October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, but cannabis is often left out of the conversation. While scientific research doesn’t yet support its role, people who use cannabis for breast cancer often report that it eases symptoms and side effects from chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Breast Cancer Awareness Month was founded in 1985 by the American Cancer Society and AstraZeneca, a company which develops and markets anti-breast cancer drugs. Criticism of the awareness month efforts has led to the term “pinkwashing”, defined by the activist group Breast Cancer Action as: “A company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products containing chemicals that are linked to the disease.
Pinkwashing can misdirect well-meaning funds to unscrupulous organizations and activities, but opportunities to talk about cannabis as a therapy during treatment is another key area where Breast Cancer Awareness Month misses the mark. Much of the medical community doesn’t yet recognize the therapeutic effects of cannabis as an aid in breast cancer treatment. But proponents are getting louder. Cannabis use among breast cancer patients has become too widespread to be ignored.
How Common is Breast Cancer?
Worldwide, breast cancer among women has now surpassed lung cancer as the most commonly diagnosed cancer. In 2020, over 2 million new cases were diagnosed in women across the world; female breast cancer is the fifth leading cause of death, with 684,996 women lost to the disease that year.
At the time they are first diagnosed with breast cancer, six percent of women have cancer that has spread outside of the breast and regional lymph nodes. This is called “de novo” metastatic breast cancer.
If the breast cancer cells have estrogen receptors, the cancer is designated as ER-positive breast cancer. If cells have progesterone receptors, it’s called PR-positive breast cancer. If the cells do not have either of these 2 receptors, the cancer is called ER/PR-negative.
Which Traditional Drugs Treat Breast Cancer?
Tamoxifen (Nolvadex, Soltamox) is a pharmaceutical designed to treat breast cancer. Research shows that taking tamoxifen for 5 years can lower the chance of breast cancer recurrence and new breast cancers in women with ER-positive or ER-unknown breast tumors. Doctors also use tamoxifen to treat breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body and to prevent breast cancer in healthy women with high odds of developing the disease.
However, there is a risk to this treatment option: women who take tamoxifen are more likely to develop cancer of the uterus (endometrial cancer) than women not treated with this drug.
Aromatase inhibitors are medications that treat breast cancer in both early and advanced stages. If you’re past menopause, they prevent your body from making estrogen. Doctors prescribe them to treat ER-positive breast cancer, either following tamoxifen treatment or by themselves. One serious side effect of aromatase inhibitors is osteoporosis, which can lead to bone fractures. Other side effects include hot flashes, muscle and joint pain, memory problems, and a greater chance of heart disease.
Several other hormone therapy drugs treat breast cancer, as well. Fulvestrant (Faslodex) and (Fareston) are used to treat metastatic breast cancer. Like tamoxifen, toremifene blocks certain effects of estrogen and is used as a treatment for advanced breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Fulvestrant blocks estrogen receptors temporarily.
Palbociclib (Ibrance) and ribociclib (Kisqali) are targeted therapies sometimes used in combination with an aromatase inhibitor or fulvestrant in ER-positive women.
Most of these treatments can affect healthy cells and can cause a number of side effects ranging from loss of appetite (cachexia), nausea and vomiting to mouth sores, hair loss, diarrhea, weight gain, and early menopause.
Could CBD or CBDA Aid in Breast Cancer Treatment?
In June 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reiterated that it has not approved cannabis or cannabinoids for use as a cancer treatment. Cannabis is not approved by the FDA for the treatment of any cancer-related symptom or side effect of cancer therapy.
While not a cancer treatment, some animal studies suggest certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce the spread of some forms of cancer. Certain cannabinoids may work to reduce cancer cell proliferation and metastasis by directly interfering with cell migration. Both cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) may increase the efficacy of Western allopathic cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. This means that not only can cannabis ease the symptoms and side effects associated with chemo, cannabinoids may potentially enhance the cancer-killing efficacy of chemotherapeutic drugs.
Resources for Support
If you or someone you love is navigating a breast cancer diagnosis but are unclear on how to proceed with CBD, it’s important not to get discouraged if your physician or cancer specialist has limited knowledge surrounding cannabis as a therapeutic aid. The cannabis research done to date has yet to be included in standard medical school curriculum. Here are a few places to seek more information about using cannabis during breast cancer treatment:
You may also find more support on using cannabis as a complementary breast cancer treatment option from your medical marijuana doctor, dispensary budtender, or CBD shop attendant. If you need help finding resources, reach out to us at medicateOH@gmail.com with your questions.