BY DEANNA DEBARA
Photo by Svetlana Ivanova for iStock/Getty Images
When you’re navigating a breast cancer diagnosis, either for yourself or a loved one, you want to research both treatments and ways to manage the side effects from said treatments. And for many, that includes exploring the connection between cannabis and breast cancer.
“Cannabis can be complementary to traditional breast cancer treatment, both therapeutic for its anti-cancer effects but also for management of side effects of treatment,” says Dr. Christopher LaCross, internal medicine doctor at Midland Medical Center in Oakland Park, FL.
But how, exactly, does cannabis affect breast cancer? In what ways can cannabis help patients deal with some of the more challenging side effects of their cancer treatment? And if you’re considering incorporating cannabis into your treatment regimen or suggesting it to a loved one, what do you need to know to get started?
Can cannabis treat cancer?
It’s important to note that while cannabis does show promise as a cancer treatment, there’s currently no research into its efficacy as a treatment for breast cancer.
“There are no clinical studies evaluating the effect of exogenous or endogenous cannabinoids on treatment outcomes and/or disease prognosis of any type of breast cancer,” says LaCross.
There is, however, a body of research that illustrates cannabis’ potential as a cancer-fighting agent. “There are numerous studies looking at cell signaling pathways related to activation of the endocannabinoid system that show, at least in lab cancer cells, that the active cannabinoids in cannabis can induce cell death of tumor cells, have anti-tumor protective properties ([which translates to] less likelihood of cancer development), and that the cannabinoid receptor system has direct roles in cancer progression and metastases.”
So, is cannabis currently an approved treatment for breast cancer? No. But does the plant show potential that warrants more research? Yes.
How can cannabis help manage the side effects of cancer treatment?
While there is still more research that needs to be done on how cannabis affects breast cancer directly, there is plenty of evidence for how cannabis can help cancer patients better manage the side effects of their cancer treatment—starting with pain management.
“Cannabis has been long established as an effective alternative for opiate therapy for pain,” says LaCross.
In a 2011 study from the University of California San Francisco, researchers found that vaporized cannabis combined with morphine relieved pain better than morphine alone, while another study found that spraying cannabis extract under the tongue helped advanced cancer patients whose pain wasn’t relieved by opiate treatment alone.
Cannabis also has powerful anti-nausea properties—which can be particularly helpful to breast cancer patients. “Cannabinoids are extremely powerful antiemetic agents and can help patients undergoing treatment that has nausea as a side effect, especially chemotherapy,” says LaCross.
Cannabis may also help patients manage the difficult emotions that come along with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. “Cannabis is an effective antidepressant...anxiolytic, anti-insomnia drug, and general health agent,” says LaCross. “In one study, 74 patients newly diagnosed with head and neck cancer who were cannabis users were matched to 74 non-users. The cannabis users had markedly lower anxiety and depression and reported less pain than nonusers. The cannabis users were also less tired, had more appetite, and reported greater feelings of well-being and quality of life.”
Things to keep in mind when incorporating cannabis into your breast cancer treatment plan
If you’re new to cannabis and are considering using cannabis to help manage the side effects of your breast cancer treatment, there are a few things you’ll want to know—and the first has to do with dosage.
“Start low and go slow,” says LaCross. “Studies have shown that [smaller doses of] cannabis is effective for pain and nausea.”
It’s also important to understand the different cannabis products available and how they work in the body. While there’s no research that points to one being more effective than another for treating cancer-related symptoms, understanding how different products work can give you a jumping-off point to explore which types of products may most effectively help manage your symptoms.
“For example, onset of action of inhaled cannabis is significantly shorter and thus more effective for acute nausea/vomiting than something taken by mouth,” says LaCross. “For pain, insomnia, and anxiety, longer acting edibles or tinctures may be found to be more effective for some patients.”
If you’re not sure how to get started, talk to your doctor
Breast cancer treatment can be an overwhelming experience. If you’re not sure how to effectively use cannabis to help manage your cancer treatment symptoms, talk to your doctor. They can help answer any questions, help you secure a medical card, and get started on a safe, effective treatment plan for pain, nausea, and any other challenging breast cancer side effects you may be experiencing.