Like many other aging boomers, I’ve used recreational marijuana occasionally and mostly in gatherings with friends for years. But when I developed breast cancer for the first time in 1999, it never occurred to me that cannabis could have therapeutic value. Considering marijuana as a complement to chemotherapy was not an option that my oncologist suggested to me. I wish I’d known as I endured six months of chemotherapy that cannabis could have helped with side effects like nausea, poor appetite, and low energy.

What a difference 19 years makes! Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states plus the District of Columbia. Now as a breast cancer patient in Massachusetts, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2014, I’ve taken advantage of the excellent strains (THC—psychoactive, CBD—non-psychoactive, and hybrids) and the wide variety of delivery methods (flower, edibles, capsules and tinctures). Each can be useful depending on what part of your cancer experience you are treating and on the social environment you are in when you are treating yourself.

For example, CBD and hybrid strains were best when I was confronting the initial shock of the cancer diagnosis and then the high levels of anxiety before mastectomy surgery. Within two days after surgery, I found that THC strains were excellent for pain management. In fact, I never needed the opioid painkiller that the hospital prescribed because acetaminophen (Tylenol) and medical marijuana gave me the all pain relief I needed.

After about a week pain was no longer a problem but as many mastectomy patients know, uncomfortable chest tightness can be a challenge for several months after surgery. Here hybrid strains of cannabis were very effective. The unpleasant sensation didn’t disappear entirely but it was significantly diminished and more remote, almost as if it were happening in another body.

With this second cancer, I’ve chosen to forgo chemotherapy. But as Dr. Donald Abrams discusses, cannabis is demonstrating important alleviation of side effects for chemotherapy patients: Should Oncologists Recommend Cannabis? Medical marijuana’s capacity to make chemotherapy endurable is an enormous boon for any cancer patient. If chemotherapy had been part of my treatment program, I can assure you I would have used cannabis to get me through it!

With or without chemotherapy, cancer patients need constant help with stress reduction. We are seeking a return to what feels like normal life while we learn to accept uncertainty as part of our new normal. And we yearn, as everyone does, for a sense of well-being and gratitude for the life we have. Cannabis, often either the THC or hybrid variety, can help us reach that place.

Ruth’s posts in this series

Banner photo from Ruth Hennig

About the Author

Ruth Hennig

Ruth Hennig is a CancerChoices colleague and friend who has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, including as the long-time executive director of The John Merck Fund until 2017.

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Ruth Hennig is a CancerChoices colleague and friend who has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, including as the long-time executive director of The John Merck Fund until 2017.  Since stepping down from the foundation’s staff, Ruth has joined its board. Ruth has a track record of involvement in creating organizations that bring new capacity to the public interest sector, especially in health and the environment. In addition to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, she has helped establish or has been a founding board member of SmartPower, New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Baraka Community Wellness and IssueOne. She also serves on the board of League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. Photography, politics, gardening and yoga are her special interests.

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