Breast cancer awareness month shines light on treatment

Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October is not only an opportunity to raise money for research and programs to support patients, but also a chance to review progress on new treatment options, including the role medical cannabis could play.

Breast cancer is caused by an overgrowth of cells forming a lump or tumour and invading surrounding tissue. It may remain localized or metastasize and spread to other systems of the body. Both female and male breasts may develop cancerous tumours, but breast cancer is more common in women.

Currently, rates of breast cancer in the United States are about 12%, or 1 in 8, women; around 2.6% of those, or 1 in 38 women, will die as a result. While diagnosis rates have been stable over the last 50 years, survival rates are improving due to increased awareness, early detection, and advances in treatment: 89.9% of women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive for at least five years.

Breast cancer treatments include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, either alone or in conjunction with one another. Unfortunately, they come with side effects such as pain, nausea and vomiting, and loss of appetite. While more study is needed, medical cannabis presents a promising alternative for treating some of these complaints.

Vomiting in cancer patients may be controlled by pharmaceuticals, but nausea is more challenging to address. Patients using medical cannabis have reported relief from debilitating nausea accompanying chemotherapy.

When pharmaceuticals were ineffective, researchers that turned to medical cannabis reported that it was effective for nausea and vomiting in some patients. Researchers point to results in laboratory tests that indicate CBD can block one of the brain receptors responsible for retching and vomiting. They also reported that THC was the component largely responsible for anti- nausea properties in medical cannabis.

When surveyed, oncologists reported that they may recommend medical cannabis to some of their patients in combination with, or as a replacement for, other treatments for the relief of pain and nausea. They also reported a belief that medical cannabis presented a lower risk alternative to opioids in relation to addiction and overdose. Research in these areas is ongoing.

More information about the risk factors for, diagnosis, and treatment of breast cancer is available at American Cancer Society or the Canadian Cancer Society.