National Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Here’s How Cannabis Can Help Breast Cancer Patients
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed. About 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. In 2020, an estimated 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 48,530 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer. 
In 2016, Floridans voted to legalize medical marijuana for those suffering from an approved qualifying condition – breast cancer being one of them. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with breast cancer and are looking for additional forms of relief, book an appointment with one of DocMJ’s many Florida Medical Marijuana Doctors. They will talk you through the application process and help you find medical marijuana products that fit your individual needs.
What Is Breast Cancer?
When cells start to grow out of control and crowd out normal cells in areas of the body it is called cancer. Breast cancer, specifically, is a type of cancer that begins in the breast. Typically, breast cancer cells form a tumor that can be seen on an x-ray most of the time or even felt as a lump. Breast cancer occurs mostly in women, but men also have the ability to be diagnosed with it too.
Most breast lumps are non-cancerous breast tumors that are just abnormal growths, and they do not spread outside of the breast area. While they are usually not life threatening, some types of benign breast lumps can actually increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Any changes or appearances of breast lumps needs to be examined by a healthcare professional to determine what it is.
Breast cancers can start from different parts of the breast. Most breast cancers start in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple and some can start in the glands that make breast milk. There are also other types of less common breast cancer like phyllodes tumor and angiosarcoma. Sarcomas and lymphomas start in other tissues in the breast and are not really thought of as breast cancers.
Breast Cancer & Medical Marijuana
Research has shown that THC, CBD and other cannabinoids have the ability to inhibit the progression of tumor growth in breast cancer. Cannabinoids suppress this progression by connecting with cannabinoid receptors located in the cancer cells.
There are also other ways that these cannabinoids prevent the growth of tumors without the involvement of receptors. By working on cell signalling pathways that facilitate the growth of cancer, cell pathways prevent tumors in the breast from metastasizing. They can also help avert tumour necrosis.
Two things frequently used to diagnose breast cancer are hormonal receptors (the estrogen receptor and progesterone receptor) and the HER2 oncogene (a gene which can transform a normal cell into a tumor cell). But there is a more aggressive cancer, known as “triple-negative breast cancer,” which does not express hormonal receptors or the HER2 oncogene. No targeted therapy exists for this triple-negative breast cancer, so patients are treated with harsh chemotherapies that indiscriminately kill proliferating cells, whether cancerous or not.
Marijuana’s effects have been studied on all three models of breast cancer, both in vitro and in vivo, with whole plant extract and isolated THC. The whole plant extract was significantly more effective at producing anticancer effects than single-molecule THC.
In the case of hormone-sensitive breast cancer cells, whole plant extract was found to be 15-25% more potent than THC alone. When the cannabinoid preparations were added to tamoxifen, a standard chemotherapy drug, in a cell plate, the combined therapy was about 20-25% more effective than chemotherapy alone.
Whole plant extract was found to be more potent than THC for HER2-positive breast cancer cells as well. Both single-molecule THC and whole plant extract showed antitumor effects when the experiment was replicated in mice. Additionally, both THC and the whole plant extract amplified the anticancer effects of lapatinib – the standard chemotherapy drug for HER2 breast cancer.
As with hormone-sensitive breast cancer, THC’s antitumoral effect in HER2-positive breast cancer experiments was shown to be mediated by the CB2 cannabinoid receptor (HER2 and CB2 receptors are often found in the same exact place on cells.) When THC binds to the CB2 receptor, it breaks up the CB2-HER2 connection, triggering a chain reaction of signals that culminates in tumor regression. 
Triple-negative breast cancer, the type with the worst prognosis, does not typically respond well to standard chemotherapy. But the same study found that THC and THC-rich cannabis oil can improve treatment outcomes for this aggressive cancer. Like the other two, the whole plant extract was found to be more effective than THC alone in decreasing the viability of cancer cells.
How MMJ Can Help Breast Cancer Patients
While there still needs to be more research conducted on marijuanas anti-tumor effects, there are plenty of ways breast cancer patients can use medical marijuana products for symptom relief. A study conducted at the end of 2019 that included 612 members who have had a breast cancer diagnosis showed that seventy-nine percent of the participants reported using marijuana during active treatment like chemotherapy, targeted therapy, hormonal therapy and radiation, and it was often used to treat more than one symptom or side effect.
According to the same study, 42% of surveyed patients reported using medical cannabis to treat both the symptoms of breast cancer and the side effects of treatment. Moreover, 75% said medical cannabis was very effective to extremely effective for symptom management.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence supporting the effectiveness of marijuana in helping those living with cancer, but the amount of research from the United States is limited due to the legal status of marijuana under federal law. However, this anecdotal evidence combined with research from overseas have been able to demonstrate that marijuana can help in managing the following cancer and chemotherapy related symptoms:
- Chronic Pain
One major side effect of cancer and chemotherapy treatment is chronic pain. Medical marijuana has proven effective at providing pain relief, and it even has some anti-inflammatory effects as well. Recent studies have long found that individuals using marijuana extracts during clinical trials tended to need less opioid-based pain medication.
Nausea and vomiting are the two most well known side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Medical marijuana products have demonstrated a significant reduction in nausea and other unwanted side-effects from these treatments.
- Appetite Loss
Similar to nausea, loss of appetite is another common side effect of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Without an appetite, cancer patients might have difficulty to consume enough calories. This can result in loss of muscle mass, chronic fatigue, and a decline in mobility. However, specific cannabinoids have proven to be an effective method to restore appetite for individuals undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.
Neuropathy is often associated with damage to nerves, which can occur when undergoing chemotherapy and other forms of cancer treatments. Patients often experience weakness, numbness, tingling, needles, or burning sensations and many patients with neuropathy report feeling significant relief after using cannabis.
Living with breast cancer can be draining enough, but medical cannabis can help make things better. With plenty of different methods of ingestion to fit every individual’s needs, there really is something for everyone. Take the first step to bettering your life by completing this pre-eligibility survey to see if you qualify for a medical marijuana recommendation in Florida.
Dr. Rothman is a diplomate of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He has received multiple special awards and recognitions, including Physician of the Year, from the Pinellas County Medical Association (2014 – 2015) and the President’s Service Award from the Pinellas County Medical Society.
He attended medical school at State University of New York Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York, where he also completed his Obstetrics and Gynecology residency. In addition to practicing medicine, Dr. Rothman’s professional career includes being an Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida and Clinical Instructor at the University of Tampa’s College of Nursing.
Dr. Rothman received his Florida Medical Marijuana Physicians Certification in 2016 and was one of the first recommending physicians through DocMJ in the state and is loved by many of those early patients today.