Cannabis and Cancer: Restoring Quality of Life During a Difficult Time
There’s no denying the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. Its remarkable ability to heal and bring relief to people suffering from insomnia, chronic pain and nausea have elevated it from an illicit drug to a wellness tool that should be placed in the category of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Doctors are beginning to acknowledge it as a therapy that supports conventional treatments. Currently, 33 states have enacted robust medical marijuana programs, making it possible for more patients to access cannabis as a treatment option.
Personal stories only help to prove that cannabis should be taken seriously as a medical treatment that can be used in tandem with traditional treatments. I am passionate about cannabis and have firsthand experience with its medicinal benefits. I had long used it to combat my debilitating depression, of which I had been struggling for years, but I also found it to be a useful tool while I was going through treatment for triple negative breast cancer. I am not a doctor and I have no medical training, but my experience as a patient opened my eyes to the medical community and how we treat major illnesses such as cancer. While the harsh drugs are needed — chemotherapy literally saved my life — they also come with a variety of individualized side effects that affect a patient’s quality of life. And that’s where cannabis can help.
Terror isn’t a strong enough word to describe how I felt on that first day of chemotherapy. I was the youngest person in the clinic by at least 10 years and the looks of pity that I got from other patients when they saw my pregnant belly made my stomach turn. I was a couple of months shy of my 34th birthday and pregnant with my first child. My doctors assured me that the drugs would not harm the baby, that chemotherapy during pregnancy was perfectly safe, but that treatment could not be delayed due to the aggressive nature of triple negative breast cancer.
I was anxious but ready to start killing my cancer.
The first round wasn’t bad. I was more tired than anything, but that could have been the pregnancy. And 14 days after my first infusion of the Red Devil, my hair began to fall out. One week after that I started to bleed. I should mention that in addition to cancer, I had also been diagnosed with placenta previa early on in my pregnancy. This meant that the placenta was blocking my cervix and it would be dangerous to go to full term. The bleeding indicated that the placenta couldn’t take the pressure (literally!) and that the baby had to be born. On June 28, 2016, our daughter was safely delivered via cesarean section. We named her Chloë. She was five weeks early but healthy and strong. She was my reason to fight my cancer with everything I had.
After the baby was no longer inside of me, and I (unfortunately) wasn’t able to breastfeed, I resumed using cannabis.
I knew that chemotherapy was a massive beast that wreaked havoc on the entire body in some unpleasant ways. And I knew that cannabis would help to ease some of the symptoms that I would inevitably have to deal with.
Over the next six months I went through another 15 rounds of chemotherapy. The first four were comprised of one heavy hitting cocktail of drugs — Adriamycin and Cytoxan, “the Red Devil.” After each infusion I would go home and sleep for days. When I woke up I would feel horrible. I never experienced nausea, diarrhea or vomiting during chemotherapy, and I give credit to cannabis for that. But make no mistake, chemotherapy is powerful and hits hard. It’s like a large hammer coming down on a (relatively) small nail. My body was getting hit week after week and it was taking its toll. I was exhausted to the point where just getting out of bed was incredibly taxing.
I leaned on cannabis to help me heal during chemotherapy. I often would forgo the drugs my oncologist prescribed me for the side effects in favor of cannabis. It helped me combat the insomnia that would inevitably show up the night after infusion. It helped me combat nausea and actually enjoy food while I was in treatment. It helped ease the pain I began to feel in my joints. It eased my anxiety by helping me to slow the swirling thoughts that were racing through my head. It provided me with quality of life at a time when I was literally fighting to stay alive.
Because I lived in a state with a robust medical marijuana program, I was able to try different strains and learned more about how they can help combat specific conditions. I established myself as a regular at the dispensaries that focused on the wellness aspect of cannabis and learned a lot from the knowledgeable budtenders on staff. I explored indicas that I would take before bedtime to help me sleep, and I fell in love with a hybrid called Jilly Bean that helped me deal with my anxiety, depression and PTSD. I found a strain that helped me deal with the weekly migraines that I experienced toward the end of chemotherapy. For me, exploring the different strains, terpenes and THC to CBD ratios, highlighted the variety of ways that cannabis can be used as a targeted therapy.
Cannabis continued to help me as I recovered from multiple surgeries, and it helped reduce the incredible pain caused by radiation burn. And now, in my life after cancer, cannabis has once again been a source of comfort, wellness and self care as I navigate my new normal.
Cannabis allows me the opportunity to sit with my emotions, including the uncomfortable ones, and work through challenges rather than numbing myself from the emotional pain. It sparks my creative impulses. It helps me to write better, to bust through a creative block and to take risks with my creativity. I recently celebrated one year of being alcohol free. Cannabis helped me reach this achievement.
Above all else, cannabis helps me return to the present moment. To be mindful and to not allow the negativity to fester. And that makes me a better parent.
While I was living in Baltimore, I got to know the local cannabis community. I look part in meetups and yoga classes with fellow patients who, like me, experienced the benefits of cannabis. It was refreshing to meet others who were passionate about cannabis and used it to treat a variety of ailments.
At the beginning of the summer we moved back to New Jersey, where my husband and I grew up. We found the stress of being far from family while raising our daughter to be too much. And now that I am two years out from active treatment, the time was right to move. Within one month of returning to New Jersey, I applied and was certified as a patient in the state’s medical cannabis program. I am grateful to once again have access to the incredible plant that has helped me in so many ways.