Cannabis for Breast Cancer Symptoms: Can It Help?
When a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer, a difficult journey begins. And detection is only the first step. Treatment planning means evaluating the patient’s best course of prescription, radiological and dietary therapies.
For some patients with breast cancer, both testing and treatments are invasive. The patient can undergo a biopsy (or more than one) to confirm the presence of cancer cells. When a tumor or tissue mass is found, it may be surgically removed. Both are a precaution for precancerous tissue or to prevent cancer cells from metastasizing or spreading to other body areas.
Patients undergoing cancer treatment often face side effects that can be difficult to manage. And while prescription pain medications may be used to moderate discomfort (NSAIDs or opioids), they are not always effective. And prescription medications can also create additional and sometimes debilitating side effects.
Cannabis was not a legal option for patients until state legalization began in 2016. In 2022, thirty-seven (37)states now have a medical cannabis program. And for patients receiving treatment for breast cancer, medical marijuana could help with symptom management.
Common Symptoms of Breast Cancer and Treatment
In the early stages of breast cancer, there can be few symptoms. This is why early detection and intervention are so important. You can have breast cancer and not be aware of it until the advanced stages of the disease.
When you hear of the difficulties patients with breast cancer have with symptoms, it usually pertains to treatments, including chemotherapy and medications. But symptoms vary between patients and in severity, depending on their treatments.
Some of the most common symptoms of breast cancer therapies and treatments are:
Nausea and Appetite Loss
When you are feeling sick to your stomach, chances are you don’t want to eat anything. Or there are very few things that may smell or taste palatable.
The loss of appetite can be caused by a combination of prescription medications, physiological changes, and emotional states. To combat nausea, patients undergoing breast cancer treatments can be prescribed a combination of the following:
- NK1 receptor antagonist
- 5-HT3 receptor antagonist
- Olanzapine or Zyprexa
Many patients respond well to anti-nausea medications. However, for some, they simply don’t work. Breast cancer treatments can span several years, and the risks of dehydration and nutrition loss can be detrimental to immune system functioning.
You may be eligible for a medical card if you are being treated for breast cancer and live in a state with a medical cannabis program. And that could help you manage symptoms of nausea and appetite loss.
Strains of medical cannabis used by patients to help reduce nausea include:
- Jack Herer
- Sour Diesel
- Blue Dream
- OG Kush
Some clinical studies have shown a link between the human endocannabinoid system (ECS) and the regulation of nausea. That is because certain types of cannabinoids bind to CB1 receptors, which send signals from the brain to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract that trigger nausea.
Certain strains of cannabis may help reduce or control nausea. And typically, they are strains with terpenes recognized for having anti-nauseant properties. Specifically, strains with caryophyllene or limonene content.
Breast Cancer Fatigue and Tiredness
If you are undergoing treatment for breast cancer, one of the first symptoms you may notice is chronic fatigue. In fact, more than 80% of patients with cancer report energy loss and tiredness that is not what they are normally used to.
The levels of fatigue can vary and be intermittent. On some days, individuals can feel too tired to walk or prepare food and engage in other activities of daily living. And even a tiny amount of activity can cause exhaustion. Then, on different days, they can function normally.
Ongoing symptoms of breast cancer and treatment can also impact sleep quality. Pain symptoms can disrupt healthy sleep patterns and compound feelings of fatigue and tiredness. However, some strains of medical cannabis may boost energy levels and help.
Sativa cannabis can provide a “pick me up” in energy level. Super Silver Haze is a popular strain, as are Jilly Bean, Chocolope, and Ghost Train Haze. Check out some other suggested strains on Leafly.
Hair Loss, Skin Inflammation, and Bruising
Depending on the type of cancer treatments received, some patients can experience unusual bruising. Even a tiny bump can result in a painful deep bruise. That is because specific treatments can lower the number of platelets in the blood. With fewer platelets, blood clotting becomes more difficult.
Hair loss is a visible sign of chemotherapy and cancer treatments. Both radiological and medication therapies can cause hair thinning to complete hair loss. Not just to the head but the entire body. And the experience of hair loss can trigger anxiety and feelings of depression in patients. Cannabis may also help patients address low mood.
Did you know that cannabinoids have anti-inflammatory properties? One of the side effects of cancer treatments is compromised immune system functioning. And research suggests that cancer is a disease that can be caused by inflammation. Another reason patients consider doctor-supervised cannabis as part of their breast cancer therapeutic options.
Muscle Pain and Stiffness
The type of muscle pain that some patients experience may vary. Some feel a dull ache, and others describe the discomfort as a burning or tingling. The pain associated with chemotherapy and cancer treatments can be caused by nerve damage.
Chemotherapy can also reduce muscle strength. Combined with fatigue and less exercise, patients can experience persistent soreness. Where surgical procedures are required for biopsies or to remove cancerous tumors or tissues, healing afterward can also be difficult for patients.
Chronic pain impacts daily life. And pain management may be more difficult for patients who have suffered from chronic pain for a long time (prior to their diagnosis). While some patients can develop a resistance to prescription pain medications, doctor-supervised cannabis may provide some symptom relief.
Early Onset of Menopause Due to Breast Cancer Treatments
Some women who receive breast cancer treatment can experience early menopause. That is because treatments can involve prescription medications to block or lower certain hormones in the body. Which, in turn, can trigger early menopause.
Women under the age of forty-five (45) years are more likely to experience temporary menopause. That means the normal functions of menses and ovulation may resume after the cessation of breast cancer treatments. But early onset may be permanent for women close to the natural age of menopause.
Managing hormonal fluctuations can be difficult, as it can bring a host of new symptoms for female patients with breast cancer. From disrupted sleep to night sweats, metabolic changes, weight gain, chills, vaginal dryness, and mood changes.
Medical marijuana may help patients moderate some menopausal symptoms. Certain strains of cannabis with cannabidiol can help reduce inflammation. And there are many strains that may help with low mood, anxiety, fatigue, and insomnia.
In some cases, the safest action is invasive surgery or a mastectomy. That involves removing the breast and surrounding tissues to eliminate cancer cells in the affected area.
After the surgical area has healed, some patients opt for a breast prosthesis instead of surgical reconstruction or augmentation. A prosthesis is an artificial form that aesthetically mimics the shape of the natural breast. Full or partial prostheses can be used by patients, depending on their needs.
- External silicone breast prosthesis
- Non-silicone breast prosthesis
- Attachable breast
- Form in camisole
- Partial breast prosthesis
Women who get a prosthesis following a mastectomy are custom fitted for comfort. The prosthetic’s shape and weight will closely match the preexisting breast. But areas around the surgery site can remain sensitive or tender, and women can experience discomfort.
Hemp or cannabidiol topicals like CBD oil may help moisturize skin and reduce inflammation at surgical sites. The natural anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis may also help with wound healing and neuropathic ulcers.
Is Breast Cancer a Qualifying Health Condition for Medical Marijuana?
Patients diagnosed with breast cancer should talk to their primary care provider (PCP) about medical cannabis. The specialist and your physician will develop a treatment plan for you, which may include authorizing doctor-supervised cannabis.
States that have established medical cannabis patient programs do not specify cancer types. But almost every state has added cancer to the list of qualifying conditions or diagnoses eligible to become a registered patient.
Some patients may choose medical cannabis as an alternative health route to managing many of the debilitating side effects of breast cancer and treatments. Medical cannabis may also be an option for patients with concerns regarding the side effects of NSAIDs and opioid medications for long-term use.
There are two cannabinoid prescription medications that are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. The first is Dronabinol (Marinol® or Syndros®) which contains delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The second is Nabilone (Cesamet®).
The FDA is currently evaluating a third drug (Nabiximols). It is a cannabidiol oral spray with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, and it is presently sold in fifteen countries, including Canada and Mexico. The drug is prescribed to help alleviate neuropathic pain and spasticity.
While there is no conclusive evidence that cannabis helps eliminate cancer, there is growing consensus that it may be useful for symptom management. Especially for patients experiencing chronic pain, nausea, insomnia, and mood disorders resulting from breast cancer treatments.
Talk to your doctor for more information about medical cannabis.