Relief despite skepticism: CBD for breast cancer side effects

August 6, 2020

At the age of 46, I felt a lump in my breast which was soon confirmed as breast cancer. I was a practicing family and public health physician at the time, as well as busy wife and mother of three teenage sons. I opted for bilateral mastectomy and immediate expanders for implant reconstruction. I received treatment for stage III, hormone receptor-positive breast cancer with chemotherapy and radiation after surgery.

Within a year after exchanging the expanders with the long-term implant, I was experiencing discomfort in the radiated breast due to capsular tightening and increasing pain around my chest. I had the constant feeling of wearing a tight, stiff, pinching, scratching “iron bra.” I tried high doses of ibuprofen and considered asking for opioid pain relievers, hoping to find relief. Around this time, I was diagnosed with a breast cancer metastasis to the liver. I received another round of chemotherapy, which worsened the breast tightness and discomfort. I retired from medical practice far earlier than I ever imagined.

Discovering CBD

I heard testimonial claims from friends and online support groups reporting success with CBD products. CBD, the common term for cannabidiol, is one of many substances found in marijuana (cannabis) plants, including medical marijuana. Some researchers think CBD may have effects on the nervous system, but CBD does not cause euphoria or the change in mental state — getting “high” — associated with marijuana use.

As a physician, I approached CBD supplements with skepticism. I decided against medical marijuana because I didn’t want the euphoric high effects of THC, another compound in marijuana plants, and did not feel my specific symptoms would qualify me for medical marijuana, which is limited to certain conditions and requires recommendation from a doctor.

I decided to try CBD oil as this was the first product available in a locally-owned pharmacy in my rural community. A pharmacy employee guided me in choosing the dose by asking a few questions about what I was hoping to treat, then instructed me on adjusting that dose for pain.

The CBD oil was “full spectrum,” which means it was made from the full hemp plant, which contains other important plant ingredients thought to complement CBD. It was dark green and tasted like burnt grass. I took one dropperful daily, holding it under my tongue for a minute before swallowing. As I reached the end of the first bottle, I realized there had been a few good days in the month when I wasn't constantly aware of the discomfort of my chest. Remaining unconvinced, I stopped taking the CBD oil when I ran out. Within a week of stopping, the daily symptoms of chest wall tightness and pain returned.

I renewed my efforts to find a high-quality, palatable CBD product and found a company online that sold CBD products with published third-party testing results. Because CBD supplements are not tested for potency, efficacy, or safety the same way prescriptions are, having results confirmed by a separate company reassured me that the product contains the total CBD and concentration claimed. I ordered a 2 month supply from this company and used as I had before. This was also a full-spectrum, dark green, whole-plant product but was at least flavored with a little mint. After finishing that order, I was convinced that CBD oil was providing relief for my symptoms.

Relief

I talked with my oncologist about my use of CBD. She was interested and open to my experience, but unable to comment on scientific evidence. In my electronic health record, I’m listed as taking medical marijuana because there isn’t an option to select CBD in the medication list.

I have now been using CBD oil products for about 18 months. I found an online company that publishes results for other contaminants as well, such as pesticides and heavy metals. Many reputable companies now offer this service routinely, so I recommend asking if it is not provided. This company also offers discounted prices for customers with limited income or certain compassionate care diagnoses.

There is a broad array of CBD products now available and I expanded my use to include topical CBD oil, lip balm, and a full spectrum oral tincture with a flavor I enjoy. CBD has been a godsend for me, providing significant reduction in daily pain. While I still have discomforts related to taking other medicines for metastatic breast cancer, I am grateful that I have gotten such improvement in my quality of life.


Andrea Mathias Schmucki, 51, was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in 2015 and had a metastatic recurrence in 2018. She lives in Snow Hill, Maryland.

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