CBD is 1 of the hundreds of chemicals found in the flowering cannabis plant. CBD does not have the psychoactive, or mind-altering, effects of another chemical found in cannabis called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the chemical that causes people to experience a “high.” CBD, on the other hand, is being used by some to help ease pain, anxiety, and sleep issues.
You may find stories online of people discussing the benefits of CBD as a cancer treatment or as relief for side effects. Please remember that such personal stories, while they may be well-meaning, are shared without scientific study and do not constitute evidence. The safety and efficacy of CBD for people with cancer still has to be proven in large, randomized, controlled clinical trials.
What is CBD?
Cannabidiol, also known as CBD, is one of many chemicals found in the cannabis plant. It has been touted in some online forums as an alternative treatment, and even a cure, for many illnesses, including cancer. And, some people with cancer say that CBD has helped them as a complementary therapy in managing their symptoms and side effects from standard cancer treatment.
There is currently 1 CBD treatment approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called Epidiolex, which is used to treat a rare and severe form of epilepsy in children. There are not currently any FDA-approved CBD medications for treating cancer or side effects of cancer treatments.
There have been some studies that show that CBD, alone or together with THC, may relieve pain, insomnia, or anxiety, but these studies were not specific to people with cancer. While no studies to date have shown that CBD eases these side effects specifically in people with cancer or people receiving cancer treatment, some people with cancer have reported benefits in taking CBD, such as helping with nausea, vomiting, depression, and other side effects. According to ASCO guidelines, your doctor may consider prescribing cannabinoids for chronic pain management if you live in a state where it is legal. However, ASCO guidelines state that there is not enough evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for preventing nausea and vomiting in people with cancer receiving radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
Researchers are looking into Sativex as a treatment for cancer related symptoms.
Sativex is a cannabis-based medicine. It is licensed in the UK for people with Multiple Sclerosis muscle spasticity that hasn’t improved with other treatments. Sativex is a liquid that you spray into your mouth.
CBD oil comes from the flowers of the cannabis plant and does not contain the psychoactive substance THC. It can be sold in the UK as a food supplement but not as a medicine. There is no evidence to support its use as a medicine.
The results of one trial showed that Sativex did not improve pain levels. You can read the results of the trial on our clinical trials website.
A Cochrane review in 2015 looked at all the research available looking into cannabis based medicine as a treatment for nausea and sickness in people having chemotherapy for cancer. It reported that many of the studies were too small or not well run to be able to say how well these medicines work. They say that they may be useful if all other medicines are not working.
CBD oil comes as a liquid or in capsules.
You could talk with your cancer specialist about the possibility of joining a clinical trial. Trials can give access to new drugs in a safe and monitored environment.
The law also establishes retail licenses, opening the door for dispensaries selling marijuana online and in retail stores.
Dr. Hou: We need more research to assess the safety and effects of CBD. And we need to take a closer look at potential herb-drug interactions, which is especially important for people receiving chemotherapy.
Should people with cancer consider using marijuana for anxiety or to ease side effects from treatment?
Dr. Raghunathan: It is possible that CBD could have a benefit with symptoms of anxiety, poor sleep, and pain. CBD has been studied a lot in the laboratory and in mice but far less in humans. Right now there are some studies that are evaluating CBD as a part of cancer treatment, but none of those have had significant results. The studies that do show a benefit with CBD are for specific epilepsy syndromes in children.
Dr. Raghunathan: CBD is not psychoactive in the same way that marijuana is. It doesn’t act on the cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system, which is how THC works. However, it is possibly psychoactive because it works on serotonin receptors, and anything that affects mood is psychoactive. CBD has been studied in mice and seems to affect sleep-wake cycles. But CBD can be unexpectedly psychoactive and sedative because it’s not well-regulated. Studies have shown that some products that claim to be pure CBD actually have THC and other dangerous contaminants, such as opioids.
Dr. Raghunathan: Medical marijuana contains THC and that requires certification in states that allow for medical marijuana. In New York, people with cancer are allowed to use medical marijuana in the form of capsules, liquids, oils, powder, and patches for the skin. There is medical cannabis that can be vaped, but not medical-grade marijuana leaf that can be smoked. Medical marijuana providers must be registered with the New York State Department of Health’s Medical Marijuana Program. The restrictions in New York state are changing, but we don’t know how just yet.