When singer and actress Olivia Newton-John announced last month that she had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer—a return of the breast cancer she battled into remission in the 1990s, which has now spread to her back—she said she planned to fight the disease in part with "natural wellness therapies."
While Newton-John didn't specify which natural therapies she would begin using, her daughter, Chloe Rose Lattanzi, did sound off on one of the remedies when she posted this message on Instagram in support of her mom:
“My mom and best friend is going to be fine. She will be using medicine that I often talk about. CBD oil! (Cannabis has scientifically proven properties to inhibit cancer cell growth) and other natural healing remedies plus modern medicine to beat this,” Lattanzi wrote.
So what is CBD oil, also known as cannabis oil, and does it really have cancer-fighting powers? First, the basics: CBD stands for cannabidiol. It's one of several compounds, called cannabinoids, found in cannabis, aka the marijuana plant. Some research shows that certain cannabinoids do have an anti-cancer effect, says Allan Frankel, M.D., a medicinal cannabis expert in Santa Monica, California.
Taken as a spray or capsule or inhaled as a vapor, CBD oil is used to treat either the cancer itself or the side effects of the disease or chemotherapy, says Dr. Frankel. Unlike smoking marijuana, however, Dr. Frankel says CBD oil won't get a person high because it doesn't contain enough of the high-producing cannabinoid known as THC. Not getting high is part of the appeal of CBD oil for many patients, he adds.
But whether cannabis oil really plays a role in fighting cancer or easing cancer side effects is controversial. Human studies are scarce, concedes Dr. Frankel, and he stresses that it shouldn’t take the place of modern medical treatments but instead be a supplement to them.
There's also confusion as to whether CBD oil is legal. The Drug Enforcement Agency appears to classify it as a "controlled substance," and it's not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Frankel says it is legally available in states that have legitimized medicinal or recreational marijuana. Doctors like himself can't prescribe it like a regular drug, but he can direct a patient to a legal dispensary.
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The American Cancer Society (ACS) also takes a cautious stance on cannabis in general. "Data shows that it inhibits growth of cancer cells in petri dishes, and in animal studies, but it's limited data and I can’t recommend it for human use outside of a human clinical trial," Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer of the ACS, tells Health. "The initial data indicates it should be researched more though."
So while the data looks promising, the jury is officially out. Still, if Newton-John chooses to give CBD oil a try, it's a good idea to know where the product she uses came from. "If you buy something like CBD oil, or any marijuana product from a dispensary or off the street, you don't know what's in it," says Dr. Brawley.