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Is Cannabis a Viable Treatment for Melanoma?

Although more studies in humans are still needed, latest medical research suggests that cannabinoids can help in the treatment of skin cancer. How viable is cannabis in the treatment for melanoma?

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that accounts for less than 1% of all skin cancer cases, yet is the most severe type of skin cancer, causing the most deaths. This year alone there will be an estimated 80,000 new cases of invasive melanoma diagnosed in the United States. With a need for new treatments, scientists are beginning to ask whether cannabis could hold the answer.

Melanoma is thought to be brought on by exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds, although it is assumed that other factors such as genetics or certain chemicals can trigger it as well.

HOW MELANOMA DEVELOPS

UV rays can cause the DNA in cells to mutate which leads to the growth of cancer cells. Most types of melanoma appear in skin areas that are exposed to UV rays, although there are also cases where it can appear in other, non-exposed areas on the body. When cells in the skin begin to mutate, they become dark and form oddly shaped marks on the skin. If left untreated, the cancer can spread or metastasize to other parts of the body.

The current course of treatment for melanoma is to surgically remove it in the early stages and chemotherapy in those cases where the cancer already spread.

RECOGNIZING MELANOMA

A cancerous melanoma mole will look different when compared to a common skin mole. Non-cancerous moles are usually round and uniform in colour. Melanoma most often has an irregular, asymmetrical shape and they can have uneven borders. Their color is often non-uniform with some parts darker than others. They are often larger than the average mole and can increase in size. If in doubt, you should always consult a doctor.

TREATING SKIN CANCER WITH CANNABINOIDS

The suggestion that cannabinoids, the main compounds in marijuana, potentially have cancer-fighting abilities is not a recent one. Although there is a still lot of research to be done, especially when it comes to human cancers, the evidence for the effectiveness of cannabinoids is mounting.

Last year, the Journal of Investigative Dermatology published a study [1] where they treated melanoma in mice with THC and CBD. The international group of researchers from the UK, Italy, and Spain found [2] how the compounds lead to the death of cancer cells by two natural processes called autophagy and apoptosis.

AND APOPTOSIS: HOW CELLS REPAIR THEMSELVES

Autophagy is a process where cells disassemble themselves to get rid of any damaged parts inside them. Apoptosis is the process that is understood as “cell suicide”; cells break apart, with other cells in the body’s immune system then cleaning up the leftovers. In animal studies, it has been found that THC and CBD can stimulate and support both of these processes.

For the study, the team of researchers used THC and CBD in an equal ratio to mice with melanoma – a ratio similar to the drug Sativex that is currently undergoing trials as a pain treatment for cancer patients.

While this is a recent study about the effects of cannabinoids on melanoma, research in this promising field is going on for much longer. The researchers identified cannabinoids as having potential to treat melanoma already in 2006. Back then, they found CB1 and CB2 receptor cells in melanoma cells. Those receptors are also the binding sites for THC in the human body.

By activating those receptors, the team was able to slow-down the growth of malign melanoma cells. Moreover, the treatment process initiated the cell suicide of cancerous tissue.

SELF-TREATING MELANOMA WITH CANNABIS OIL?

Aside from those scientific studies, there is more evidence for the possible effectiveness of cannabinoids in treating melanoma although this evidence is most often anecdotal. You can find many reports on the internet where patients treat melanoma with cannabis oil, often reporting remarkable success.

However, due to the lack of established medical facts, self-treatment with cannabis oil and related products is not easy. Today, there is no real information available about recommended dosages or for how long to continue such a treatment. Other important questions that need answering concern the quality of products used, their ingredients and how they supplement chemotherapy. As such, cannabis cannot be considered a treatment until there is more scientific evidence.

Cannabis prohibition that is still upheld in most countries today doesn’t exactly help with progress in the field. For the time being, patients can only go by anecdotal evidence. It is to hope that more progress is made, not just with more scientific research about cannabis’ effectiveness for treating cancers in humans but also and in particular when it comes to policies for the full acceptance of marijuana as a medicine.

Studies suggest that cannabis may help in the treatment of certain cancers. Is cannabis effective in treating melanoma?

Melanoma

Updated on June 29, 2020. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer

The largest organ of your body is your skin. It protects you against sunlight, heat, infection and injury. It also stores fat, water and vitamin D and controls your body temperature. Over the past 30 years, there has been an increase in the number of new melanoma cases. Medical marijuana for melanoma may be showing some promise in both killing cancer cells and preventing new growth.

How and Why Marijuana Can Be an Effective Treatment for Melanoma

Melanoma patients have found success with cannabis oil. Also, international research has identified that medical cannabis is a powerful anti-cancer agent in animals. A 2015 Journal of Investigative Dermatologystudy found THC and CBD treatment helped reduce melanoma cell viability.

Researchers also found that combining small amounts of THC with CBD intensifies the anticancer effects. The cannabis and melanoma treatment destroyed the cancerous skin cells, but not the normal healthy cells.

Melanoma & Medical Marijuana Research

A 2015 study examined how effectively cannabinoids could stimulate melanoma cell death. The team took both in vitro and in vivo approaches, meaning they analyzed both cell samples and cells in living beings. When they treated melanoma cells with THC, cell death and turnover rates increased. The cancer cells also had less viability after exposure, making them more susceptible to treatment.

The researchers also examined how autophagy, or cell “recycling,” came into play in THC-related cell death. When they used both THC and chloroquine, a potential cancer treatment, THC’s effects stopped. Chloroquine inhibits autophagy, so the fact that it interferes with THC’s results shows autophagy could be involved.

When the team tried treating live subjects with cannabinoids, they found similar success. They dosed mice with either a mixture of equal amounts of CBD and THC or pure THC. To see how the compounds performed compared to typical cancer treatments, they also included a group of mice dosed with a chemotherapy drug. These three groups all showed more tumor reduction than the control group.

When the team compared the cannabinoids’ effects with those of the chemotherapy drug, the cannabinoids worked better to promote cell death and prevent growth.

What Symptoms of Melanoma Can Medical Marijuana Treat?

Medical cannabis for melanoma offers the potential to:

  • Relieve pain
  • Curb nausea
  • Boost your mood
  • Assist in sleep
  • Spark motivation
  • Perk up energy
  • Rekindle social enjoyment
  • Promote weight gain
  • Stimulate your appetite

Each strain offers different medicinal effects, so you may want to try different strains until you find one that works best for your symptoms.

Even though the two most noticeable benefits of using cannabis for melanoma are freedom from nausea and vomiting, many people have said it’s helped reduce the severity of “wasting away.” They’ve also noticed reduced depression and other side effects the disease brings on, like an increase in their appetite. Since all these and other symptoms were relieved, many patients are claiming to live happier, better and more comfortable lives.

Best Strains of Marijuana to Use for Melanoma

The strains below all help fight cancer symptoms such as pain, nausea, stress, lack of appetite and depression:

  • Obama Kush (Indica)
  • Chemo (Indica)
  • Blackberry Kush (Indica)
  • ACDC (hybrid)
  • Super Lemon Haze (Sativa)
  • Northern Lights (Indica)
  • Harlequin (Sativa)

Work with your medical marijuana doctor and dispensary budtender to find the strain or strain that works best for you.

Best Methods of Marijuana Treatment to Use to Treat Melanoma Symptoms

As the medical weed industry grows, doctors and patients are looking for ways to use this miracle medication in treatment. The good news is, bongs and joints are not their only choice anymore. Although these traditional methods provide relief, and many people take marijuana this way, higher-tech and safer alternatives are available. Some ways to get your marijuana and melanoma treatment include:

Vaporizers

These devices create a similar experience as smoking, but don’t include the drawbacks of ingesting tar and ash. They don’t burn away large THC and CBD amounts between puffs, which maximize the cannabis’ potential.

Edibles

Edibles are discreet and produce longer-lasting effects than vaporizers. You can make edibles at home by mixing in some cannabis oil or other weed ingredients into your recipe, or you can buy them at marijuana dispensaries.

Cannabis Oils

There is a whole range of cannabis oils on the market today with different THC and CBD concentrations. Since they’re versatile, you can inhale them through a vaporizer or consume them orally.

Topicals

Many patients like to go the topical route. Topicals may come in lotions, creams, salves and oils and offer you localized relief from your inflammation and pain.

Transdermal Patches

Medical professionals often suggest adhering transdermal patches to the top of your foot or ankle, or on the inner area of your wrist.

To try marijuana for melanoma yourself, search for a medical marijuana doctor. You don’t have to struggle with the symptoms of melanoma and its treatment side effects. There’s hope out there.

What Is Melanoma?

Melanoma is one of the most common and most dangerous types of skin cancer. When unrepaired DNA damage occurs in your skin cells, cancerous growths can develop. Usually, this is often due to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, or from tanning beds when they trigger mutations that result in skin cells multiplying rapidly and forming malignant tumors. The tumors begin in the basal layer of your epidermis in the pigment-producing melanocytes — a mature melanin-forming cell.

Melanomas often look like moles, and some even originate from moles. Many melanomas are brown or black. However, some may also be:

  • Purple
  • Red
  • Skin-colored
  • White
  • Blue
  • Pink

Research shows that UV radiation exposure causes around 90 percent of melanoma cases from both natural and artificial sources like indoor tanning beds and sunlight.

You can get melanoma in any of the melanocytes in your body, even if you’ve never had excessive sunlight exposure. Ultraviolet radiation isn’t the only reason for a diagnosis, particularly in ocular and mucosal melanoma cases. According to the Skin Center Foundation, genetics, family history and environmental factors can also contribute to melanoma cases. Around 10,130 individuals in the U.S. each year die from melanoma.

If your doctor identifies your melanoma early and begins treatment, chances of curing it are good. However, if your doctor doesn’t detect it early, and your cancer has started spreading to other body parts, it can be difficult to treat and could be fatal.

Types of Melanoma

There are several types of melanoma.

Cutaneous melanoma affects the skin. It’s a common form of melanoma, since your skin contains many pigment cells. There are four primary ways to describe cutaneous melanoma:

  • Nodular melanoma
  • Superficial spreading melanoma
  • Lentigo maligna melanoma
  • Acral lentiginous melanoma
  • Desmoplastic melanoma

Mucosal melanoma may occur in your nasal passages, anus, vagina, throat, mouth or any other mucous membrane in your body.

Ocular melanoma, also called choroidal melanoma or uveal melanoma, is a rare type of melanoma you get in your eye.

History of Melanoma

Melanoma has a long history that dates back to early fifth century BCE records. Hippocrates was the first to describe melanoma in Greek and record it as melasma, or dark tumor.

In around the fourth century BCE, there’s some archaeological evidence of this cancer in pre-Columbian mummy skeletons dated to be around 2,400 years old.

The first man to perform a surgical procedure on a patient who had melanoma was John Hunter. His 1787 operation was the first successful excision of a melanoma tumor. He didn’t know what it was at the time, but he referred to it as “cancerous fungous excrescence.” In 1968, many years later, doctors examined the preserved tumor using a microscope to identify that it was metastatic melanoma.

Effects of Melanoma

Melanoma can appear on your body in a variety of ways. You may notice a:

  • New patch or spot on your skin
  • Change in a mole you already have
  • Spot that looks like an age spot or changing freckle
  • Dark band of skin around your toenail or fingernail
  • Dark streak under your toenail or fingernail
  • Thick, slow-growing patch of skin that looks like a scar

Melanoma is noticeable on your skin, unlike other cancers, which makes it easy to detect when it’s in its earlier stages. But, if left undetected, it can spread to distant organs or sites. Once it spreads, you’re in stage IV of your cancer, or metastatic melanoma. Treating this stage of melanoma is difficult, since in later stages, the melanoma often spreads to lungs, bones and your brain or liver, making prognosis very poor.

Melanoma Statistics

  • Only 1 percent of skin cancers are melanoma, but melanoma causes most skin cancer deaths.
  • In 2017, around 87,110 individuals will receive a melanoma diagnosis.
  • In 2017, around 9,730 individuals will die from melanoma.
  • Each day, every hour, one person in the U.S. dies from melanoma.
  • Melanoma happens to all races, ages and genders.
  • In individuals between the ages 15 and 29, the second most common cancer diagnosed is melanoma.

Current Treatments Available for Melanoma and Their Side Effects

Once your doctor gives you a melanoma diagnosis and determines the stage you’re in, they’ll discuss your options for treatments. Current protocol for treatment of melanoma depends on not only the tumor’s condition and location, but your prognosis at the time of detection. Oncologists take into account your overall health, as well.

You’ll likely work with a treatment team that includes a dermatologist, surgical oncologist, medical oncologist, pharmaceutical oncologist and a radiation oncologist.

Based on what stage of cancer you’re in, as well as other factors, your treatment may include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Targeted therapy

Often, doctors perform surgery for early melanoma stages, but for advanced stages, you may require other treatments.

Surgery

The primary melanoma treatment option is surgery, which typically cures melanoma in its early stage. Some types of surgery include:

  • Wide excision — Wide excision is a minor surgery that can cure most thin melanomas. The doctor cuts out the tumor and a patch of healthy skin. He then stitches the wound together.
  • Mohs surgery — A specifically trained surgeon or dermatologist performs this procedure. They remove your skin and melanoma in thin layers. They use a microscope to look at each layer, and if they detect cancer cells, they remove another layer of skin. The surgeon continues this procedure until they see no evidence of cancer.
  • Amputation —Some rare cases of melanoma occur on a toe or finger, and if it’s grown deep, the surgeon will amputate part or all of the toe or finger.
  • Lymph node dissection —The surgeon will remove all your lymph nodes that are in the area near the main melanoma in this procedure. For instance, if you have melanoma on your leg, he’ll remove the lymph nodes that are in your groin area on the side of your body the cancer is on, since this would be the area the melanoma would most likely spread to first.
  • Surgery for metastatic melanoma —If your melanoma has spread to your other organs like your brain or lungs, chances are your cancer isn’t curable by surgery. However, the surgeon may perform surgery to help you relieve your symptoms, improve your quality of life and help you live longer.

Side effects of cancer surgery may include the following:

  • Pain
  • Appetite loss
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness
  • Swelling or bruising around surgery site
  • Bleeding
  • Drainage from surgery site

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy stimulates your immune system, so it recognizes and destroys cancer cells better. There are a few types of immunotherapy used for treating melanoma, including:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors — This medication stimulates your immune system to create “checkpoints” of protein on any of your immune cells that need to be turned off or on to begin an immune response. Melanoma does the same thing to keep from being attacked by your immune system. These medications target these checkpoints and help restore your immune response against the melanoma cells.
  • PD-1 inhibitors —These medications are pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and nivolumab (Opdivo) and target and block the PD-1 protein on your T-cells, specialized cells within your immune system. Blocking PD-1 boosts your immune response to the melanoma cells and may even shrink tumors.

Side effects of PD-1 inhibitors may include:

  • Skin rash
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Itching
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Other gastrointestinal problems

Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) Vaccine

BCG is a type of germ that’s related to tuberculosis. This vaccine doesn’t cause severe disease in humans, but rather activates your immune system.

Side effects of immunotherapy may include:

  • Fever
  • Dizziness
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Joint or muscle aches
  • Nausea or vomiting

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy medications target areas of melanoma cells, making them distinct from your healthy cells. They work differently than chemo, which attacks cells that divide quickly. Targeted drugs cause less severe side effects than chemo, and sometimes work when chemo doesn’t.&

Side effects of targeted therapy may include:

  • Problems with wound healing or blood clotting
  • Skin problems (dry skin, hair depigmentation, acneiform rash)
  • Gastrointestinal perforation
  • High blood pressure

Chemotherapy

Chemo kills cancer cells. Side effects of chemotherapy may include:

  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Throat and mouth sores
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nervous system effects
  • Blood disorders

Radiation

The doctor doesn’t usually use radiation to treat melanoma on your skin, but may use it if you’re unable to have surgery. He may also use it following surgery for rare types of desmoplastic melanoma.

Your doctor may give you radiation after surgery to the area where he removed your lymph nodes to lower your chances of your cancer coming back.

Side effects of radiation may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Skin problems, such as itching, dryness and peeling
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bladder irritations

Clinical Trials

For late-stage melanoma patients, an oncologist might recommend participating in clinical trials to offer the best treatment options. Clinical trials represent carefully controlled and monitored research studies that are carried out to obtain a closer look at promising new procedures, medications and treatments.

Clinical trials give patients access to certain investigational medications and treatments before they are approved for use and become widely available.

Complementary and Alternative Treatments

There are many alternative treatments for cancer, including nutrition therapy, herbal medicine, acupuncture, acupressure, massage, physical therapy, meditation, mind-body therapy, hydrotherapy, naturopathic medicine and medical marijuana. Typically, patients use complementary methods and alternative treatment along with and instead of their conventional methods of medical care, respectively.

See how medical marijuana could help relieve your melanoma symptoms. Find patient reviews on local doctors and information on treatment options.