09 Apr Links Between Marijuana Use and Testicular Cancer
Testicular cancer is the general term for a highly treatable form of cancer that originates within either one of the two testes, paired organs that play an essential role in male reproductive and hormonal health. There are two major subtypes of this disease: cancers called seminomas and a group of four different cancers known collectively as non-seminomas. Current scientific evidence indicates the presence of a link between marijuana use and the development of testicular cancer; in many cases, marijuana users with testicular cancer develop relatively severe forms of the disease.
The testicles are simultaneously part of the male reproductive system and the hormone-producing endocrine system. In their role as part of the reproductive system, they produce the sperm required to fertilize female eggs. In their role as part of the endocrine system, they produce the hormones testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which create the chemical changes required for development of the secondary sexual characteristics (facial hair growth, deepening of the speaking voice, etc.) that define male physical maturity. Sperm is produced in cells in the testicles called germ cells (counterpart germ cells in the female reproductive system produce eggs).
Testicular Cancer Basics
Over 90 percent of testicular cancer begins in the sperm-producing germ cells, the American Cancer Society reports. Seminomas are relatively slow-growing germ cell cancers. Doctors refer to the vast majority of seminomas as classical seminomas; these cancers typically appear in the two-decade span between a man’s mid-20s and mid-40s. All other seminoma tumors are known as spermatocytic seminomas; these uncommon cancers usually appear in men in their 60s, grow more slowly than classical seminomas, and have less of a tendency than classical seminomas to spread from the testicles to other parts of the body.
Non-seminomas also form in the sperm-producing germ cells. They come in four main forms, known respectively as yolk sac carcinomas, embryonal carcinomas, teratomas, and choriocarcinomas. In most cases, non-seminoma tumors contain at least two of these cancers; however, in some cases, they contain only a single type of cancerous cell. Doctors refer to non-seminomas that contain two or more types of cancer cells as mixed germ cell tumors. Generally speaking, non-seminomas develop more quickly than seminomas, and also have a greater chance of escaping from the testicles and spreading their malignant cells to other parts of the body. Embryonal carcinomas are more common than the other non-seminomas; choriocarcinomas typically have the greatest chance of spreading aggressively and invading bone tissue or vital organs such as the brain and lungs.
Potential Link to Marijuana Use
In 2012, researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles released the results of a study that examined the rate of testicular cancer in men who use various types of recreational drugs. They concluded that men with a history of marijuana use develop some form of testicular cancer about twice as often as men who don’t have a history of any form of recreational drug use. By comparison, men with a history of cocaine use actually develop testicular cancer less frequently than men who don’t have a drug use history. The types of testicular cancer found in marijuana-using men are typically some form of unmixed non-seminoma tumor, or mixed tumors that contain more than one form of non-seminoma cell. As noted previously, these types of cancer usually grow more quickly and spread more easily than seminoma testicular tumors.
The type of study used to uncover the link between marijuana use and testicular cancer is known as a case-control study. Case-control studies don’t provide direct proof of a causal connection between two different health factors; instead, they note statistical connections between factors that may or may not have a causal connection. In real-world terms, this means that no one can claim that the USC study proves, or attempts to prove, that marijuana use causes testicular cancer. In order to draw that kind of conclusion, researchers would need to conduct other types of studies designed specifically to prove a causal connection. With this caveat in mind, the authors of the study note that their study is the third such study to demonstrate a potential link between marijuana intake and some form of testicular cancer.
If such a link does exist, some researchers believe that it may stem from the potential of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), to alter sperm production inside the testicles’ gram cells. This potential exists because THC molecules can access cell receptors on the surfaces of gram cells called endocannabinoid receptors. Inside the brain, THC’s ability to access the same type of receptor accounts for marijuana’s mind-altering effects. Currently, doctors and researchers don’t fully understand what THC may or may not do when it accesses endocannabinoid receptors in the testicles.
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