BCCT’s Take: Cannabis and Head and Neck Cancer
January 28, 2020
You may read reports that cannabis (marijuana) is good for treating cancer and its symptoms. As we say in our Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids summary, there is currently not enough evidence that cannabis is effective in treating cancer itself, though it appears to help with relieving a number of symptoms such as nausea and pain. A new study has found that, at least in the case of human papilloma virus (HPV)-positive head and neck cancer, smoking cannabis daily may have cancer-promoting effects.1
Large studies indicate that smoking cannabis on a daily basis is linked to a higher risk of HPV-positive head and neck cancer and worse outcomes for those with this diagnosis
Large studies indicate that smoking cannabis on a daily basis is linked to a higher risk of HPV-positive head and neck cancer and worse outcomes for those with this diagnosis.2 According to the current study’s authors, this increased risk hasn’t shown up in HPV-negative head and neck cancer.
Cannabinoids activate a biological pathway known to promote cancer cell growth and spread, as well as inhibit cell death in HPV-positive head and neck cancer.
The researchers went on to do a study using cells, animals and then humans with HPV-positive head and neck cancer to find a biological explanation of the connection between cannabinoids and this cancer. Using doses of cannabinoids typical of recreational cannabis use, they found that cannabinoids activate a biological pathway known to promote cancer cell growth and spread, as well as inhibit cell death (apoptosis).
What does this mean in the real world? The authors point out that HPV-positive head and neck cancer is on the rise, with a number of things going on to drive that: a slump in number of people getting the HPV vaccine, rising genital HPV infections (often called genital warts) being transferred to the mouth and throat through oral sex, and rising recreational use of cannabis as more states legalize it. These three factors are all behaviors that people can change.
If you have HPV-positive head and neck cancer, it would make sense to stop using cannabis.
If you have HPV-positive head and neck cancer, it would make sense to stop using cannabis. Since the study only looked at typical daily recreational use, we don’t know if there is a “safe” dose of cannabis that wouldn’t activate the pro-cancer pathway. The study didn’t identify which cannabinoids (THC, CBD, etc) are activating the pathway. If your doctor has prescribed medical cannabis for a health condition, discuss your options with your doctor.
You can find more about reducing your risk of HPV-positive head and neck cancer from How can I make sure I don’t get or spread HPV?