Cancer-Induced Depression: Can Cannabis Help it?
Cancer is an aggressive disease that spreads quickly throughout the body of the affected patient. When it comes to healing from cancer, typically all of the focus is aimed toward the physical treatment of the body.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest afflictions of a significant number of cancer patients has less to do with the physical machinations of their body and more to do with their rapidly declining mental health.
Some cancer patients have a higher risk for depression than others. A person diagnosed with cancer faces many new issues— fear of death, changes in life plans, changes in body and self-esteem, changes in day-to-day living, and worries about money and legal issues.
Reportedly, for every ten patients diagnosed with cancer, two are in turn diagnosed with depression. The number of men and women diagnosed with depression are roughly about the same.
Existing research on the effects of cannabis on mental health is rare and has almost exclusively been done with orally administered THC pills in a laboratory. In a first-of-a-kind study, Washington State University researchers examined how people’s self-reported stress, anxiety, and depression when stimulated by smoking different strains and quantities of cannabis at home.
Their work published in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that smoking cannabis seems to significantly reduce short-term levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.
It marks one of the first attempts by US scientists to assess how cannabis with varying concentrations of the medical compounds of THC and CBD affect medicinal cannabis users’ feelings of well-being when smoked outside of the laboratory.
According to Dr. Carrie Cuttler, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at WSU and lead author of this study,
“What is unique about our study is that we looked at actual inhaled cannabis by medical marijuana patients, who are using it in the comfort of their own homes, as opposed to a laboratory. For example, the WSU research team found that one puff of cannabis, high in CBD and low in THC, was optimal for reducing symptoms of depression. Two puffs of any type of cannabis were sufficient to reduce symptoms of anxiety, while ten or more puffs of cannabis high in CBD and high in THC produce the largest reductions in stress. A lot of consumers seem to be under the false assumption that more THC is always better. Our study shows that CBD is also an important ingredient in cannabis, and may augment some of the positive effects of THC. The researchers found that while both sexes found decreases in all three symptoms after using cannabis, women reported a significantly greater reduction following cannabis use.”
In the case of Ali Becher, a three-time cancer survivor and registered respiratory therapist, the battle against depression has been an added layer of immense struggle on her journey toward full recovery from the disease.
At the age of 30, Ali was told she had a 15% chance of survival. She turned to cannabis medicine and changed her diet because all forms of conventional treatment had previously failed her. Within three months of smoking cannabis and eating healthy, it was determined there was no evidence of disease in her body. She has now been in remission from stage four cancer for two and a half years. Cannabis has ultimately played a huge role in Ali’s healing.
When Ali was diagnosed with cancer the first time, she was a young college student. She remembers sitting in her dorm room when she received that first ominous call from her doctor telling her that her biopsy needed to be sent for a special screening. She was sitting in the same place on the same chair when she received the second call officially diagnosing her with a form of cancer on her face.
She remembers breaking down crying, with her roommates rushing to her asking if she was okay. The only answer she could give them was that of course, she wasn’t okay—she’d just been told she had cancer. Ali had no idea what to do from that point— she was in a college away from her family and friends, with no one by her side besides her acquaintances of roommates.
Ali moved on to be cancer-free shortly after that scare for ten years before she received another diagnosis from her doctor indicating that her biopsy results showed a recurrence of the cancer that was quickly spreading. She underwent treatment and surgery and was happy to be clear of the cancer again.
Unfortunately, shortly after that, Ali received a call from her doctor detailing that the cancer had in fact spread to her lungs. Devastated by this unforeseen development, Ali says that at that point in time she felt resigned. “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to die now.”
This third diagnosis pushed Ali into a major depression. She started chemotherapy, in which the doctors prescribed Prozac, claiming that the treatments cause many people to become suicidal. She underwent chemo for a year, and in that time continued taking the Prozac prescribed to her.
Despite ending the treatments, Ali’s doctors continued urging her to take Prozac to alleviate her cancer-related mental health issues, but she pushed back and refused. She felt that the medicine wasn’t doing what it claimed to do and that her depression persisted despite regularly taking it.
The doctors treating Ali’s cancer solely focused on just that— treating and eradicating the physical signs of cancer. They did not address any of her psychological needs as a cancer patient— no therapy was recommended, nor did they guide her to any support groups. Despite being surrounded by friends and family, Ali felt alone in her depression. No one could relate to her stresses surrounding her cancer and no one could relate to the feeling of facing mortality every day.
Ali illustrates the forms in which her depression manifested— chronic feelings of loneliness, a lot of TV-watching, and using long hours of sleep as a form of escape. There were many days where she felt she wanted to give up and no longer pursue treatment. She felt hopeless in her situation since her doctors seemingly had no real solutions to her pain.
Finally, one of Ali’s friends who works in the cannabis industry recommended she use cannabis to help with the symptoms of her depression. She took his advice and immediately felt relief after the first time using it, rediscovering her ability to laugh and loosen up.
She continued to use cannabis every night, and not only did it help lift her depression, but, according to her, it greatly alleviated the pain from her surgeries and treatments much more than even the heavy narcotics she was prescribed.
This made it easier for her to switch over to regular, non-addictive painkillers that she used alongside cannabis in the long run.
Ali’s story is featured in a documentary on Amazon Prime called Cannabis vs. Cancer in which she, along with two other cancer survivors, detail their journey in how instrumental cannabis was in curing their cancer.
A special thanks to the research team of Washington State University for their diligent work in the study of cannabis-related health impacts, which provided a bulk of the statistical research mentioned in the article above.