Malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive malignancy caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure, is one of the rarest and most deadly cancers. Although scientists around the globe continue to develop and test new methods for diagnosing and combatting it, there is still no cure.
When Californian Andy Ashcraft was diagnosed with late stage pleural mesothelioma in 2010, he was told he might have as little as three months to live. At best, his doctors gave him a year. But Andy and his wife Ruth refused to accept those odds and went to work to find alternative therapeutic approaches for mesothelioma, including the controversial cannabis oil. Their experience is the focus of this special series.
Before Californian Andy Ashcraft was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma in 2010 and given less than a year to live, the 69-year-old had had no exposure to marijuana, the plant that may be saving his life.
But after an experimental drug stopped working and his mesothelioma tumors kept growing, Ashcraft quit chemotherapy and turned his life and his health over to cannabis oil, an ancient treatment that is not FDA approved.
“Our oncologists told me that I needed to look into hospice and I decided that I wasn’t going to do that,” Ashcraft’s wife, Ruth, told Surviving Mesothelioma in a phone interview. “So when people starting telling me about cannabis and its effect on cancer, I was really interested.”
Determined to help Andy beat his grim odds and survive mesothelioma, the Ashcraft’s studied everything they could find on medicinal marijuana and, specifically, the active ingredients or cannabinoids in cannabis oil – cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Long History of Marijuana in Medicine
What the Ashcraft’s learned in their search for an alternative mesothelioma treatment is that the marijuana plant has a long history of medicinal use.
Although the use of marijuana in medicine predates written history, Chinese texts as early as 1500 BC reference the healing properties of the plant and list it, along with ginseng and ephedra, as a mainstay of Chinese herbal medicine.
According to Egyptologist Lisa Manniche in her book An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, ancient Egyptians also used cannabis to treat glaucoma, inflammation and to “cool the uterus”. Cannabis pollen was even found on the mummy of Ramesses II who died in 1213 BC.
Likewise, ancient Persian religious texts of the 7th century BC list cannabis as the most important of 10,000 medicinal plants, according to Martin Booth, author of Cannabis: A History. Booth cites evidence that ancient Indians, Greeks, and Romans also used derivatives of the cannabis plant to treat everything from earache to “sexual longing”.
In India, traditional Ayurvedic practitioners still prescribe marijuana for sleep and digestive problems, as well as for pain relief.
Cannabis in Cancer Treatment
But the medicinal use of cannabis oil, including in the treatment of intractable cancers such as mesothelioma, is more complicated in the modern world.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration currently lists marijuana and its cannabinoids as Schedule I controlled substances. In the face of a growing body of research supporting the benefits of medical marijuana, the DEA is reportedly reconsidering that stance, a move that the American Medical Association supports.
But even under current restrictions, new scientific research studies on cannabis continue to surface. Studies have now been published on the use of marijuana and its derivatives in the treatment of
- Brain cancer
- Breast cancer
- Lung cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Blood cancer
- Oral cancer
- Liver cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
Medicinal Marijuana and Lung Cancer
Although there are few human studies of cannabis – and none specifically on mesothelioma patients – there are studies of its potential as a lung cancer treatment.
A 2007 study conducted by Harvard scientists found that the cannabinoid THC inhibits epithelial growth factor-induced lung cancer cell migration. Four years later, a second Harvard study investigated the role of cannabinoid receptors in lung cancer cells and determined that cannabinoids can be used to treat lung cancer.
In 2012, a German study used primary tumor cells from a lung cancer patient to confirm that cannabinoids can decrease overall cancer invasiveness.
In an article called “Marijuana and Cancer”, the American Cancer Society acknowledges studies suggesting that “certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce spread of some forms of cancer” but says more research is needed to confirm their safety and efficacy.
In the meantime, the FDA has already approved two drugs based on marijuana compounds. Dronabinol (Marinol) is a THC capsule for nausea, vomiting, and poor appetite in AIDS or chemotherapy patients and nabilone (Cesamet) is a synthetic cannabinoid that is a last resort for chemotherapy-related nausea.
Another drug called nabiximols, which contains both THC and CBD, is still under study in the US for the treatment of cancer pain.
Changes in the classification of cannabinoids could open the door to more and better research and much-needed human trials.
How the Ashcrafts Use Cannabis Oil to Treat Mesothelioma
But the lack of approved cannabis-based drugs or human studies has not stopped cancer patients like Andy Ashcraft from obtaining the compound and trying it for themselves.
For about a thousand dollars a month (made possible in part by their mesothelioma legal settlement), the Ashcrafts are able to obtain high-quality cannabis oil under California’s Medical Marijuana Law.
Twenty-four US states now have such laws. They vary widely in terms of what form the marijuana can can take and how much a person possess at one time. Sixteen additional states have laws that limit medicinal marijuana use to CBD, the non-psychoactive marijuana extract.
Ashcraft’s cannabis oil contains a mixture of both CBD and THC, although the small amount of THC and the fact that Andy takes it by
mouth mean that it doesn’t make him high. In addition to cannabis oil, Ashcraft takes daily doses of other natural oils, exercises regularly, gets massages and acupuncture and remains unfailingly positive.
“I figured that I could lay in bed and cry about it, or I can do my best to live whatever time I have left and that is what I chose to do,” says Andy. “Once you let yourself get really down, it’s hard to get out of that.”
The information in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, examination, diagnosis or treatment. You should always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before starting any new treatment or making any changes to an existing treatment. You should not delay in seeking or disregard medical advice based on information in this article. Cannabis oil is NOT FDA approved for the treatment of any cancer.
Interview with Andy and Ruth Ashcraft, April 2015
“Marijuana and Cancer”, American Cancer Society website
Cannabis and Cannabinoids, National Cancer Institute website
History of Marijuana as Medicine – 2900 BC – 1599 AD, ProCon.org
Walia, Arjun, “20 Medical Studies That Show Cannabis Can Be a Potential Cure for Cancer”, August 23, 2013
Collective Evolution“Marijuana as Medicine? The Science Beyond the Controversy”, 2000, The National Academies Press Open Book