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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Relief for Cancer Patients in One Dose

Anxiety, depression and dread in cancer patients was substantially reduced with a single dose of this popular drug combined with therapy.

When someone has cancer, the weight of the world can be on their shoulders. Will I die? How will I ever pay the medical bills? How will my family survive? How can I work when I feel so awful? These terrible anxieties can impair healing and quality of life for the time that is left.

But what if a single dose of a drug could alleviate those symptoms for years? That is exactly what researchers found when they gave cancer patients psilocybin, a compound found in “magic” mushrooms. Once looked at as a dangerous recreational drug class, psychedelics are being studied extensively for their ability to make quick, profound changes in patients with a variety of ailments, including cancer.

Meaningful Experience

“Three out of four of our participants said the therapy was the singular or in the top five most spiritually meaningful experiences of their lives, and they continue to remember them,” says researcher Stephen Ross at NYU Langone and senior study author. “These experiences rapidly changed their relationship to cancer, changes which this long-term follow-up study suggests endure for years.” Researchers speculate that the mechanism of action in psilocybin is related to a common class of medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), a group that includes Prozac and Zoloft, commonly used to treat depression and other issues.

These new results build on a 2016 study of 29 cancer patients who were divided into two groups. One received a single dose of psilocybin and participated in nine psychotherapy sessions. The other group got a placebo (Niacin), which produces a flush similar to that of psilocybin and also took part in nine psychotherapy sessions. After seven weeks, researchers switched the group that got the real drug and the one that got the placebo.

Patients recorded how they felt. Psilocybin produced “immediate, substantial and sustained improvements” in anxiety and depression in 100% of participants, researchers noted. “One day after getting psilocybin, 80% of the participants no longer met criteria for depression related to cancer,” Ross says. These effects were “immediate and clinically meaningful.” However, since the study wasn’t blind, there remains the question of a placebo effect.

Success Over Time

But no one knew if or how long the effects would last. The team performed a follow-up with 15 of the original participants (nine had since died). No further treatment was given, but the participants filled out a questionnaire at 3.2 and 4.5 years after the first study. It asked open-ended questions about life since the psilocybin and therapy experience. 

The majority reported a reduction in anxiety, depression, hopelessness, demoralization and death anxiety. Furthermore, scientists determined that 60% to 80% demonstrated signs of having eliminated clinical depression and anxiety at each time period.

A full 71% to 100% of participants attributed these uplifting changes to the psilocybin-assisted therapy and judged it to be one of the most meaningful and spiritual life experiences they had ever had. None of the participants reported long-term negative effects from the sessions. 

My experience during the dosing was profound,” said one participant during a teleconference to discuss the research. “I experienced first-grade anxiety and then that turned to great compassion for the suffering on Earth, in all different modalities. Then, that turned into a profound spiritual awareness of how connected we all are. That has lasted and opened me enormously.”

Pathways in the brain appear to open with the use of psilocybin, although scientists don’t know exactly how it works. “The brain appears to be more interconnected when you use psilocybin,” Ross said. “Parts of the brain that don't normally speak to each other communicate with each other.”


While we may be years away from routinely using psilocybin to treat people with cancer-related psychological issues, many parts of the country are beginning to recognize that the drug is not as dangerous as once thought, at least by the government. Denver, Colorado led the way with a May 2019 vote to decriminalize magic mushrooms. The policy change at the Colorado capitol has inspired a grassroots movement throughout the country. 

Oakland and Santa Cruz decriminalized a wider range of psychedelic substances, and Oregonians will face a statewide ballot to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use in November. Activists in more than 100 cities have expressed interest in similar changes. 

Psychedelics Research Center

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins University announced in September that more than $17 million in private funds had been donated to open the nation’s first center for the exclusive study of psychedelic drugs. A prestigious team is currently conducting studies on an array of drugs, which they hope will make inroads in the treatment of opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Conversely, the National Drug Intelligence Center states, “Yes, psilocybin is illegal. Psilocybin is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs, which include heroin and LSD, have a high potential for abuse and serve no legitimate medical purpose in the United States.” While the drug is still classified Schedule I, as it has been since Nixon was president, the page lists a caveat: “ARCHIVED January 1, 2006. This document may contain dated information. It remains available to provide access to historical materials.”

Only time will tell if the results of these initial studies hold up. But it is worth following scientific efforts to see if that is the case, especially as some entities push to not only legalize but medicalize psilocybin and similar drugs. The thought is to treat them similar to marijuana, which is now widely available in controlled, state-approved shops with specified strengths and dosing. As with marijuana, researchers need to evaluate how psilocybin interacts with other medications to determine possible contraindications for its use. At this juncture, it appears the benefit may outweigh the risk for the population being treated.

Click below for the other articles in the June 2020 Senior Spirit


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