Updated on January 30, 2019.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Richard Koffler, MD, Board Certified Physiatrist
Approximately 39.6% of people will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lifetime. The disease disrupts and takes the lives of people who have it and also significantly impacts the people that care about them. Unfortunately, we don’t have a definite cure so, currently, the best we can do is manage cancer symptoms and give it our all with the treatment solutions we have.
An important step in the fight against cancer is learning all you can about the disease. The more we know about cancer, often the easier it is to treat it. That knowledge includes alternative treatments like medical marijuana.
Medical marijuana can’t cure cancer, but we can use it as a tool to improve the lives of cancer patients and help them get their lives back. Let’s talk about medical cannabis and thyroid cancer.
What Does the Thyroid Do?
Most people understand what commonly known organs like the stomach and lungs do. But what about the thyroid?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that moderates hormones that control metabolism and calcium use. Its follicular cells make thyroid hormones that normalize metabolism. To maintain the way that the body uses calcium, the thyroid’s C cells create a hormone called calcitonin.
When you have an abnormal number of thyroid hormones, you experience health problems related to your metabolism. Hypothyroidism occurs when you have too few thyroid hormones, making you feel tired and slow. If you have a high number of thyroid hormones, you have hyperthyroidism, which quickens your heartbeat and makes you feel on-edge.
About Thyroid Cancer
A healthy body regularly creates new cells to replace old ones. Usually, the old cells die off to make room for the new cells. But, when you have cancer, your old cells don’t die off, causing health problems and even death.
We name a cancer after the place in the body it starts in, so thyroid cancer is cancer that begins in the thyroid. Even if the cancer eventually spreads to other parts of the body, we still call it thyroid cancer.
The three main types of thyroid cancer are:
- Differentiated thyroid cancer: Differentiated thyroid cancers include papillary cancer, follicular cancer and Hurthle cell cancer. They begin in the follicular cells in your thyroid and are the most common form of thyroid cancer.
- Medullary thyroid cancer: Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) can be sporadic or familial, and they start in the thyroid’s C cells. Sporadic MTC is not inherited from relatives, while familial MTC is.
- Anaplastic/undifferentiated thyroid cancer: Anaplastic thyroid cancer often develops from a papillary or follicular cancer. Doctors have the hardest time treating this type of thyroid cancer.
Symptoms and Signs of Thyroid Cancer
When you have thyroid cancer, you exhibit any or all of these symptoms:
- Swelling in the neck
- Pain that you feel on the front side of your neck
- Issues breathing and swallowing
- A lump in the neck
- A persistent cough and/or change in voice
Also, thyroid cancer patients deal with symptoms universal to cancer, such as:
- Severe nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained and sudden weight loss
- Chronic pain
Facts About Thyroid Cancer
- Almost every type of thyroid cancer has a nearly 100% five-year survival rate when caught in an early stage and about a 50% five-year survival rate when detected in the final stage.
- Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the exception to the former It always appears in the final stage and has about a 7% five-year survival rate.
- Nearly three-quarters of thyroid cancer cases are discovered in women.
- Women have the highest risk of getting thyroid cancer in their 40s or 50s, while men have the highest risk during their 60s or 70s.
- We don’t understand why thyroid cancer affects women more frequently than men.
Diagnosing Thyroid Cancer
Since thyroid cancer often manifests as a lump in the neck, it’s often detected early. Most cancer patients have a higher chance of survival when they get an early diagnosis. So, the high chance of early detection helps many thyroid cancer patients receive successful treatment.
Most of the time, doctors find thyroid cancer either when a patient reports neck swelling or during a regular checkup. A simple neck examination usually does the trick. In other cases, thyroid cancer can be found during an ultrasound or blood test.
How We Typically Treat Thyroid Cancer
We have a few options for treating cancer. The treatment a patient gets depends on the stage of the disease, the patient’s other health problems and the patient’s personal preferences. Some of the most common thyroid cancer treatments include:
- Surgery: Surgical removal of the thyroid cancer tumor is one of the most common options. Depending on how far the cancer has progressed, the surgeon may remove all or part of the thyroid. In some cases, a patient will have to take thyroid hormones after surgery to replace the ones that the thyroid would naturally produce.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy involves dosing the patient with anti-cancer drugs intravenously or with a pill. We don’t often use chemotherapy on thyroid cancer patients since the risks usually outweigh the benefits. However, sometimes we use it for anaplastic thyroid cancer and other advanced forms.
- Targeted therapy: The medical world has begun to develop drugs that target certain kinds of cancer cells. Unlike chemotherapy, it doesn’t kill off any rapidly growing cell, so targeted therapy drugs are more efficient than chemotherapy drugs when used correctly.
- Radioactive iodine therapy: Some doctors use the thyroid’s tendency to absorb iodine to their advantage. To send radiation directly to the thyroid, the physician gives the patient radioactive iodine that kills only iodine-absorbing cells. Unfortunately, the radioactive iodine doesn’t differentiate between healthy cells and cancer cells.
- Hormone therapy: If the thyroid cancer appears outside of iodine-absorbing cells, doctors can also use external beam radiation therapy. Instead of receiving radiation internally as you would with radioactive iodine, a physician administers a radioactive beam outside the body.
Many of these treatments take a substantial toll on your body, so you and your doctor must take care when choosing one.
Medicating with Medical Cannabis for Thyroid Cancer
Medical marijuana is unique because it can address multiple health problems at once without severe side effects for most patients. Thanks to its versatile nature, cancer patients can pick a strain to suit the symptoms they experience, including cancer symptoms. In fact, medical cannabis almost seems tailor-made for cancer relief — many of the symptoms it commonly relieves appear in cancer patients, including:
- Pain: Cancer and its treatments often cause chronic and severe pain. Fortunately, most states with a medical marijuana program have pain at the top of their list of conditions that qualify for the drug. This is because we have done tons of research on pain and marijuana.
- Nausea/Appetite Loss: Many cancer patients have a difficult time eating either due to nausea or loss of appetite. It doesn’t help that thyroid cancer patients must deal with difficulty swallowing and inflammation in their throat. Marijuana can boost your appetite and relieve nausea.
- Fatigue: Depending on the strain you pick, you can get a burst of energy from using marijuana. A sativa strain can help you manage the brain fog and fatigue associated with cancer and cancer treatments.
- Insomnia: Alternatively, indica marijuana strains have sedative properties. When the other symptoms of thyroid cancer keep you up at night, you can use your weed to sleep better.
In addition to addressing symptoms caused by thyroid cancer, research suggests that it could tackle the disease itself.
Researchers have been considering marijuana’s potential for killing and reducing the spread of cancer cells. While we don’t know if it can ultimately cure cancer, studies indicate that it could help teach us what a successful cancer treatment looks like. When you add that to its ability to help patients with other cancer symptoms, you get a great supplement to cancer treatment.
However, when we deal with organs related to hormones, we should take care when using cannabinoids like THC. A study on men suggested that THC can reduce thyroid hormones, which isn’t ideal for patients with thyroid cancer. Since the study only used male subjects, we have much more research to do to understand the whole situation.
Thyroid Cancer & Medical Marijuana Research
Thyroid cancer is the most common malady affecting the endocrine system, and it’s also the deadliest. Three types of thyroid carcinomas can occur in patients:
Although the first two have a fairly good prognosis for patients, the latter, anaplastic, is highly aggressive. A 2008 research study performed by the Department of Genetics at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Saudi Arabia explored the possibilities of using cannabis in cancer gene therapy.
In their report entitled “Cannabinoid 2 receptor induction by IL-12 and its potential as a therapeutic target for the treatment of anaplastic thyroid carcinoma,” researchers found that using marijuana to induct the endocannabinoid receptor CB2 allowed for cancer gene therapy to have a more profound effect.
They also learned that when combined with cancer-fighting gene therapy, the induction of CB2 receptors contributed to thyroid tumor regression and prevented the growth of anaplastic tumors by:
- Allowing the immune system to function and respond to the tumor
- Preventing the formation of new blood vessels that enable tumor nutrition
How to Take Medical Marijuana for Thyroid Cancer
You have way more options for marijuana use than just smoking. Both the medical and recreational marijuana industries have worked hard to make their products usable for everyone. Certain methods will work better than others for thyroid cancer. Let’s see how they compare:
- Smoking: As a way to inhale cannabis, smoking provides fast relief when you need your medicine right away. But, like tobacco smoke, weed smoke contains dangerous toxins that damage your respiratory system. For optimum health benefits, you may want to pass on smoking marijuana.
- Vaping: On the other hand, vaping has the immediacy of smoking without being as unhealthy. If you pick a vaporizer that doesn’t scorch your marijuana, you can avoid inhaling any smoke byproducts.
- Edibles: Edible marijuana products may do the job for you but only in certain cases. They aren’t ideal for patients having difficulty swallowing due to a thyroid tumor or patients experiencing nausea. Also, the effects of edibles are slow and more unpredictable.
- Topicals: Depending on how much your tumor presses on the outside, topicals can work decently or not at all. Patients usually use lotions and creams for muscles aches and other local pain. But a patch can transfer cannabinoids right to your blood and travel to your thyroid.
- Pills and tinctures: Some medical marijuana products closely resemble the medicine you would get at a pharmacy. You can take Cannabinoid capsules like a typical pill, and place tinctures under the tongue to be absorbed into the skin there.
- Oils: CBD oil is isolated cannabidiol (CBD) in oil form. You can vape CBD oil or add it to a meal.
Picking the right cannabis medicine can prove very difficult, especially if you haven’t used marijuana before. When in doubt, check in with your doctor or dispensary. They can provide guidance based on your personal needs.
Cannabis Side Effects
While marijuana comes with side effects, not all of them will feel like a side effect to you. Marijuana can affect people differently, and the same effect will help some people while hurting others.
For instance, the following side effects are, in fact, beneficial for people with thyroid cancer:
- Hunger/Increased Appetite: Marijuana users and non-users alike often joke about weed causing “the munchies,” or making you extra hungry. If you don’t have much of an appetite thanks to your cancer, marijuana can counteract that to help you eat.
- Insomnia/Energy Boost: When using a sativa strain, some users have a difficult time falling asleep. But, if you take your medicine during the day, you can use it as an energy-booster rather than a sleep-delayer.
- Drowsiness/Sleep Aid: Indica strains make many users feel sleepy when they use them. If pain and other issues keep you awake, some indica will help you catch some Zs.
But, not every side effect of weed will help you — some of them still act as just side effects, such as:
- Short-term memory loss: If you take your medication before you go to school or work, it can impair your memory. When this happens, you should time your treatment, so it causes the memory loss when you don’t need to function as well.
- Giddiness: Weed can change your mood to the point that you’re too goofy to get through the day! In this case, you should try a different medication time so you feel giddy during your off-hours.
- Dry mouth or thirst: Like many traditional medicines, pot can make your mouth feel extra dry. Drink extra water to get your mouth feeling normal again.
- Red eyes: If you feel self-conscious when you have “stoner eyes,” use eye drops to soothe the redness.
- Respiratory issues: Only patients who smoke and vape get respiratory problems. The simple solution is to take your medicine differently.
- Uneasiness or anxiety: When weed causes you to feel nervous, you should probably talk with your doctor or dispensary staff about using a different product. If you think the anxiety is manageable, you can also try changing the time that you use your meds.
Even if it’s not listed here, you should contact your physician immediately if you experience health issues that you didn’t have before using marijuana. It’s possible that you have an allergy or an existing, undiagnosed condition.
Further Reading About Medical Marijuana and Thyroid Cancer
Remember how we said that having the right information is a crucial tool for your cancer treatment? If you need to do further reading on cancer and medical marijuana, take a look at the broad range of resources we provide that educate and inform.
The legal ways you can obtain and use medical marijuana depend on the resources and regulations in your area. Learn more about the weed laws in your state, the experienced marijuana doctors near you and the dispensaries providing medication in your area.
Now that you know your options, how about learning more about conditions and pot themselves? If you need to read up on another medical condition treated with marijuana, check out our library of qualifying conditions. Patients trying to keep up with the latest developments in marijuana legislation and lifestyles should read our blog on news, lifestyles and medical advice.
For more information, find a medical marijuana doctor in your state today!
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