Herbal Medicine & Marijuana

Herbal medicine is a complementary and alternative treatment option used by many people with mesothelioma. Cancer patients turn to herbal medicine for relief of symptoms and alleviation of side effects caused by chemotherapy and other cancer therapies.

Before the development of the modern medical system, physicians used plants and herbs to treat patients. They created remedies from seeds, leaves, flowers, roots and bark. Now that U.S. physicians have access to laboratory-created drugs, they rely less on herbal remedies and other alternative treatments.

Eastern medicine still employs herbs in cancer treatment plans, but Western medicine only recently began to accept the supportive role of herbs for cancer care. Clinical trials that incorporate herbal medicine with conventional cancer therapies are relatively new to the United States, while China has performed such trials since the early 1900s.

Clinical trials and scientific studies prove that select herbs can inhibit tumor growth and metastasis, improve chemotherapy, ease the side effects of cancer treatment, reduce cancer symptoms, boost the immune system and support overall wellness.

Herbal Medicine Options for Cancer

Herbal medicines provide many of the same benefits that traditional medicines provide, but usually with a milder effect. Herbal remedies can help patients control their symptoms, inhibit cancer growth and improve their overall quality of life. These herbal remedies may come in the form of tablets or capsules, creams, teas or tinctures (alcohol-based concentrate).

Many traditional cancer medicines contain active herbal ingredients. For instance, the mesothelioma chemotherapy drug taxol is derived from the bark of the yew tree.

However, by isolating a single herbal compound and recreating it in a laboratory, manufacturers eliminate the other compounds that complemented the main healing ingredient. They also add a number of stabilizing chemicals and fillers. Most herbalists believe that this diminishes the herb’s original healing properties.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designates most herbs as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). However, patients must remember that herbal remedies are still a type of medicine and that their use should always be supervised by your oncologist.

Herbal medicines have a far lower risk of side effects than traditional drugs, partially because they are less potent than pharmaceuticals. For instance, patients who use natural remedies for insomnia are less likely to experience dizziness, tremors or spasms than patients who use benzodiazepines. The rare side effects that do accompany herbal remedies are typically mild; constipation is the most common. The likelihood of dependency is also lower for herbal remedies.

Herbs used in cancer care may boost the immune system, attack cancer cells, inhibit metastasis (cancer spreading), ease cancer symptoms and reduce treatment side effects.

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Herbal Medicines for Immune Support

Most of the herbal medicines used to improve overall wellness work by strengthening the patient’s immune system. A healthy immune system makes the body stronger, less susceptible to infection and more proficient at naturally eliminating cancer cells. Some of these herbs include astragalus, black cumin and ashwgandha. Cat’s claw is another immune-enhancing supplement, and it also has powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.

An herbal tea blend known as Essiac tea contains herbs that are known for their immune-boosting effects such as burdock root. This tea is popular among the alternative cancer care community. Research shows that it doesn’t cure cancer, but it does contain more antioxidants than red wine or green tea.

Traditional Chinese medicine uses the herb dong quai to support overall wellness, which harmonizes the patient’s energy and returns the body to its proper order. The herb may offer additional benefits to mesothelioma patients. Several studies have found that dong quai can protect the body from doxorubicin-induced cardiotoxicity and radiation-induced pneumonitis.

Anticancer Herbs

Some herbal medicines can induce apoptosis, or cause cancer cells to trigger their own death, such as kanglaite (a traditional Chinese herb), Rhizoma zedoariae and Moringa oleifera. The combination of 12 herbs known as jin fu kang can also induce apoptosis, especially in lung cancer cells.

Other herbal medicines have anti-angiogenic properties. These herbs cut off the blood supply necessary for cancerous cells to multiply. Herbs in this category include bindweed, boswellia, Chinese skullcap, Chinese magnolia and ginger.

A few herbs can inhibit cancer in other ways. Graviola, for instance, inhibits glucose supplementation, indicating that it may deplete a tumor’s energy supply. Huanglian may block the activity that leads to cell division and subsequent tumor growth. Several clinical trials have also found that hypericin — a component of St. John’s Wort — makes mesothelioma cells more likely to die after photodynamic therapy. Trials on astragalus show it improves the effects of platinum-based chemotherapy agents like cisplatin and carboplatin, which are common chemotherapy drugs for mesothelioma.

Herbs for Treatment Side Effects

The following herbs are reported to help control the side effects of traditional cancer treatment.

Side Effect Herbal Medicines
Nausea or vomiting Ginger, Marijuana, Grape Seed, Peppermint, Roman Chamomile
Appetite loss Marijuana, Dandelion, Devil’s Claw, Lemon Balm, Siberian Ginseng
Diarrhea Bilberry, Blackberry Leaf, Chamomile, Huanglian, Marshmallow Root
Constipation Aloe Vera, Fenugreek, Ragweed, Senna, Psyllium
Fatigue Astragalus, Chlorella, Ginkgo Biloba, Gotu Kola
Skin irritation Calendula, Holy Basil, Milk Thistle, Panax Ginseng

Herbs for Mesothelioma Symptoms

Mesothelioma patients may use herbal medicines to address certain cancer symptoms, such as pain and difficulty breathing.

Symptom Herbal Medicines
Pain Marijuana, Boswellia, Circumin/Turmeric, White Willow Bark, Arnica
Shortness of breath Hawthorn, Eucalyptus, Lobelia, White Pine Bark
Coughing Black Cohosh, Slippery Elm Bark, White/Western Yarrow
Anxiety or stress Kava, Passionflower, Magnolia Bark
Depression St. John’s Wort, Valerian
Sleeplessness or insomnia Passionflower, Valerian, Chamomile

Precautions for Using Herbal Medicine

While herbal medicines are less likely to cause side effects than traditional drugs, patients can still experience complications if they use them improperly.

Patients can also look for one or more of the following quality labels on their herbal supplements:

  • GAP (Good Agricultural Practice)

  • GLP (Good Laboratory Practice)

  • GSP (Good Supply Practice)

  • GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice)

Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, herbal supplements do not have to undergo FDA testing before reaching the market. Some patients have unknowingly bought supplements contaminated with toxins such as arsenic, lead and mercury. To avoid contaminated herbs, patients should only purchase products from reputable companies with a United States Pharmacopeia (USP) label.

Although some herbs can inhibit cancer growth, patients should avoid herbal medicines that are marketed as cures for cancer. These remedies are often produced without any scientific evidence to support the manufacturer’s claim.

Some herbs can cause negative interactions with chemotherapy drugs or prevent blood from clotting properly after surgery. To avoid these complications, patients should always consult with their doctor before adding an herbal supplement to their treatment regimen.

Have More Questions About Herbal Medicine?

Our team of patient advocates are available to answer questions and can even help you find a treatment center.

Marijuana and Mesothelioma

Marijuana is the accepted term for Cannabis sativa, an herb with medicinal properties that is clinically proven to benefit cancer patients. Although the sale and use of marijuana as a recreational substance is a federal offense in the United States, it is approved in eight states and the District of Columbia for recreational use and in 29 states for medicinal purposes — particularly for treating pain associated with cancer and for loss of appetite associated with chemotherapy treatments.

Mesothelioma symptoms and treatment side effects, such as pain, nausea, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite, often decrease a patient’s quality of life. For some patients, medical marijuana can provide relief from these conditions.

One mesothelioma survivor, Andy A., has used cannabis oil for years with encouraging success. His wife and caregiver thoroughly researched how to dose and administer cannabis oil to cancer patients before Andy began taking it. Another survivor, Pete K., used edible medical marijuana to lessen the side effects of chemotherapy.

Benefits of Medical Marijuana for Cancer Treatment

Patients with mesothelioma cope with symptoms of the disease and side effects of anti-cancer treatment. Several clinical trials have found that marijuana is effective in managing several symptoms associated with cancer.

In these trials, marijuana was found effective for:

  • Pain relief

  • Nausea relief

  • Improved appetite

  • Improved sleep quality

  • Anxiety relief

Despite its benefits, marijuana may also have side effects, including:

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Low blood pressure

  • Muscle relaxation

  • Bloodshot eyes

  • Slowed food digestion

  • Dizziness

  • Paranoia

Patients report that side effects are generally mild and vary depending upon the strain of marijuana and how much is consumed.

Scientific studies are also presenting evidence that marijuana possesses anti-tumor activity in certain types of cancer, including lung cancer.

Edible Medical Marijuana

Patients with mesothelioma or lung cancer usually have weak lungs and experience trouble breathing. For these patients, consuming edible marijuana is preferable to smoking it to avoid any aggravation of lung tissues.

Edible Medical Marijuana - Brownie and 7 Layer Bar

When marijuana is inhaled, the effects are felt almost immediately. When eaten, the medicine takes longer to take effect because of the digestive process. This can take from 20 to 90 minutes. However, many patients find that the psychoactive effects of edible marijuana are milder and the body relief is stronger. This is sometimes more effective for cancer patients who seek relief from physical symptoms. The effects may also last longer.

Edible medical marijuana comes in a variety of types. The most popular and most recognizable forms of edible marijuana are baked goods. Items like brownies and cookies are made with cannabis-infused butter. Hash oil or hash-infused butter tends to have a higher concentration of medicine, so less medicine can be used, making the flavor milder. This type of medicine can also be made into chocolates.

Flavored Medical Marijuana Lollipops

For patients who are watching calories, fat or sugar, there are alternatives to heavy baked goods.

Tinctures are placed under the tongue for an amount of time and then swallowed. According to some patients, the effect of this medicine is less sedating than edibles made with cannabis butter, and the medicine is absorbed more quickly.

Cannabis capsules usually contain a mix of cannabis and other oils, or other oils infused with cannabis. Patients take these like they would any other pill.

Other edibles include hard candies, cold drinks and teas. It is important to follow dosing instructions carefully and not to overeat cannabis edibles.

Synthetic THC

Marinol Logo

Since marijuana is not readily available to most patients, drug companies have developed synthetic versions of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. A synthetic form of THC called Marinol (dronabinol) was approved by the FDA as an appetite stimulant and for nausea. Cesamet (nabilone) is another drug that contains a synthetic cannabinoid similar to THC that was approved to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.

Patients who have tried both synthetic and natural versions of marijuana often say that marijuana in its natural form is more effective for symptom relief than the synthetic variety. Marinol and Cesamet can also have serious side effects that aren’t a risk with natural THC, including seizures, irregular heartbeat, vision changes, headaches and severe or persistent dizziness.

Regulation and Legalization of Medical Marijuana

Regulations on marijuana began in the early 1900s. Various pieces of legislation affected the regulation and criminalization of marijuana, such as the Harrison Act, the Marihuana Tax Act, the Boggs Act and the Narcotics Control Act. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified the drug as a Schedule I substance having “no accepted medical use.”

The country’s attitude toward medical cannabis began to shift again in the late ’70s. In 1978, the National Institute in Drug Abuse National Advisory Council (NIDA) supplied seven patients with cannabis after their physicians applied for the Compassionate Use Program.

In 1991, 53 percent of oncologists agreed that marijuana should be available by prescription and 66 percent confirmed it helped cancer patients treat the side effects of chemotherapy. The New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial calling for the rescheduling of marijuana in 1997, and in 2008 the American College of Physicians stated that it supported non-smoked THC. The organization also called for exemption from criminal prosecution for patients.

After California legalized the drug in 1996, other states followed. Presently, 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.

Recreational marijuana became legal to purchase in Colorado and Washington in 2014. Since then, the District of Columbia and six other states, including Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon, Maine and Massachusetts, have enacted recreational laws.

States that have Legalized Medical Marijuana

State Possession limit
Alaska 1 oz usable; 6 plants (3 mature, 3 immature)
Arizona 2.5 oz usable; 0-12 plants
Arkansas 3 oz usable per 14-day period
California 8 oz usable; 6 mature or 12 immature plants
Colorado 2 oz usable; 6 plants (3 mature, 3 immature)
Connecticut 2.5 oz usable
District of Columbia 2 oz useable; 6 plants (3 mature, 3 immature)
Delaware 6 oz usable
Florida Amount to be determined
Hawaii 4 oz usable; 7 plants (3 mature, 4 immature)
Illinois 2.5 oz of usable cannabis during a 14-day period
Maine 2.5 oz usable; 6 plants
Maryland 30-day supply; no more than 120 grams (approximately 4 oz)
Massachusetts 60-day supply (10 oz)
Michigan 2.5 oz usable; 12 plants
Minnesota 30-day supply of non-smokable marijuana
Montana 1 oz usable; 4 plants (mature); 12 seedlings
Nevada 2.5 oz usable; 12 plants
New Hampshire 2 oz of usable cannabis during a 10-day period
New Jersey 2 oz usable
New Mexico 6 oz usable; 16 plants (4 mature, 12 immature)
New York 30-day supply of non-smokable marijuana
North Dakota 3 oz per 14-day period
Ohio Maximum of a 90-day supply; amount to be determined
Oregon (only state to accept out-of-state applications) 24 oz usable; 24 plants (6 mature, 18 immature)
Pennsylvania 30-day supply
Rhode Island 2.5 oz usable; 12 plants
Vermont 2 oz usable; 9 plants (2 mature, 7 immature)
Washington 3 oz usable; 15 plants
West Virginia 30-day supply

At a federal level, marijuana remains illegal. Under former President Barak Obama’s administration, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) stated it would leave the states to enforce their laws and would not intervene unless one of eight standards was violated (including keeping marijuana away from children, drug cartels and federal property). However, under President Donald Trump’s administration, the DOJ is reviewing that stance.

Talk with Your Oncologist

Mesothelioma patients may better deal with the side effects of chemotherapy or the anxiety caused by living with the disease by integrating herbal medicine into their treatment plan. Many herbal medicines are available to help people cope with cancer, just make sure you discuss it with your oncologist. Your doctor can help you develop a treatment plan that suits you best.

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Michelle Whitmer

Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure.

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