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Medical Marijuana and Cancer, Pancreatic

medical marijuana and pancreatic cancer

It’s likely that you or someone you know’s life has been impacted by cancer. As a life-threatening, difficult-to-cure disease, it puts a toll on everyone involved.

While pancreatic cancer isn’t one of the most common types of cancer, it still causes many of the cancer-related deaths in the United States. But with good treatment and care, you or your loved one can fight the odds and manage the disease and its symptoms.

Some patients use medical marijuana as a holistic treatment for their pancreatic cancer. Let’s examine the facts about pancreatic cancer and how cannabis can help.

What Does the Pancreas Do?

Before we get into the specifics of pancreatic cancer, it helps to understand exactly how the pancreas works. We all know how organs like the stomach and lungs work, but we usually aren’t as well informed about what the pancreas does. Despite its relative obscurity, this organ performs some very important functions.

The pancreas uses two types of cells to regulate the hormones and enzymes in your body. Its exocrine cells, such as the glands and ducts, release enzymes that help you digest food. The endocrine cells make up less of the pancreas and create important hormones like insulin and glucagon.

The Two Types of Pancreatic Cancer

Now that we know the parts of the pancreas, we can understand how the two kinds of pancreatic cancer affect you. Each type happens in its corresponding variety of pancreatic cell.

The two kinds of pancreatic cancer are:

  • Exocrine Pancreatic Cancer: Most pancreas cancers occur in the exocrine cells. Around 95% of exocrine pancreatic cancers are pancreatic adenocarcinomas. Pancreatic adenocarcinomas tend to start in the pancreas’ ducts.
pancreas cancers occur in the exocrine cells
  • Pancreatic Endocrine Tumors: While rarer than exocrine pancreatic cancer, pancreatic endocrine tumors (NETs) pack a larger punch. Functioning NETs create hormones that travel to the bloodstream and cause symptoms. Non-functioning NETs don’t produce hormones and can grow very large before discovered.

In addition to malignant cells and cancer, the pancreas can have benign growths or precancerous cells. Some cause no harm at all (benign growths), and others can cause cancer if left alone (precancerous cells).

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

Since the pancreas governs a lot of digestive functions, pancreatic cancer symptoms often occur in organs related to processing food. The full list of symptoms includes:

  • Jaundice: When bilirubin, one of the substances in bile, builds up in the liver, it causes your eyes and skin to yellow. Jaundice can result in darker urine, odd-colored and greasy stools, and itchy skin.
  • Diabetes: When pancreatic cancer changes the release of insulin, it can cause diabetes.
  • Blood Clots: Cancer makes blood more likely form clots. It often creates clots in large veins, such as the veins in the legs.
  • Abdominal Pain: If the cancer grows large enough to press on other organs, it can make you feel pain in your belly and back.
  • Poor Appetite and Weight Loss: Pancreatic cancer can reduce the patient’s appetite, resulting in weight loss.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: When the cancer presses on a certain part of the stomach, it can result in nausea and vomiting.
  • Enlargement of the Liver or Gallbladder: If pancreatic cancer obstructs the ducts connected to the pancreas, it can build up bile in the liver or gallbladder, enlarging it.
  • Different Texture in Fatty Tissue: Some patients form an uneven texture in the fatty tissue under their skin. This happens when the pancreatic enzymes that digest fat are affected by the cancer.

Facts About Pancreatic Cancer

  • Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death.
  • Pancreatic cancer is the ninth most common cancer in women.
  • Among all cancer cases in the U.S., about three percent involve pancreatic cancer.
  • 29 percent of pancreatic cancer patients who don’t have surgery survive live after one year. 7 percent live after five years.
  • If the cancer is detected early and the tumor is successfully removed, the five-year chance of survival goes up to 27 percent.
  • Smokers are twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer as non-smokers.
pancreatic cancer leading cause for cancer death

Typical Treatments for Pancreatic Cancer

The type of treatment you get for pancreatic cancer depends on the type and stage of the cancer, as well as other factors. For instance, other health problems may make surgery unfeasible, or the patient might have an allergy that affects their medication options.

Surgery

Depending on how far the cancer has progressed, surgery can either completely cure pancreatic cancer or simply make it easier to deal with. In the early stages, doctors can surgically remove the entire cancer, potentially curing it. If the cancer has spread out too far for complete removal, some patients still undergo surgery to reduce the severity of their symptoms.

Ablation and Embolization

Instead of the removing cancer, ablation and embolization destroy it. Ablation uses extreme temperatures to destroy cancer cells and doesn’t require a stay at the hospital afterward. Embolization involves blocking blood flow to the affected area to kill off the cancer cells.

Radiation Therapy

In some cases of exocrine pancreatic cancer, a patient will receive radiation therapy. Doctors often use radiation therapy to supplement surgery or replace it. Radiation therapy can reduce the chance of cancer returning or shrink cancer cells.

Chemotherapy

chemotherapy drugs to treat pancreatic cancer patients

Doctors use chemotherapy drugs to treat most cases of exocrine pancreatic cancer and some cases of pancreatic endocrine tumors. They provide it in cycles to let the patient’s body recover between treatments. Although chemotherapy affects your healthy cells, it also packs a punch that other treatments don’t.

But not every patient is a good candidate for some of these treatments. Not every patient can withstand the side effects involved with them. Some patients can’t get surgery or related procedures. Also, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are incredibly harsh on your body and cause side effects like hair loss, nausea, digestive issues, fatigue and a suppressed immune system.

Using Medical Cannabis for Pancreatic Cancer

Medical marijuana can treat many of the issues associated with pancreatic cancer and its potential treatments. It can supplement, or sometimes replace, the treatments typically used. Some of the benefits of medical marijuana include:

  • Pain Relief: The pressure exerted by a tumor can seriously hurt. Marijuana relieves pain for many patients, and pain is one of the most common reasons patients use medical cannabis. It works great as an alternative to painkillers due to less liver damage and a lower possibility of addiction.
  • Antiemetic Properties: Both pancreatic cancer and its treatments can make a patient feel queasy. You can use medical marijuana to provide immediate or extended relief for your nausea and vomiting.
  • Appetite Stimulant: Marijuana is known for giving the user “the munchies.” But this effect can actually help patients who have a low appetite due to their pancreatic cancer. The increase in appetite helps them maintain their weight.
  • Fatigue: If you’re new to the world of medical marijuana, you may be surprised — after all, doesn’t marijuana make you sleepy? It turns out that some strains of marijuana energize you, which can give fatigued patients the boost they need.

Research About Medical Cannabis and Pancreatic Cancer

Research indicates the possibility of marijuana reducing pancreatic cancer cells. If further research continues to support this, we could soon begin using marijuana as a legitimate cancer treatment.

Christoph W. Michalski and nine other researchers examined the use of cannabinoids, the compounds found in marijuana, for pain related to pancreatic cancer. While the patients’ immune respond stayed the same, their pain levels reduced while their survivability increased. Since marijuana can act as an immunosuppressant, it’s important to measure how much it suppresses your immune system when used.

Arkaitz Carracedo and six other scientists observed the relationship between cannabinoids and pancreatic tissue. Pancreatic tumor cells have more cannabinoid receptors than normal pancreatic tissue, making them more reactive to cannabinoids. Their data suggested that cannabinoids inhibit the progression of pancreatic tumor cells without damaging healthy cells.

pancreatic tumor cells and cannabinoid receptors

The field of medical marijuana research is still relatively new and exciting. We've studied it for years, but the law has limited our ability to research it like other topics. As laws and opinions on weed change, so will our resources for medical marijuana research.

Best Ways to Use Medical Marijuana for Pancreatic Cancer

You can consume marijuana in many ways which each have their own medical benefits and drawbacks. When you pick a consumption method, you must consider your health problems, reaction to weed, and personal preferences.

Methods of using marijuana medication include:

  • Smoking: Smoking provides one of the most immediate effects out of all the ways you can use cannabis. However, smoking can also cause a number of other health problems. For optimal health benefits, you may want to try a different method.
  • Vaping: Vaping can provide similar effects to smoking without producing as many of the harmful chemicals that smoking does. Make sure to vape correctly and with a high-quality vape pen so you can avoid as much charring as possible.
  • Edibles: If you don’t mind waiting a little while for your medicine to kick in, you can try eating an edible marijuana product. You may want to ask your doctor for advice before using an edible, since pancreatic cancer can cause so many digestive issues. Avoid eating unhealthy options like brownies and try to stick to healthier edibles.
  • Topicals: Some topical treatments like lotions and creams address localized pain in the muscles or joints. You can also find patches in certain states that allow the medication to enter your bloodstream directly. Be sure to pick the chemical composition of your patch to suit your needs.

Although any method can give you relief, some work better than others. As you can see, edibles and patches will probably work best, but you can also try more traditional products like tinctures and pills. Ultimately, only you and your doctor should work together to decide which method will work best for you.

The Side Effects of Marijuana Use

Cannabis is an incredibly versatile medicine. Side effects for one person can be a benefit for another. So you might welcome some of the side effects of marijuana instead of considering them a negative.

Rather than looking at marijuana as a black-and-white situation, consider its effects and decide what will help and what will harm you.

If you experience side effects from cannabis, you can usually relieve them easily. Examples of cannabis side effects include:

  • Hunger: As a pancreatic cancer patient, you might actually appreciate weed’s tendency to make you hungry. After all, it’s important to eat even when you have appetite issues. If the hunger becomes a problem, eat healthy snacks to reduce the likelihood of overconsumption.
  • Red Eyes: If you don’t mind having reddened eyes from pot, you don’t have to worry about treating them. But you might feel self-conscious about it or worry about judgement for using marijuana. In that case, you can clear your eyes up with over-the-counter eyedrops.
  • Respiratory Issues: Patients who smoke or vape their marijuana may encounter respiratory problems. If this happens to you, you must change the way you take your medicine to avoid the respiratory effects.
  • Drowsiness: Indica strains often make the user feel drowsy. If you have issues sleeping, you can take advantage of this effect to sleep easier. When drowsiness gets in the way of everyday functioning, try using your medical marijuana in the evening to avoid experiencing drowsiness during the day.
  • Dry Mouth or Thirst: In some cases, marijuana can dry out your mouth or make you feel extra thirsty. Frequently drinking water and chewing xylitol gum help your mouth produce more saliva.
  • Short-Term Memory Loss: Some patients become forgetful when under the effect of cannabis medicine. If possible, change the time you take your medicine so you don’t experience the memory loss at school or work. You can also try organizational strategies like writing things down or setting reminders in your phone.
  • Insomnia: As opposed to indica strains’ tendency to make the user sleepy, sativa strains wake the user up. But that energy boost can backfire if it happens when you need to go to bed. If you have trouble sleeping because of your medicine, take your medicine at a different time or talk with an expert about your dosage.
  • Giddiness: Marijuana can sometimes make a patient feel overly giddy to the point of impacting their ability to function. Like tiredness or memory loss, the first solution to try for giddiness is taking your medicine at a different time of the day.
  • Uneasiness or Anxiety: Some patients feel paranoid and alert when they use medical marijuana. If this happens to you, talk with your doctor and dispensary staff to figure out if a different strain, product or dosage would work better.

Starting the Path to Medical Marijuana Recovery

Now that you understand how medical marijuana can treat pancreatic cancer, you may want to learn more about legally obtaining it. Fortunately, in addition to these condition guides, we have numerous pages covering other medical marijuana-related topics.

To understand what you can and can’t do in your state, look at your state’s marijuana laws. They’ll give you a good idea of the treatments legally available, how to get authorized to buy marijuana medicine and where to buy it. It will also help you avoid accidentally doing something illegal.

You should also read up on the doctors and dispensaries in your area. Depending on where you live, you might need to find a doctor certified to recommend medical marijuana. Looking into the dispensaries locally available can help you make the right purchasing decisions.

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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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