Cannabis can help cancer patients using chemotherapy avoid brain fog

BOULDER, Colo. — Cancer patients go through a lot, not only from the disease itself, but from harsh treatments like chemotherapy as well. Along with side-effects such as pain and nausea, some chemo recipients end up experiencing sleep issues and cognitive problems that scientists call “chemo brain” or “brain fog.” Now, researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder have found that using cannabis can alleviate some of these side-effects — including those affecting a patient’s brain.

Professor Angela Bryan, a cannabis researcher at CU Boulder, was studying cancer prevention for years before she received her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2017. She was a bit hesitant to take opioids for her pain management, so she asked her doctors about what they thought of her using herbal alternatives instead.

“They were so supportive of what I wanted to do, but they had no idea what to tell me,” says Bryan in a university release. “There was just no data.”

Six years later, there’s now some movement in the research on this subject. In collaboration with oncologists Dr. Ross Camidge and Dr. Daniel Bowles at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Bryan and a team observed 25 cancer patients who used cannabis over two weeks.

They gathered baseline participant data on pain levels, sleep patterns, and cognition, before asking them to buy edible products from a dispensary of their choice. The patients bought several different varieties, including chocolates, gummies, tinctures, pills, and baked goods — all with different potencies.

Medical marijuana dispensary
(© Peter Kim –

‘People actually felt like they were thinking more clearly’

To measure the effects soon after use, the team drove a “mobile laboratory” van to each patient’s home in order to conduct physical and cognition assessments. After two weeks, they also conducted a follow-up exam with each patient.

Within an hour of using marijuana products, the team found that cannabis eased pain significantly while making them feel “high,” indicating an altered mental status. After two weeks, patients reported better pain management, sleep quality, and cognition. Patients even noted having better reaction times.

“We thought we might see some problems with cognitive function,” says Bryan, noting that both chemo and cannabis have been linked to impaired cognition. “But people actually felt like they were thinking more clearly. It was a surprise.”

While these findings come as a positive surprise for the field of oncology, the authors emphasize the need for larger, controlled studies before making definitive conclusions.

“We know oncologists and patients are concerned about the possible negative impact of cancer treatment on cognitive function, so the potential, indirect role of cannabis use on improving subjective cognitive function should be studied further,” adds first author Gregory Giordano, a professional research assistant in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Bryan hopes that her team’s work and the studies that follow in the future will help oncologists and patients make informed decisions on the use of cannabis in cancer care.

The findings are published in the journal Exploration in Medicine.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells or inhibit their growth and reproduction. It is often used to treat various types of cancer, including solid tumors and blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. The drugs used in chemotherapy can be administered through different methods, such as oral pills, injections, or intravenous infusions.

Chemotherapy drugs work by targeting rapidly dividing cells in the body, which is a characteristic feature of cancer cells. However, because some healthy cells also divide quickly, chemotherapy can cause side-effects by damaging these normal cells as well. The severity and type of side-effects vary depending on the specific drugs used and the patient’s individual reaction to the treatment.

Chemotherapy can be used as the primary treatment for cancer, in combination with other treatments such as surgery or radiation therapy, or as a palliative measure to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life in patients with advanced cancer. The goal of chemotherapy depends on the specific cancer type, stage, and overall health of the patient. Treatment plans are tailored to each patient’s unique circumstances, and the drugs and dosages used may vary accordingly.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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