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Medical Marijuana and Cancer, Melanoma

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.

increase in melanoma cases

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
melanoma statistics

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.

genetics and family history contribute to melanoma

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

The American Cancer Society says:

  • 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. 

According to the Melanoma Research Foundation:

  • 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:

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.

How and Why Marijuana Can Be an Effective Treatment for Melanoma

THC and CBD treatment reduced 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 Dermatology study 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. 

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 your 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.

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This information is not provided by medical professionals and is intended only to complement, and not to replace or contradict, any health or medical advice or information provided by healthcare professionals.  If you have any questions, please contact your doctor or other healthcare professional.

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