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Hundreds of articles on the Internet report that marijuana can beat brain cancer. But are the reports honest or just hype?

Although this topic was chosen several days ago, I'm writing this article, ironically, just a few hours after I found out I will have to have surgery for a possible tumor in my brain, and I will have to have the surgery as soon as the operating theater it can be scheduled. I had an interest in the subject of brain tumors as a science reporter before this, but now I feel the need to become a lay expert really fast.

So here's a report on what I, and maybe you, can really expect marijuana to do for a brain tumor, written from the point of view of someone who has access to the very best of modern medicine, and no particular interest in marijuana, pro or con. I'll take you through the questions for which I've had to get answers myself.

Q. How can you know whether you might have a brain tumor?

A. You can't really diagnose a brain tumor--cancerous or benign--on your own. But you can recognize certain situations in which it's urgen to get a doctor's advice. See a physician if you experience:

  • Headaches that don't seem to be migraines or cluster headaches or related to tension, infections, or injury, especially if they just won't go away.
  • Changes in vision, especially if they are in only one eye.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting, that may or may not occur at mealtime.
  • Muscle twitches, especially if it's a muscle movement you can't consciously imitate, seizures, or convulsions.
  • Numbness in arms or legs.
  • Odd sensations, or hallucinations. A hallucination doesn't mean you are crazy, just that you are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling something that objectively is not there.
  • Changes in mood or personality that you cannot otherwise explain.
  • Problems with memory.

Many conditions other than brain tumors can cause these symptoms, but they are a sign that another condition needs to be diagnosed to explain them or a brain tumor ruled out by non-invasive brain scans, such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computed tomography). It can be uncomfortable and just a little scary to spend 20 to 40 minutes in the machines that take these scans, but they do not hurt. Even after you have these scans, the doctor may have to do angiography, sending an extremely tiny camera into your brain, to make sure what is seen is a tumor of some kind.

Q. Are brain tumors always fatal?

A. No. Not all brain tumors are cancerous, and as long as the tumor stays small and does not put pressure on the rest of the brain, some non-cancerous tumors might not even need treatment. Cancerous tumors of the brain, however, always require treatment, because they distort other tissues also trapped inside the skull. 

Q. But marijuana treats brain cancer, right?

A. First of all, it is important to understand that there are at least 120 different kinds of brain cancer. What treats one kind of brain cancer may or may not treat another. Researchers are looking at--and getting positive preliminary results for--marijuana as a treatment of a particularly deadly kind of cancer known as a glioma. These tests don't establish that marijuana will treat other forms of brain cancer, or that it won't. 

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