The Role of Psilocybin in Cancer Hospice

By Michael Peña on May 29, 2018

Some studies suggest spirituality and religion can improve the quality of life for terminally ill cancer patients in hospice care. Enhanced spiritual well-being serves as a buffer against depression and hopelessness, and a positive outlook is associated with better medical outcomes. So if faith and spirituality can do all this, what about dropping shrooms?

Clinical studies in the '60s and '70s suggested that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy can help, yet a renewed War on Drugs put the kibosh on such research because, you know, who needs psychedelics when you got prayer, right? The medical cannabis revolution revived interest in medical mushrooms in recent years, and a 2016 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology sought to examine the role psilocybin might play in helping patients with cancer.

For the study, New York- and California-based researchers conducted double-blind trials with 29 cancer patients who suffered from cancer-driven depression and anxiety. In conjunction with psychotherapy, the patients randomly received a single-dose of psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms) or niacin, and the researchers tested the outcomes. What happened?

"Psilocybin produced immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression and led to decreases in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual wellbeing, and increased quality of life," the researchers reported. "At the 6.5-month follow-up, psilocybin was associated with enduring anxiolytic and antidepressant effects (approximately 60 to 80 percent of participants continued with clinically significant reductions in depression or anxiety), sustained benefits in existential distress and quality of life, as well as improved attitudes towards death."

Two years later, the researchers took a closer look at four of the participants and published the findings in the April 2018 Frontiers in Pharmacology. The deeper dive provided interesting details about the patients' experiences.

"Although the content of each psilocybin-assisted experience was unique to each participant," the follow-up study explained, "several thematic similarities and differences across the various sessions stood out. These four participants’ personal narratives extended beyond the cancer diagnosis itself, frequently revolving around themes of self-compassion and love, acceptance of death, and memories of past trauma, though the specific details or narrative content differ substantially. The results presented here demonstrate the personalized nature of the subjective experiences elicited through treatment with psilocybin, particularly with respect to the spiritual and/or psychological needs of each patient."

As far as specifics, a twentysomething named Victor said, "I would say [I have] less anxiety about my body and my sickness coming back, my cancer coming back…. I saw this body for what it’s worth, I picked it, it’s mine…. I think that acceptance has been liberating."

Tom, a Christian male in his 50s, had never used psychedelics before and claimed it was his belief in a cloud-surfing god that kept him strong, not the psilocybin. Still, he experienced "moderate benefits in anxiety, depression, demoralization, and death anxiety," and the experience did motivate him to say he discovered "there's nothing but love. Like the Beatles did sing, 'All you need is love,' that’s very true." Fittingly, the Beatles wrote that song during the band's psychedelic heyday.

Chrissy, a self-described atheist and fifty-something year-old breast cancer patient, experienced "significantly decreased anxiety, depression, death anxiety, hopelessness, demoralization, and increased purpose in life, spirituality, and death transcendence" after taking psilocybin. She said, "[The psilocybin experience] brought my beliefs to life, made them real, something tangible and true—it made my beliefs more than something to think about, really something to lean on and look forward to."

The fourth patient, a woman named Brenda in her 60s, claimed the experience produced profound change. "What’s so funny is that nobody can really see it, but yet, for me, everything has changed," she explained. "I feel more contented and happy about my place in the world in all the things I’m doing.… Maybe death is a beautiful thing."

Generally speaking, patients said the use of psychedelics aided them in "restructuring their thinking and emotional responses in everyday life," and their unique experiences produced quality-of-life benefits that persisted through the follow up.

The researchers concluded, "Not only did these experiences meet each person’s psychological needs, they also helped them understand what their needs were. Thus, one therapeutic function of psilocybin may be to assist participants in achieving insight into the cause of their distress, which is supplemented by our supportive and integrative psychotherapy treatment model."

On the topic of cancer and fully prohibited drugs, the Journal of Clinical Oncology conducted a survey asking oncologists about medical cannabis and cancer care. The results? "Whereas only 30% of oncologists felt sufficiently informed to make recommendations regarding [medical cannabis], 80% conducted discussions about [it] with patients, and 46% recommended [medical cannabis] clinically. Sixty-seven percent viewed it as a helpful adjunct to standard pain management strategies, and 65% thought [it] is equally or more effective than standard treatments for anorexia and cachexia."

Cancer is one of the most destructive diseases on the planet, and the therapeutic options are limited. The federal government must lift its prohibitions on cannabis and psilocybin so the scientific community can fully research their therapeutic potential for aiding cancer patients.

Michael Peña is a Los Angeles-based writer, musician and Kanye West enthusiast. He can be found on Instagram @ilooklikestevezahn.

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