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What is “chemo brain” and how can cannabis help cancer patients fight it?

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Angela Bryan has been researching cancer prevention for several years and recently set out to study cannabis consumption among cancer patients. However, in 2017, her professional and personal life unexpectedly converged when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Brian expressed her reluctance to use opioids to control her pain after surgery, and asked her doctors’ opinion on the medicinal use of the herb. Fortunately, her doctors were understanding of her request. But Brian, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at CU Boulder, noted that they can’t provide any guidance due to the lack of available data on the topic.

Looking back six years, a small but innovative study has emerged to address the information void. The study revealed that cancer patients who use cannabis to relieve their symptoms experience better sleep, less pain, and unexpected benefits.

These patients have improved cognitive abilities after a few weeks of continuous use. Brian, the study’s senior author, said she was lucky to have some understanding of this phenomenon, because most patients don’t. She stated that when in severe pain, thinking becomes difficult. We discovered that after prolonged cannabis use for pain relief, patients’ cognitive function improved.

Recently published in the journal “Exploration in Medicine” on April 26, the study is one of the first tests of how cannabis purchased from dispensaries affects Cancer symptoms or side effects of chemotherapy. It also provides insight into the wide range of products that cancer patients have used since marijuana was legalized in most states.

Easy medical access

Studies show that up to 40% of cancer patients in the United States use cannabisHowever, only a third of clinicians feel confident to give advice. Research on this topic is also challenging due to federal legislation prohibiting university researchers from distributing or Possession of cannabis for research purposes. Exceptions include if it’s government-issued or pharmaceutical grade.

Because of this regulation, most research has examined prescription-only medications such as dronabinol or nabilone, which are generally recommended for the management of nausea. Studies also often focus on government-controlled cannabis strains, which typically have lower potency and a more limited selection than over-the-counter alternatives.

To conduct the research, Brian worked with oncologists Dr. Daniel Bowles and Dr. Ross Camidge at the University of Anschutz Medical Campus. They monitored the cannabis use of 25 cancer patients over a two-week period.

After an initial consultation measuring their sleep patterns, pain levels, and cognition, patients were instructed to purchase an edible cannabis product from the dispensary. The selections available were surprisingly diverse, with 18 distinct brands including cereals, chocolates, tinctures, gummies, and baked goods, featuring varying percentages of THC and CBD in varying potencies.

Brian commented that this shows that individuals are willing to try different options that they think might be beneficial. However, there is a lack of information available to help them decide what is most effective for their specific needs.

The researchers used a mobile lab called the Caravan, a Dodge Sprinter truck, to investigate the immediate effects. The convoy was driven to each patient’s home, and the participants underwent physical and cognitive assessments inside the van. Then, after using cannabis in their homes, they were re-evaluated inside the van. Follow-up testing was also conducted after 2 weeks of continuous use at their preferred pace.

According to the study, cannabis significantly relieved patients’ pain within an hour while impairing their cognitive abilities and producing a “high” sensation, which is intensified with a higher THC content. However, a clear long-term pattern emerged. After using cannabis for two consecutive weeks, patients experienced better pain management, improved cognitive function, and improved sleep quality. In addition, specific objective measures of cognitive function, such as reaction times, have shown improvement.

Brian said they expected to see some cognitive function issues, considering that cannabis and chemotherapy have previously been associated with impaired thinking. However, individuals believed that they were experiencing increased clarity of thought. It was unexpected.

The study indicated that their cognitive function improved as the patients’ pain levels decreased. Patients who took more cannabidiola recognized anti-inflammatory compound, has reported more substantial improvements in sleep quality and pain intensity.

The authors stress that more extensive, controlled studies are required before definitive conclusions can be made. However, they suggest that the findings present an intriguing possibility. While some types and doses of cannabis for pain relief may cause temporary cognitive impairment, others may enhance cognition by reducing pain.

According to a professional research assistant in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and first author of the study, Gregory Giordano, more extensive studies need to be done. In his words, since oncologists and patients are concerned about the potential negative impact of cancer treatment on cognitive function, the potential role of cannabis use in improving subjective cognitive function should be studied.

Brian’s experience

Brian has incorporated cannabis-infused foods into her regimen for pain management after surgery and chemotherapy. She customized her approach by using more potent THC products when her pain was most intense. This means sacrificing some mental clarity and opting for milder, CBD-heavy products to keep your pain under control.

Brian considered herself lucky to have some awareness of the Benefits of using cannabis during her chemotherapy. However, she realized, most patients were not as informed as she was. They either don’t realize that cannabis can be a beneficial option, or they’re getting advice from dispensary staff who may not have enough knowledge.

The research team hopes that their study and future studies will provide clinicians and patients with more information to make more informed decisions.


The study results provide a glimpse into the potential benefits of cannabis for cancer patients, but more research is needed to fully understand its effects. The findings suggest that although cannabis may impair cognitive function in the short term, it may lead to long-term improvements by reducing pain and inflammation.

This raises the possibility that cannabis could play a role in helping cancer patients manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Ultimately, we hope this research will lead to greater awareness and understanding of cannabis as a treatment option, giving patients and their physicians more tools to address the complex challenges of treating cancer.


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