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Cannabis for Breast Cancer: A Research Review

Updated: May 8, 2023

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Cannabis for Breast Cancer Overview

This educational article examines the research-based efficacy of the cannabinoids and terpenes produced by legal hemp for the treatment and support of breast cancer.

A pink cancer ribbon on a pink backdrop

Cancer is a family of related diseases involving the abnormal growth of cells within various systems of the body. Cancerous cells are so dangerous because they rapidly divide and spread into surrounding tissues. Many types of cancer result in tumors, which are solid masses of tissue that may interfere with bodily functions; when appearing in the brain, tumors may cause seizures, pain, and abnormal behavior.


Cancer Statistics

In the United States, nearly 600,000 victims are claimed each year to cancer; its treatment is a $150 billion annual business. In 2015 alone, it is estimated that more than 1.6 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. Globally, there were 14 million new cases in 2012 and more than eight million deaths.


"In the United States, nearly 600,000 victims are claimed each year to cancer; its treatment is a $150 billion annual business."

A 2019 research study reported that breast cancer is among the most common types afflicting humans. "Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women worldwide. There is also an increasing tendency for aggressive subtypes of breast cancer, particularly in women of younger ages," reported the study. A 2018 study reported that "Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women."

Singer Olivia Newton-John smells a large growing cannabis plant in vegetative stage

Olivia Newton-John & Cannabis for Breast Cancer

A 2019 article revealed how celebrated actress Olivia Newton-John was able to cease use of morphine for the treatment of her breast cancer through the use of cannabis. "Originally treated for pain with morphine, Newton-John was able to wean herself off [it] by using marijuana, primarily cannabis oil," wrote the article's author, adding that the actress claims cannabis helps treat her symptoms of anxiety and insomnia. Many patients also report that cannabis consumption allows them to develop appetite, especially those undergoing nausea-producing chemotherapy.


Cannabis for Breast Cancer

Much research has shown that cannabis holds much potential as an effective treatment for a wide variety of cancers, including ceasing or reversing progress of the core disease. In addition, hemp and cannabis may effectively treat a variety of symptoms of the family of diseases.


More than 100 types of cancer afflict tens of millions of people—including cancers of the lungs, breast, skin, colon, prostate, and brain. It is estimated that one in eight women will, at some point in their lives, develop the disease. Globally, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among females and accounts for 10-15 percent of all cases of cancer in women.

A woman wearing a pink muscle shirt checks her left breast for lumps

In 2008, breast cancer was responsible for the death of nearly half a million women around the world. Unfortunately, many types of this disease remain resistant to conventional pharmaceutical treatments. There are three different subtypes of breast cancer, with cannabis believed to be most effective for HER2-positive and triple-negative types of breast tumors. This is especially promising for patients with triple-negative, which affects about 15 percent of those with the disease, because no standard therapy exists for this variant and patient prognosis remains poor.


Some studies have revealed that cannabinoid receptors are overexpressed in the tumors of particular cancers, such as those of the breast, liver, lungs, and prostate. Cannabinoids from cannabis bind with these overexpressed receptors and either switch off the cell’s ability to divide and replicate or simply kill it (apoptosis).


"Cannabinoid receptors [in the ECS] are overexpressed in the tumors of particular cancers, such as those of the breast, liver, lungs, and prostate."

In this manner, multiple cannabinoids (CBD and THC) can work in tandem with the body's endocannabinoid system to induce cancer cell death, inhibit cell growth, or prevent the metastasis (spread) of cancer cells. In addition, cannabinoids help prevent good, healthy cells from being damaged by neighboring or traveling cancer cells. Cannabis also delivers few major negative side effects—unlike most pharmaceutical therapies, opiates for pain management, and chemotherapy.

A gathering of breast cancer survivors and patients for Susan G. Komen

Cannabis Uses for Breast Cancer Patients

There are many ways in which breast cancer patients can administer cannabis for their disease, sometimes with a focus on a particular cannabinoid like CBD or THC. Patients can choose between smoking or vaporizing (or vaping) the ground flowers of the herb. Another promising option is concentrates, especially solventless varieties.


"There are many ways in which breast cancer patients can administer cannabis for their disease, sometimes with a focus on a particular cannabinoid like CBD or THC."

These potent and often purified forms of pot are a favorite of very sick patients who must battle their disease on a daily basis and may need the most powerful solution available. Patients who suffer chronic pain or nausea also build up a large tolerance to cannabis, requiring the strong dose that can only be delivered by a concentrate like hash oil, CO2 oil, or live resin.

A monarch butterfly on a hemp plant at a legal hemp farm in Indiana, U.S.A.

While typically employed by lifestyle enhancers, dabbing is an option for patients who do not enjoy smoking and wish to consume a large amount of medicine in a single dose. Dabbing with concentrates, which necessarily vaporizes them, can deliver the THC and CBD equivalent of an entire joint of mid-grade or even premium medical cannabis in a single toke.


"While typically employed by lifestyle enhancers, dabbing is an option for patients who do not enjoy smoking and wish to consume a large amount of medicine in a single dose."

Those who prefer a safer route of inhalation (most dab rigs require a blow torch) should investigate a vaporizer. Available in discreet pen, mobile, or traditional full-size desktop models, vaporizers offer harm reduction and none of the toxic chemicals associated with combustion of the plant during smoking. Also, most vaporizers, especially newer models, accommodate both cannabis flowers or concentrates. Vaporizers are also good for patients in prohibitionist states who must disguise their cannabis consumption, preventing the intense smell typically generated by smoking.


At a minimum, breast cancer patients can use cannabis as an adjunct (supplemental) treatment to their core pharmaceutical therapy—probably involving chemotherapy and possibly radiation. Patients with more confidence in the kind herb may choose to decrease or fully replace conventional treatments like chemotherapy with cannabis. Some patients, who have been diagnosed with late stage cancer with no possible benefit from standard therapies, have chosen to treat themselves with only a purified diet and CBD or THC/CBD oil on a daily basis; some claim to have sent their cancer into remission.

Five women wearing pink t-shirts adorned with pink cancer ribbons place their hands together while smiling for the camera

Cancer Institutes Consider Cannabis

Several research organization, some of which are ironically funded by or part of the federal government, have recognized the potential role of cannabis and major cannabinoids like CBD and THC in fighting diseases like breast cancer. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): "Recent animal studies have shown that marijuana extracts may help kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of others."


Even the federal government’s own Food and Drug Administration has voiced its opinion that more research is needed to fully understand the potential of the chemical components of cannabis in the treatment of cancer. "Study of marijuana in clinical trial settings is needed to assess the safety and effectiveness of marijuana for medical use," wrote the organization on its website.


The National Cancer Institute, part of the federal government's National Institutes of Health outside of Washington, D.C., published on its website the benefits of cannabis for cancer patients:


"The potential benefits of medicinal cannabis for people living with cancer include antiemetic effects, appetite stimulation, pain relief, and improved sleep."

A pink Breast Cancer Awareness Month poster

Cannabis for Cancer Symptoms

In addition to treating the core disease of breast cancer by inhibiting the ability of cancer cells to spread or simply killing them, cannabis is an undisputed benefit in terms of decreasing the negative side effects of the disease and its treatment. While it acts as an analgesic (pain killer) and helps reduce the severe anxiety associated with a life-threatening or terminal disease, the most beneficial use of the herb for patients with breast cancer may be in reducing or eliminating the nausea associated with chemotherapy.


"Cannabis is an undisputed benefit in terms of decreasing the negative side effects of cancer and its treatment."

Often, symptoms of a disease will cause a chain reaction of negative side effects. In the case of all cancer patients, including those suffering from breast cancer, anxiety can lead to insomnia and other sleep disturbances. Such problems typically result in decreased health and additional problems, such as depression.


Depending on the strain employed, cannabis has proven to be an effective sleep aid and powerful anecdote to depression and hopelessness. It not only acts as an anti-anxiety agent, allowing patients to relax and reach a state of slumber, but also contains terpenes such as linalool and cannabinoids like CBN, both of which have proven their efficacy as sleep aids and sedatives.

A female laboratory technician wearing safety glasses and blue rubber gloves performs research with glass vials and technical equipment

Breast Cancer Research Studies

As in all areas of disease treatment with cannabis, research regarding the specific efficacy of cannabinoids like THC and CBD for breast cancer has been limited to preclinical trials, none of which have involved humans (instead, cell cultures and animal models have been substituted). Because all mammals have an endocannabinoid system, study results obtained from rodent and primate subjects are often scientifically applicable to humans.


"Because all mammals have an endocannabinoid system, study results obtained from rodent and primate subjects are often scientifically applicable to humans."

A 2020 patient survey entitled "Four in 10 Breast Cancer Patients Have Used Cannabis to Treat Symptoms" involving 612 participants (aged 27-84), 47 percent reported that they had medicated with cannabis to treat their cancer or its symptoms. The true takeaway from this survey, however, was not the ample number of participants, but rather that the majority reported "cannabis was effective for managing their symptoms."

An outdoor grown cannabis plant in vegetative growth with leaves with dew; an ocean of green

The survey revealed the most common cancer symptoms treated using cannabis, which included pain (78 percent), insomnia (70 percent) and anxiety (57 percent). It also revealed a disturbing trend in the United States. "Studies have shown that many patients in the United States do not disclose use of non-conventional treatments to their physicians for fear of disapproval or lack of support," reported the survey's authors.


"The survey revealed the most common cancer symptoms treated using cannabis, which included pain (78 percent), insomnia (70 percent) and anxiety (57 percent)."

A 2019 study entitled "Future Aspects for Cannabinoids in Breast Cancer Therapy" that was published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences investigated the efficacy of a variety of cannabinoids, including CBD, its acidic precursor CBDA, THC, and a variety of minor cannabinoids (including CBN and CBG) in the treatment of breast cancer.

"Cannabinoids (CBs) from Cannabis sativa provide relief for tumor-associated symptoms (including nausea, anorexia, and neuropathic pain) in the palliative treatment of cancer patients," reported the study's authors."


The research learned about the underlying mechanisms behind the anti-cancer efficacy of phytocannabinoids and they may "may decelerate tumor progression in breast cancer patients."

Female laboratory technician operates technical machinery as part of scientific research

A 2018 study entitled "Appraising the 'Entourage Effect': Antitumor Action of a Pure Cannabinoid vs. a Botanical Drug Preparation in Preclinical Models of Breast Cancer" that was published in the journal Biochemical Pharmacology investigated "the antitumor efficacy of pure THC with that of a botanical drug preparation." The study intended to compare the anti-cancer efficacy of isolated phytocannabinoids with drug preparations containing multiple phytocannabinoids.


"Standardized cannabis drug preparations, rather than pure cannabinoids, could be considered as part of the therapeutic armamentarium to manage breast cancer."

"Our results suggest that standardized cannabis drug preparations, rather than pure cannabinoids, could be considered as part of the therapeutic armamentarium to manage breast cancer," concluded the study's authors.


The research also revealed that the phytocannabinoid THC interacts with endocannabinoid receptors other than CB1. "Pure THC acted by activating cannabinoid [receptor] CB2," wrote the researchers.

A CBD oil tincture from California CBD company Leafwize Naturals

A 2014 study conducted at the California Pacific Medical Research Center and published in the British Journal of Pharmacology revealed that the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD may be effective in preventing the spread of breast cancer cells.


The researchers pointed out how CBD may be a more universally effective and benign therapy, avoiding the negative side effects of chemotherapy (which works for only a percentage of patients). Concluded the researchers: "[CBD] has a very low toxicity profile, whereas standard cancer treatments [like chemotherapy] are highly toxic."


"[CBD] has a very low toxicity profile, whereas standard cancer treatments [like chemotherapy] are highly toxic."

Another 2014 study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry confirmed many previous studies by indicating that the infamous cannabinoid THC may be effective in shrinking or killing cancer cells within tumors. "Our findings help explain some of the well-known, but still poorly understood, effects of THC at low and high doses on tumor growth," concluded the study. Dr. Peter McCormick, co-author of this research conducted at the University of East Anglia in England, wrote: "THC, the major active component of marijuana, has anti-cancer properties."


"THC, the major active component of marijuana, has anti-cancer properties."

A commercial cannabis garden in the form of a greenhouse featuring hundreds of plants in the vegetative stage of growth

A 2011 preclinical study entitled "Pathways Mediating the Effects of Cannabidiol on the Reduction of Breast Cancer Cell Proliferation, Invasion, and Metastasis" that was published in the journal Breast Cancer Research & Treatment explored the potential role of CBD in treating breast cancer.


The study noted the importance of alternative and novel treatment therapies, such as phytocannabinoids from hemp, in the treatment of breast cancer. "Invasion and metastasis of aggressive breast cancer cells are the final and fatal steps during cancer progression," wrote the researchers, adding that "effective, targeted, and non-toxic therapies are urgently required."

CBD molecular structure

The study reported significant anti-cancer efficacy obtained from CBD. "[Our study] shows that treatment with CBD significantly reduces primary tumor mass, as well as the size and number [of tumors]."


A 2012 study conducted in San Francisco at the California Pacific Medical Center revealed that the cannabinoid CBD somehow deactivated the gene responsible for the spread of breast cancer cells, ID-1. When treated with CBD, breast cancer cells ceased spreading, but didn’t die. Instead, they returned to normal. This study was based on similar research conducted in 2007.


"What we found was that his cannabidiol could essentially 'turn off' the ID-1 [gene]."

The researchers, who have been experimenting with CBD for the treatment of various cancers since their initial study in 2007, first began by investigating the efficacy of cannabinoids like CBD. "We started by researching breast cancer," said Pierre Desprez, one of the two researchers responsible for this series of studies. "But now we’ve found that cannabidiol [CBD] works with many kinds of aggressive cancers—brain, prostate—any kind in which these high levels of ID-1 are present."


The researchers of this study emphasized that relatively large doses of CBD were necessary to elicit such a change in the cancer cells and that smoking even plants high in CBD would be insufficient to deal with the disease in the manner they observed. This further illustrates the valuable role of cannabis concentrates, including harm reducing solventless varieties, that can deliver a potent dose of cannabinoids and terpenes to the most sick patients, many of whom also build up considerable tolerances.

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