Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer with 3.5 million americans being diagnosed every year. Skin cancer is caused by UV radiation which creates a cancerous lesion on the skin surface. Though different forms of skin cancer vary greatly in severity, skin cancer can be typically treated in its early stages by removing the afflicted portion of skin. In some cases, chemotherapy is necessary following the removal of the lesion. Cannabis’ possible ability to reduce or kill cancer cells has been an area of study that has interested cancer researchers for many years.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Current treatments are intensive and costly.
Types of skin cancer
Skin cancer is diagnosed into three main types; squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and melanoma. Each form of cancer is named after the type of cells it affects.
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancers. Whereas, melanoma is the rarest form of skin cancer. However, melanoma is the most deadly.
Melanoma is responsible for 75% of skin cancer deaths. It also happens to be the second most common cancer for men between the ages of 20-39 and the second most common for women in the same age group. Unfortunately, these numbers are on the rise. Melanoma is currently the fifth most prevalent cancer among men and the sixth among women.
The primary cause for melanoma, along with basal and squamos skin cancers, is linked to damage from ultraviolet rays (UVs). This is because UV rays can cause the DNA in cells to mutate. When cells mutate, they can become cancerous.
Who’s at risk?
Although anyone can develop skin cancer, people with fairer skin are at a higher risk. This is because people who are naturally lighter have less melanin in their skin. Melanin provides protection against UV rays.
What can cannabis do?
Researchers in Europe discovered that the endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in fighting melanoma. A study published in the European Journal of Pharmacology revealed endocannabinoids facilitate apoptotic cell death in cancer cells. Of those endocannabinoids, Anadaminde (AEA) was the most effective. Another study in 2015 showed that cannabis triggered cell death in melanoma cells. During the course of the study, mice infected with melanoma were treated with a combination of THC and CBD. The ratio of the mixture (1:1) was similar to the pharmaceutical drug, Sativex. After administrating the substance to the mice, the researchers found that THC in conjunction with CBD induced death in melanoma cells. This study has yet to be replicated with humans. Even so, the research is groundbreaking.
The impact of cannabis as a treatment for skin cancer extends beyond killing cancerous cells. Cannabis may also be key to preventing the onset of skin cancer. A study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology revealed chemicals in cannabis are capable of stopping harmful DNA in its tracks. Researchers examined the effects of cannabinoids on human skin cells.
During the study, three different types of cannabinoids were tested:
- Cannabidiol (CBD)
- Cannabigerol (CBG)
- Cannabidivarin (CBV)
The results from the study indicated CBD was the most effective at stopping unwanted DNA activity. Cannabigerol (CBG) showed some benefit. However, CBD was by far the most effective option. Certain genetic factors can influence the growth of skin cell – a key factor in skin disorders, including skin cancer. The findings from this study indicate cannabis can turn off this harmful DNA activity.
The researchers from the study even concluded:
“Phytocannabinoids cannabidiol and cannabigerol are transcriptional repressors that can control cell proliferation and differentiation. This indicates that they (especially cannabidiol) have the potential to be lead compounds for the development of novel therapeutics for skin diseases.” Our knowledge of cannabis in relation to skin cancer is still developing. Very few studies have yet to explore this topic in depth.
Anecdotal Evidence Lines Up With Studies
Though there is a need for clinical trials for cannabis’ effect on skin cancer, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to back up preliminary studies that have been conducted. The United Patients Group interviewed one patient, named David Triplett, who suffered from skin cancer on his nose. His doctor had recommended using a chemotherapy topical but he was interested in information he had found about cannabis oil and skin cancer. As he applied the oil he saw no change over the course of a few weeks, but eventually the spot became smaller, then disappeared completely along with his cancer. Stories similar to David’s are not uncommon, and they show a clear need for clinical trials to see if these results are directly related to the application of cannabis oil to the skin cancer lesion.