At the time, hemp was primarily grown in Mexico and anti-immigrant racism played a role in the passing of the tax. Another theory as to why cannabis became the focus of prohibitionists, is that after the prohibition of alcohol ended, those working in prohibition offices feared they would lose their jobs. They used cannabis as the scapegoat to keep their jobs. This was also around the time when propaganda, such as Reefer Madness started coming out. The film Reefer Madness depicted teenagers turning into homicidal monsters as a result of using cannabis. Many of these negative stereotypes fabricated negative opinions on cannabis resulting in a stigma that has survived to the present day. At the time of the Marihuana Tax the American Medical Association took issue mistakenly took issue with non-empirical evidence purporting cannabis to be a harmful drug. This was another factor that impeded research into the drug.
In 1943, cannabis was removed from the United States pharmacopoeia due to these falsified claims of its potential harms. This was followed by the 1951 Boggs Act that listed cannabis as a narcotic and consequently the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 officially made cannabis a Schedule I drug, a classification in which cannabis remains to this day. According to the Controlled Substance Act, a Schedule I drug has no known medical value and a high potential for abuse. Both of which are ludicrous in the case of cannabis. The Controlled Substance Act was actually passed to disrupt and harass radical political groups that sprung up during the 1960s. This included anti-Vietnam War movements, as well as Civil Rights groups. With the law in place federal agents could raid homes and throw leaders in jail under the guise of drug enforcement. Multiple advisors unsuccessfully attempted to convince Nixon to remove cannabis from the list, presenting him with a plethora of evidence showing the medical uses of cannabis. It was however deemed more politically and financially advantageous for the President to deny countless Americans of affordable and effective medicine.
Furthermore, the 1937 Marihuana Tax made it very difficult to study cannabis. Following the Controlled Substance Act medical studies on cannabis became almost impossible. To this day the hoops that researchers must jump through in order to study cannabis are absurd. Instead of being able to go out and study any cannabis out there, on the market or otherwise, researchers are required to go through the National Institute on Drug Abuse to obtain research grade cannabis. The National Institute on Drug Abuse handed a monopoly to the University of Mississippi for the production of research grade cannabis. All other sources of cannabis for research is illegal. Only cannabis grown by the University of Mississippi can be used in official scientific studies. This is problematic for a number of reasons, such as the fact that the cannabis being studied is not the cannabis that people are actually using in their day to day life. These regulations also make it hard to develop baselines for cannabis research, as every plant differs and there are so many variables in the specific make up of cannabis. Even in a state where cannabis has been legalized, if a researcher wants to perform a scientific study they must go through the National Institute of Drug Abuse to obtain research grade cannabis.
In spite of these hurdles there was a resurgence of research into cannabis in the 1980s and 1990s. During this time a number of breakthroughs were made, including the identification of the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a network of receptors throughout the body that regulate a wide range of functions, such as mood, appetite, immune system function, sleep, and pain management. Without the study of cannabis we would have never learned about this system. Our bodies contain more endocannabinoid receptors than any other receptors. Researchers are beginning to learn how a healthy endocannabinoid system can lead to better overall health and help treat a number of ailments. Cannabis interacts with the endocannabinoid system through constituents called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are a significant portion of the chemical compounds found in cannabis. About a hundred different cannabinoids have been identified in the plant. Much of our research has been on the two most common, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). Of these, it is THC that is responsible for the psychoactive effects when cannabis is used. CBD on the other hand is non-psychoactive and is thought to have a plethora of therapeutic uses. During the 1980s the individual receptors that respond to THC and CBD were discovered by researchers. They named these CB1, found primarily in the brain, and CB2, found primarily in the immune system. CB1 receptors appear to be the receptors that interact with THC and cause the high of cannabis, while CB2 receptors interact with CBD and is thought to be responsible for many of the therapeutic properties of cannabis.
While many states decriminalized cannabis beginning in the 1970s, medical marijuana was first legalized for use in California in 1996. As of today, 29 states and Washington DC have legalized medical marijuana. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. In the following years an additional 7 states legalized medical and recreational marijuana. A considerable number of conservative states like Indiana have also legalized the use of CBD products for treatment of epilepsy. Even with CBD being legal in Indiana, a recent article, describes how a Child Protective Services worker attempted to take away a family’s 2 year old daughter, because they were using CBD oil to treat her seizures. Disturbing stories such as this one show that we still have a long way to go before the medical uses of cannabis are fully accepted in our society.
How do Cannabinoids work?
It is only in the past few decades that researchers have really begun to understand how the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoids work. Having identified two main receptors, the CB1 and CB2 receptors, researchers are beginning to understand where and how to study the effects of cannabis. Many researchers believe that a third receptor somewhere in the body that has yet to be discovered.
An interesting property of cannabinoids that distinguishes them from other neurotransmitters is that they work postsynaptically. Neurotransmitters usually send a signal through a neuron that then activates a response in the dendrites of the postsynaptic neuron. The process is reversed in the case of the endocannabinoid system. The reaction, known as retrograde neurotransmission, begins at the postsynaptic receptor and then sends messages back through to the presynaptic receptor, essentially creating a feedback loop that does more to regulate the function of the neurons than to signal information.
Researchers are still working out how retrograde neurotransmission works, but some believe that it plays a role in long-term potentiation. The result of long-term potentiation reveals there is a strengthening between two neurons, which is believed to be part of functions such as learning and memory. This may be why cannabis often affects the memory and why it also may have potential in treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
When cannabis is consumed through smoking, vapor, ingestion, or otherwise, most of the cannabinoids are processed in the liver.
As previously mentioned, the two main receptors, or endocannabinoids, have been found in the endocannabinoid system. The first of these, CB1, is mainly found in the brain and reacts with THC. It is this receptor and its interaction with the brain stem that has been linked to the anti nausea properties of cannabis that helps those undergoing chemotherapy. It is also this receptor that affects pain management when it interacts with spinal cord.
Meanwhile, the CB2 receptor has been found throughout the immune system, appearing to be highly concentrated in the spleen, the organ known to behave as a blood filter and storage space for white blood cells. The CB2 receptor has been linked to the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabinoids and is further thought to help in the regulation and homeostasis of the immune system. For this reason, it is thought that cannabinoids may be able to help in the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that inflames the nervous system. These receptors are thought to hold some of the greatest potential in continuing cannabinoid research.
Cannabis and the treatment of Breast Cancer
There is very little scientific study into how cannabis can be used to treat breast cancer and we need the results of ongoing and long term studies. A wide range of clinical studies need to be undertaken before more conclusive claims can be made, but there is beginning to emerge a large amount of anecdotal evidence supporting the use of cannabis, and especially CBD in treating breast cancer. One of the most appealing aspects of CBD is that it lacks any of the psychoactive side effects associated with full plant extracts of cannabis such as Rick Simpson Oil. There is however, evidence that Rick Simpson Oil and other full plant extracts are also effective in treating certain forms of cancer. THC is also thought to help limit side effects of cancer treatments such as nausea related to chemotherapy.
When recommended by doctors, cannabis serves to help manage the symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment. This includes appetite stimulation, pain reduction, and improved sleep. There are two drugs on the market made pharmaceutical companies with synthetic cannabinoids that are prescribed to help with these symptoms. A study that did show promise for CBD was a California based study, in which CBD was found to inhibit one of the genes known to cause metastasis in breast cancer tumors. This means that it helps keep the tumor from spreading to other areas of the body. Other reports from patients medicating with cannabis oil have reported reduction in tumor size. There is also evidence that cannabis can help the effectiveness of other drugs when used in combination to treat breast cancer. In trials on mice and rats CBD has been shown to have potential anti-tumor effects. This may be a result of CBD causing the induction of cell death and the inhibition of cell growth.
Since it has very few side effects, which typically diminish quickly, the risk to reward ratio of cannabis makes one think, why not try it? If you or someone you love is undergoing treatment for cancer, ask your doctor if cannabis can help you to better deal with the adverse effects of those treatments. More research needs to be done, but it seems that someday soon cannabis will play a major role in the treatment of various forms of cancer including breast cancer.