Alex* has lived with chronic pain as a result of nerve damage for around a decade. Cannabis has improved her quality of life more than any other treatment, but the stigma and judgement she has faced forces her to hide it from everyone – even now she has a legal prescription.
Cannabis was first recommended to Alex by a pain specialist several years ago.
Her doctor “lamented” the fact he couldn’t prescribe it and urged her to use it rather than opiates, as cannabis would “do less damage”.
The 31-year-old mum-of-two has lived with chronic pain as a result of nerve damage for around 10 years.
Uncomfortable accessing cannabis at first, she battled with the negative side effects of prescription painkillers until she fell pregnant with her first child.
“I had to wean off them to ensure my eldest was born healthy, and I stayed off of them, despite the severe pain, because I didn’t feel I could be a present mother while feeling like a zombie,” says Alex.
“I was recently given tramadol to help me after having surgery for something unrelated to my health condition, I could barely drag myself out of bed.”
Alex had a spinal cord stimulator implant put in to help with her pain, but it wasn’t enough on its own.
“I would wake up feeling like I’d failed the day before it had even started because I knew it would be a struggle,” she says.
“If I had to rely on my husband more than I’d like, I would feel like a failure. If I couldn’t pick my kids up because it was too painful to do so, I was a failure. If I couldn’t get washing or cleaning done, or if I had to rest more than I’d like, I always felt like a failure.”
It was Alex’s husband who eventually convinced her to try cannabis, initially accessing it from the street as she was unaware that legal prescriptions were an option for patients in the UK.
“It doesn’t get rid of [the pain] completely, but it takes the edge off enough that I’m able to function without doing myself harm,” she says.
“My pain improved, and with it my mental health. Using cannabis has improved my quality of life more than any other medical intervention I’ve had over the past 10 years.”
But with two children under the age of three, Alex hid her cannabis use from everyone but her closest family out of fear that she would be being judged on her capability as a mother.
“People seemed to disapprove of a parent using any kind of painkiller to get through the day,” she says.
“Countless times people have said to me that they were told that they shouldn’t have had children if they can’t get through the day without being medicated.
“I’ve never forgotten that, it has haunted me since becoming a mother.”
Alex had no choice but to stop accessing cannabis illegally after a neighbour complained and reported her to the local council.
She received a warning, based on the fact that it was being used by a parent of young children and it had “raised concerns”.
The fact that she never consumed it near her children, or that it was being used medicinally were not considered, she says.
She was forced to go without pain relief until finding out about Project Twenty21 last year, a UK scheme aiming to create the largest body of evidence for the efficacy of medical cannabis, through subsidising prescriptions for patients and collecting data on their outcomes.
Alex now has a prescription for cannabis oil, which has improved her quality of life and allowed her to be a better parent.
“Now when I wake up I know that the pain is controlled enough that I can manage more,” she says.
“I’ve always done my best to be a good mum, before the cannabis I was hurting myself to give my children the best I could, and I did it gladly.
“I didn’t care if I suffered more so long as they had everything they needed.
“I may never be able to parent the way a perfectly healthy person could, I may always have more limitations than most, but now I can manage without doing myself harm and my amazing children get to see me smile more because I feel better.”
But despite her best efforts to protect herself and her family, Alex hasn’t escaped negative reactions.
Even after having a prescription, she describes being mocked by nurses, after telling them she took cannabis oil, who insinuated that she was “just another druggy making excuses” when they thought she was out of ear shot.
“People need to be educated, they assume because it’s illegal it must be bad and they won’t look past that,” she says.
But she admits she can understand why people react negatively when they hear of a parent consuming cannabis due to the stigma attached to it.
“I probably would have been one of those judgmental people before I understood, but my husband has helped to educate me and in doing so he’s helped get me to a place I never thought I’d be,” she says.
“You’ll always have people who think it shouldn’t be used by someone who is responsible for children, but I don’t spend my day stoned. But I am completely aware and attentive, probably more so than a person that’s had a couple of drinks after a hard day.”
Alex adds: “It’s a catch 22 I feel, in that people like me probably need to spread the word to help lessen the stigma, but as long as there is that stigma, we aren’t comfortable having that conversation because we don’t want to be judged as a bad parent.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those in the story
In the run up to our women’s health webinar on Tuesday 3 August, we are sharing the stories of mothers who have found cannabis medicines helpful in the management of their health conditions – and how they’ve coped with stigma from the rest of society.
The second episode in this ground-breaking series, will focus on the complexities facing mothers who are both prescribed medical cannabis and those whose children require cannabis medicines to manage their conditions.
Join speakers Hannah Deacon, patient advocate and mum-of-six, Gillian Flood and clinicians Dr Sally Ghazaleh, pain management consultant at the Whittington Hospital and Women’s Health Consultant at Integro Clinics, and Sarah Higgins CNS, women’s health lead at CPASS to explore cannabis and motherhood on Tuesday 3 August at 7pm.
The webinar is free of charge, register here
Canadian study shows more women using cannabis for menopause symptoms
Researchers analysed responses from 1,500 women living across Alberta
A new study shows a large percentage of women have tried cannabis to manage their menopause symptoms.
The menopause study aimed to examine the rates and patterns of cannabis use and its perceived effectiveness in managing symptoms.
Researchers analysed responses from 1,500 women living across Alberta of which, 18 percent were in premenopausal, 33 percent were in peri-menopause and 35 percent were in post-menopause. There was also a small percentage that had either undergone a hysterectomy and or bilateral oophorectomy.
The NHS estimates that most people who experience menopause is between 45 and 55 years of age. This occurs when a person’s oestrogen levels decline. The average age for this to happen is 51. Around 1 in every 100 women enter into menopause early before 40 years old. This is referred to as premature menopause.
Common symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, low mood, anxiety, vaginal dryness, difficulty sleeping and reduced sex drive. The average length of time that women can experience menopause is up to four years.
Menopause study results
A study from the University of Alberta in Edmonton Canada shows that one in every three women near the menopause transition uses cannabis for symptom management.
Of the women studied, roughly 33 percent reported using cannabis within the past 30 days. Out of the 499 current cannabis users, 75 percent stated they used it for medical purposes. This included the most common reason, sleep issues at 65 percent, anxiety at 45 percent and joint pain or aches at 33 percent. A further 29 percent reported they use cannabis for irritability and 25 percent for depression. Three-quarters of the current users reported that they found cannabis helpful with their symptoms.
The most common way to take cannabis was edibles with 52 percent then oils with 47 percent. Just under half of those surveyed said they got their information from internet searches while 34 percent got their information from friends.
Researchers noted that women using cannabis were more likely than non-users to report sleep issues, mood issues including depression, mood swings, irritability and anxiety along with difficulty concentrating or painful intercourse.
Katherine Babyn from the University of Alberta and the first author of the study abstract said: “Our study confirmed that a large percentage of midlife women are using cannabis for symptoms that overlap with menopause, especially those women who reported more symptoms. In addition, many of these women are claiming to get relief for their symptoms through the use of cannabis.”
Dr Stephanie Faubion, NAMS medical director said: “While we continue to learn that more women are using cannabis to help manage their menopause symptoms, further research is required to assess the safety and efficacy of cannabis for menopause symptoms management.”
The results will be presented as part of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) annual meeting in Washington DC next week. The study was funded by an operating grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
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WEBINAR: Women’s health and cannabis medicines | 02 Motherhood
The second in a four-part series of expert webinars, exploring the role of medical cannabis in women’s health.
Despite being legally prescribed medicinal cannabis, many mothers and children experience shame and stigma when using it in their day to day life, mostly due to misinformation and misunderstanding.
In this episode we were joined by a panel of clinical experts, patients and patient advocates, to explore the experience of mothers who rely on medical cannabis for their own or their child’s condition.
Meet the panelists
Hannah Deacon is an award-winning campaigner on access to medical cannabis. She ran a
campaign in 2017/18 with the lobby group End Our Pain to fight for access to medical cannabis on the NHS for her son Alfie. The campaign was successful and resulted in her son’s doctors
receiving the first permanent schedule one license to prescribe medical cannabis on the NHS for him in June 2018. This campaign led to the law change in November 2018. Alfie received the first legal NHS prescription for medical cannabis and still benefits from this nearly three years later.
Hannah now continues to campaign for fair access to medical cannabis treatments on the NHS and is also the Executive Director of The Medical Cannabis Clinicians society and Director of Maple Tree Consultancy. Through this work she hopes to help create a patient-focused sector which will benefit patients like her son Alfie. She is also the co-founder and vice chair of the organisation of Medcan Support, helping to support parents and carers of children who require cannabis medicines to manage their conditions.
Gillian was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in her teen years, and then later in life with PTSD and fibromyalgia. Gillian used various different medications to combat her symptoms.
Over the years, she has tried numerous antidepressants and gabapentinoids in order to try and subdue high pain levels and various other symptoms that she has been suffering from. Since being prescribed medical cannabis in April 2020, Gillian’s life has changed and she is able to spend her time with her six children, five of whom have ASD, therefore needing a lot of support. Subsequently, the pressure has been taken off of Gillian’s husband, who previously was in charge of the family’s daily life.
Gillian is an avid patient advocate and a member of PLEA (Patient-Led Engagement for Access) Patient Working Group. She wants cannabis medicines to be available through the NHS for anyone who requires it and wants to see an end to the stigma surrounding parents who take cannabis medication.
Dr Sally Ghazaleh
Dr Ghazaleh is a Pain Management Consultant at the Whittington Hospital, and the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery, London. She also prescribes cannabis-based medicines and is the Women’s Pain Expert at Integro Medical Clinics.
Sally specialises in managing patients with lower back pain, neck pain, neuropathic pain, abdominal pain, cancer pain, complex regional pain syndrome, post-stroke pain and fibromyalgia. She has a particular interest in bladder and abdominal pain in women, and women’s health in general. She is fluent in Arabic, English and Hungarian.
Sarah Higgins CNS
Sarah is a Clinical Nurse Specialist, with over 10 years’ experience working in the NHS. She developed an interest in medical cannabis and its application in women’s health following the implementation of routine screening for recreational drug use in sexual and reproductive health services. On exploring this further she identified a trend in which women were often
self-medicating with cannabis for hormone related difficulties.
Sarah is also the Women’s Health Lead at non-profit organisation CPASS Nurses Arm. The organisation’s nurse, midwife, and educator-led principal focus is on improving health, clinical outcomes and patient experience, through building nursing and midwifery leadership capacity to make significant improvements to the cannabinoid patient care environment.
Watch episode one in the series Women in Pain here
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