Oct 07 2019 . 8 min read

Oct. ’19: Inhale/Exhale with Shoshanna Silverberg

Oct. ’19: Inhale/Exhale with Shoshanna Silverberg

Reader seeks advice on using cannabis for mother’s breast cancer treatment

Reader seeks advice on using cannabis for mother’s breast cancer treatment

Dear Shoshanna,

My mom has been diagnosed with breast cancer and I have been like a crazy person researching all of her options. I have watched so many TED Talks and YouTube videos from different cancer survivors who have beaten the disease using cannabis that I feel like it’s a route we should explore. But I can’t seem to find the definitive research I need to feel comfortable recommending that she try it. Her oncologist is fairly progressive so I thought he would be able to fill in the blanks on using cannabis, but he hasn’t been able to give us any advice. What do we do? Does cannabis kill cancer? Or should we just use it for the side effects of her chemotherapy treatments? Or is there a clinical trial we could enroll her in? It’s beyond frustrating to know that there could possibly be a lifesaving answer out there and I don’t know how or where to find it. Help!

Dear Reader,

I’ve told readers this before, and it could not be truer now—you are not alone and thank you for your question. About one in eight U.S. women (about 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. In 2019, an estimated 268,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 62,930 new cases of “non-invasive” breast cancer (this means in situ, or restricted to the breast’s ducts or lobules, not its tissue). Invasive breast cancer is also not a diagnosis that men are immune to. Close to 3,000 new diagnoses of invasive breast cancer in men have been projected in the U.S. in 2019.

A total of almost 42,000 women in the U.S. are expected to have died from breast cancer by the end of 2019, despite the fact that death rates have been decreasing since 1989 due to advances in treatment, earlier detection through screening, and increased awareness. For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any cancer, besides lung cancer. And other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women.

While I would like to state that we are on to a cure for breast cancer using cannabis, that there are placebo-controlled, double-blind studies that have revealed staggering correlations between the usage of cannabis and the shrinking of tumors, we’re going to have to back into this topic rather than plough ahead in any straight-ahead type of fashion.

The reason for this is that, to date, there have been no clinical studies that have generated findings such that the FDA could validate cannabis’ effect on cancer cells. This is why physicians face serious obstacles when it comes to endorsing cannabis as a mode of treatment, let alone prescribing it. While there are myriad videos to watch on YouTube and anecdotal evidence you can find in the form of web-based testimonials, it is exceedingly difficult to suss out what is fact versus fiction, and none of it may be regarded as definitive findings that will be predictive of actual patients’ success using cannabis to “cure” their conditions.

This does not mean there haven’t been thousands of clinical studies though, many of which have looked at cannabis’ effect on breast cancer, and there are a number of imminent and ongoing clinical studies that your mother could be eligible to participate in. So far, the absence of findings related to the ability of cannabis to impact the growth of cancer is not dispositive. Visit https://clinicaltrials.gov/ and search for either completed or studies that are currently recruiting patients to see if your mother is eligible.

Another avenue worth exploring is what you’ve mentioned—treating side effects of cancer treatment. Anecdotally, we know that many patients find success treating their mouth sores using THC or, a 1 to 1 ratio of THC:CBD lozenges. Patients struggling with neuropathy seem to benefit from using 1 to 1 ratios of THC:CBD in the form of pain salves. Appetite stimulation tends to find widespread success through the use of THC edibles/strains (which you can find a helpful review of in our September ’19 issue), not to mention these products’ ability to help patients fall asleep. Many find that their anxiety can be at least partially be alleviated by experimenting with CBD tinctures, which can be blended with a number of other herbs that are not controlled substances and can help on the complementary medicine side of treatments. General aches and pain resulting from chemo can also be offset by CBD tinctures or 1 to 1 THC:CBD tinctures, depending on what patients find packs the most powerful punch for them.

If you’d like to see findings from studies that have been conducted to research the efficacy of multiple cannabinoids that may be used either to treat people living with cancer generally, or to treat disease-related or treatment-related side effects, check out www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/cannabis-pdq#_73_toc. This is a page that the National Institute of Health hosts for the National Cancer Institute and it provides a very accessible overview of relevant clinical research that’s been conducted so far. The catch is, again, that just because clinical trials have been conducted for a New Investigatory Drug (NID), that does not mean the findings have been such that the FDA has cleared this drug to the extent that it has reached the open (legal) market.

This is evidenced by a new phase of quasi-legality where CBD (cannabidiol, a cannabinoid of cannabis that is now enjoying legal status when it can be proven to be hemp-derived) when purchased in the form of Epidiolex, an FDA approved drug that is intended to treat epilepsy, is available to patients. Insurance coverage for drugs like this will even open up as more studies are able to conclusively prove the benefits of cannabis for medical purposes. Currently though, to your question, no drugs specifically intended to treat breast cancer have made it to market. So, participating in clinical trials, if and when you find those you are eligible for, are your best bet. As this can be a longshot while the scientific literature races to catch up to what many have been finding for themselves. Experimenting with what you find in licensed dispensaries is also an option.

To help inform your decision-making, patients can do what you have done, and become an expert on information that is out there. This does not mean you assume everything you are reading, or hearing is reliable, but it does mean there are gates you can enter to begin educating yourself. One such source that you may have already come across is Dr. Cristina Sánchez, a molecular biologist at Compultense University in Madrid. Her research into both the effects of isolated cannabinoids in response to various forms of breast cancer as well as the synergistic effects of utilizing whole plant therapies have been groundbreaking (search YouTube to find presentations she has given on this topic).


There is also a treatment known as Rick Simpson Oil (RSO). This product was created initially by a Canadian cannabis activist named Rick Simpson, who, rather than creating a monopoly on the intellectual property he innovated, has encouraged people all over the world to replicate RSO in formulations that work best for them. This is a tricky endeavor, as it requires expert extraction methods which fall under the category of licensed cannabis activity even in jurisdictions (states) where cannabis is legal. It is also tricky because the hallmark of RSO is its high levels of THC, not CBD, which is still, as mentioned before, the only cannabinoid currently that has been granted an even quasi-legal status. (Note: when CBD is derived from whole plant cannabis, rather than hemp, it is still not legal unless we are talking about the one pharmaceutical company that has received FDA clearance for its CBD product, due to its status as an NID.) With that said, recommendations on RSO should be taken only in regard to formulations found in licensed dispensaries.

This may not be as definitive an answer as you might have hoped for, but we are still in a phase where the distance we have to go before research institutions catch up to what can currently be found in dispensaries is significant, and although strides are being made, patients must still be stewards of their own health. This means reading everything you can, learning what websites can be trusted and which not, advocating for what you need when you are speaking with your physicians, and openly sharing what has worked for you or for your loved ones. As the medical community hears more and more of these stories, I believe they will feel it is incumbent upon themselves and the medical establishment to become more educated and informed about cannabis’ possibilities and the necessary research will follow.


Should you have a question or ethical conundrum you have been struggling with, please drop Shoshanna a line at info@elevatenv.com so she can offer her sage and practical counsel.


Shoshanna is a partner and Director of Strategy for a national consulting firm in the cannabis space, Pistil + Stigma. She holds a Juris Doctor from Elon University School of Law, a Master of Arts in Holistic Thinking, and a bachelor's degree from Hampshire College. She is a true believer that compassion and critical thinking, together, are what drive positive social change.