Researchers believe psychedelic mushrooms may help alleviate psychological and spiritual distress for patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis.
Survival rates for cancer patients have improved dramatically in recent years with improvements to diagnosis and treatment, but physicians sometimes struggle to address patients’ psychological needs.
A recent study suggests psilocybin – the psychoactive drug in magic mushrooms – may help patients with the anxiety, depression, anger, social isolation, and hopelessness they may experience while undergoing cancer treatment.
The hallucinogen treatment, which is currently seeking additional participants, has been shown to induce a mystical or spiritual experience in patients and offers a unique therapeutic approach to reduce anxiety in terminal cancer patients, researchers said.
“Mystical or peak consciousness states in cancer patients have been associated with a number of benefits including improved psychological, spiritual, and existential well-being,” said study co-author Anthony Bossis, of the New York University College of Dentistry.
The researchers said some cancer patients develop a demoralization syndrome that's similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, and they become immobilized by their fear of death.
“The whole point (of psilocybin treatment) is to dislodge them from that," researcher Jeffrey Guss told The Atlantic. "What’s remarkable is that even though we don’t tell them what narratives to form, there is an enormous commonality. Patients will come to me and say, ‘I understand intuitively now that love is truly the most important force on the planet. I experienced a profound sense of peace that I never felt before and it has stayed with me. I know now that my consciousness is bigger than me.’”
The study describes one patient who experienced extreme fatigue, pain, and psychological distress from his cancer and biweekly chemotherapy treatments.
But he reported dramatic changes in his attitude, coping, and mood 18 weeks after psilocybin therapy, saying his “quality of life is dramatically improved.”
Another patient, a pre-med student, described his experience with the therapy.
“I was outside of my body, looking at myself,” the patient said. “My body was lying on a stretcher in front of a hospital. I felt an incredible anxiety — the same anxiety I had felt every day since my diagnosis. Then, like a switch went on, I went from being anxious to analyzing my anxiety from the outside. I realized that nothing was actually happening to me objectively. It was real because I let it become real. And, right when I had that thought, I saw a cloud of black smoke come out of my body and float away.”
Patients in the study underwent two therapeutic sessions – one in which they were given psilocybin and another in which they were given a placebo.
They received psychological preparation before the psilocybin dose, followed by a series of psychotherapeutic sessions.
“Patients who have benefited from psilocybin clinical research have reported less anxiety, improved quality of life, enhanced psychological and spiritual well-being, and a greater acceptance of the life-changes brought on by cancer,” Bossis said. “It is a welcome development that this promising and novel clinical research model utilizing psilocybin has begun to gain clinical and academic attention.”
The researchers said some patients experienced intense anxiety while under the influence of psilocybin, and some even temporarily believed they had died, but they kept Valium, which reduces anxiety, and Zyprexa, which counteracts psychedelic drugs, on hand in case they were needed.
Bossis said the similar positive experiences by patients, who reported feeling God's love and the interconnectedness of the world and all its inhabitants, suggested spiritual implications.
“Those concepts form the basis for so many religions: Christ-consciousness, Buddha-nature, Samadi in Hindu, Satori in Zen," Bossis said. "There’s all this overlap. They speak the words of the mystics without ever having read them.”
The results match similar findings made by Swiss researchers who gave LSD to terminal cancer patients.
The eight participants in that study who received full doses of the drug improved by about 20 percent on standard measures of anxiety after two months of weekly therapy, while the four subjects who took much weaker doses got worse.
Doctors had previously tested LSD for its effect on a variety of conditions, including end-of-life anxiety, before such research was prohibited in 1966.
But psychiatrists around the world have been working in recent years alongside government officials and medical ethics boards to life restrictions on psychedelic research, including Ecstasy-aided therapy for post-traumatic stress and MDMA therapy for adults with autism-related social anxiety.
[Image via Flickr]