March 06, 2023
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Photography by María Soledad Kubat/Stocksy United
While there isn’t any solid evidence that medical cannabis can treat breast cancer, it may relieve side effects of chemo, like nausea and pain. And for these people, it greatly improved their quality of life.
Cannabis is a group of three plants (Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis) with psychoactive properties. You may know it as a drug with relaxing and calming effects, typically called weed or marijuana by some.
People often use cannabis for medical reasons to help treat conditions like epilepsy or chronic pain.
Many people with breast cancer also turn to cannabis to help manage their symptoms or side effects of treatments.
This article shares the stories and experiences of two women — “MBB” and Denise — who successfully used cannabis during their breast cancer journeys. It also explains the research behind cannabis for breast cancer, considerations to be aware of, and how to talk with your doctor about getting a medical card.
MBB received a breast cancer diagnosis in 2018 at 49 years old.
“I found my cancer,” she explains. She’d been monitored with mammograms and ultrasounds for 5 years before her diagnosis — but she “had a nagging feeling” that her medical team wasn’t seeing the whole picture and demanded an MRI. Her initial diagnosis of a 2.6-centimeter mass was a 7.6-centimeter tumor. She opted for a double mastectomy with no reconstruction.
“Going from a person who rarely got sick to a person diagnosed with a life threatening disease was terrifying,” she says. “The barrage of tests, consultations, and decisions I was instantly faced with was dizzying.”
Since MBB’s cancer was HER2-positive and her lymph nodes tested positive for cancer cells, she chose to undergo an aggressive chemo regimen. “I had four rounds of AC chemo, one round of Taxol, 11 rounds of Abraxane, and 17 rounds of Herceptin and Perjeta. I am now on the 10-year Tamoxifen protocol.”
For Denise, her breast cancer experience began in 2016. Like MBB’s, it quickly got intense. “I had eight surgeries, 16 rounds of chemo,” she says. “It was a little over 2 years before I began to feel like myself again.”
Her diagnosis came around the same time that Oregon, her home state, legalized cannabis. Dispensaries had just opened. “Since cannabis was legalized, all my friends gave me cannabis as gifts right after my diagnosis: edibles, buds, vaping pens, desserts made with cannabis butter,” she says.
MBB decided to try cannabis after her double mastectomy. “I heard so many stories from women who had only needed Tylenol after their surgeries and who were back to work in 2 weeks,” she says. “I was blindsided when this was not my experience.”
She received a post-mastectomy pain syndrome diagnosis — a complication that may affect 20% to 30% of women after mastectomy — and experienced constant excruciating pain. Doctors prescribed gabapentin, nerve block injections, muscle relaxers, oxycodone, physical therapy, acupuncture, and antidepressants, but nothing brought consistent relief. So, MBB turned to cannabis.
“I started microdosing CBD and making my own topical THC/CBD balm,” she says. “I started to notice a decrease in my pain.” She weaned herself off of pharmaceutical pain relievers and started to experiment with edibles, hoping to make a dent in her growing list of side effects that now also included a reduced appetite, digestive issues, and chronic insomnia.
MBB and Denise aren’t the only people with breast cancer turning to cannabis. A 2021 study involving about 600 people with breast cancer revealed that 42% of participants used cannabis to manage the cancer symptoms or the side effects of cancer treatments (like nausea, pain, and anxiety).
Some people think cannabis can cure or prevent cancer, but there isn’t enough evidence to back up this claim, and it’s important for people not to rely on cannabis alone to treat breast cancer.
Still, cannabis may help improve quality of life in people with cancer undergoing treatments like chemotherapy. A 2022 research review indicated that cannabis might be particularly helpful with side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and neuropathic pain.
Denise also tried cannabis as she continued her treatments. “I was so sick of taking meds. I took the bare minimum after every infusion,” she says. “I vaped CBD when I was stressed. So did my husband. It really helped calm us down.”
At the encouragement of a nurse, she also used THC (preferring indica strains) after infusions as a stronger option “to get me out of focusing on my pain.”
If you’re interested in trying cannabis to relieve breast cancer symptoms or treatment side effects, the first step is to speak with your doctor. Make sure you get their go-ahead before trying anything new — some cannabis products may interact with treatments for breast cancer.
Once you have the green light, the process of getting a medical card for cannabis can vary, depending on your state.
“It’s fairly easy in New York to get a medical marijuana card. It can all be done online,” said MBB. “All you need is $200 and medical documentation that outlines your need.” She added that she really doesn’t even need a medical card, since her daily dose falls within the recreational use limit.
Denise said that her Oregon medical card was quick and simple to get, but it only provides her with a discount, since cannabis is legal in the state.
As of 2022, 37 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia currently allow the medical use of cannabis products. Depending on your state’s process, you’ll likely need to register online to apply for your card. Be prepared to pay the fee, too, which could cost anywhere from $25 to $300 based on your state.
After you have your card, you can purchase cannabis at approved dispensaries in your state.
Using cannabis might not be the right choice for everyone. Keep in mind that cannabis smoke has some of the same carcinogens as tobacco smoke. But so far, studies haven’t found a link between cannabis smoking and long-term lung health complications.
More and more evidence, though, indicates that cannabis users may face cardiovascular health complications. And for some people, cannabis can cause side effects such as difficulties with coordination, slower reaction time, and dizziness.
There are also multiple ways to consume medical cannabis, including smoking, vaping, or ingesting it in edible form. Edibles and vaping may pose less of a health risk, especially when it comes to respiratory health.
If you have a difficult time finding relief from symptoms with pharmaceuticals, medical cannabis might still be worth a try (as long as your doctor signs off). For people like Denise and MBB, cannabis has been a lifesaver — not literally, but rather a quality-of-life saver.
“My job as a high school teacher would be infinitely more difficult if I couldn’t get solid sleep every night,” said MBB. “Medical marijuana, by far, has been the most helpful for me in managing residual surgery and chemo side effects, and so very helpful for managing the current side effects I have every day from Tamoxifen [reduced appetite, joint and muscle pain, and insomnia].”
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