Dinah Bazer, a 69-year-old mother and retired information systems worker living in Brooklyn, credits psychedelics with saving her life.
After undergoing chemotherapy for late-stage ovarian cancer in 2010, Bazer was consumed with anxiety and constant feelings of dread and hopelessness. So when her nurse told her about a clinical trial testing a new drug for cancer-related anxiety and depression ― high-dose psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms ― she signed up without hesitating.
Not long after ingesting the psilocybin during her session, Bazer found herself engulfed in utter terror. She visualized her fear as a black mass under her rib cage and yelled for it to “get the fuck out!” Almost immediately, the fear left her completely. She shifted into a spiritual experience she described as bathing in God’s unconditional love for several hours.
Four years later, the experience is still with her and the fear is still gone. Bazer says she became calmer, let go of her aggressive driving habits and her phobia of flying, and reconnected with friends and loved ones. Most importantly, she was able to let go of her fear of death and truly embrace life. Her cancer is now in remission.
“I want to enjoy life,” she told The Huffington Post. “I’m enjoying my life now, and I wasn’t before.”
A New Paradigm For Treating Cancer Anxiety
The results of the NYU-Langone Medical Center study Bazer participated in were published Thursday in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, along with those of a similarly designed Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study. The two randomized controlled trials, largely funded by the Heffter Research Institute, are part of an ongoing investigation into the use of psilocybin for mood and anxiety disorders in late-stage cancer patients. So far, the work has yielded stunningly promising results.
Up to 40 percent of cancer patients experience anxiety and depression ― a percentage that’s roughly four times more than that of the general population. Anxious and depressed patients face worse outcomes, including increased pain, reduced quality of life and reduced chances of survival. Anti-depressants and behavioral therapy aren’t always effective at treating cancer-related psychiatric disorders and can take much longer to have any impact.
“This is very different [from a pharmaceutical approach] because it’s a therapeutic approach that’s imposed over a single session experience,” Dr. Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology who was lead author for the Johns Hopkins study, told HuffPost. “That really is an entirely different model than chronic drug treatment. It’s also different from a classic psychotherapeutic approach, which can take weeks and months.”
“"Psilocybin under these curated conditions can produce remarkable transformative experiences ... They’re reorganizational in the sense that people find them deeply personally and spiritually meaningful, and they attribute marked changes in attitude, moods and behavior to them."”
A single session of psilocybin (in conjunction with psychotherapy) had immediate and long-term antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects for 83 percent of patients, said Dr. Stephen Ross, a professor of psychiatry and lead author for the NYU study, which included 29 patients.
“We have shown that one dose works quickly for anxiety and depression, that it lasts at least for five to seven weeks, and maybe longer than that,” Ross said. “We’re not claiming that one dose works forever, but it’s surprising that it works for so long.”
It’s not just surprising. Results this strong are the kind that often get studies thrown out the window, seen as too good to be true. But there’s good reason to believe they’re legit.
At Johns Hopkins, researchers conducted a similar study on 51 patients, most of whom suffered from breast, upper digestive, gastrointestinal, genitourinary or blood cancer. Each participant had also been diagnosed with an anxiety or depressive disorder.
During the sessions, participants experienced classic “psychedelic” effects, including changes in perception, emotions and thinking, as well as moments of psychological insight and experiences of unity and interconnectedness that they often described as being deeply profound. In other words, they had the kind of experiences that have been known to change people’s lives for millennia.
It’s important to note that the drug wasn’t administered under just any conditions. The dose was given by trained clinicians in a highly controlled and calming environment. Patients wore eye masks and could optionally listen to calming music on headphones while they were directed to focus on their “inner experience.” In the event of anxiety or confusion arising, therapists were there to help and reassure the patients. Beyond this type of setting, it’s hard to know if the drug would have the same positive effects. Researchers don’t recommend taking it outside of a clinical context.
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“We spent a lot of time carefully preparing the participants for the sessions,” Ross told HuffPost. “Then on the dosing day, in a nod to how these drugs are used indigenously, we’d have the participants stand up with their two therapists and join hands and state their intentions for the day, which was usually something like ‘I want help with my cancer distress.’”
The results were nothing short of astonishing. Griffiths and his colleagues found that a single dose of psilocybin reduced depressed mood, anxiety and death anxiety, while increasing quality of life, life-meaning and optimism. Five weeks after the session, 92 percent of the participants showed significant decreases in depression and anxiety. After six months, roughly 80 percent of the participants continued to show clinically significant improvements ― and 60 percent showed a complete remission of their psychiatric symptoms.
In both the NYU and Johns Hopkins studies, patients experienced improvements in their attitudes toward death and deeply meaningful spiritual experiences. At Johns Hopkins, 83 percent reported increases in well-being or life satisfaction, while two-thirds of the patients said it was one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives.
“Psilocybin under these curated conditions can produce remarkable transformative experiences, sometimes rather misleadingly described as mystical experiences,” Griffiths told HuffPost. “They’re reorganizational in the sense that people find them deeply personally and spiritually meaningful, and they attribute marked changes in attitude, moods and behavior to them, and those effects endure months and years after the experience.”
Into The Mystic
Lisa Callaghan, a New York woman whose late husband Patrick participated in the NYU trials, said she witnessed a transformation in her spouse after his psilocybin session.
“Patrick’s spirit grew as his body declined,” she said during the teleconference. “It helped him and both of us live life fully up until the very end.”
Patrick experienced a classic “mystical” experience comparable to those described by generations of spiritual seekers and shamans. Psychologists have identified the central qualities of a so-called “mystical experience” as something that can’t be properly expressed in words, producing an altered sense of time and space, feelings of unity and sacredness, deeply felt positive emotions, and a quality of absolute truth or reality.
These types of spiritual experiences may be closely tied to the psychedelic experience’s therapeutic effects. The current findings suggest that spiritually oriented treatments may be particularly well-suited to psychological problems of an existential nature, which are often experienced by people facing terminal illness and the end of their lives.
Existential distress, or feelings of hopelessness related to a crisis of meaning or purpose, is common in cancer patients. Clinicians have generally had little success in treating this aspect of cancer-related psychiatric disorders, and the existing drugs and therapies have been shown to have little effect.
“The use of psychedelic medicine "may signal that medicine has come full circle to embrace the earliest known approach to healing our deepest of human agonies."”
But with psilocybin, cancer patients often experience a renewed sense of spiritual meaning and purpose in life.
“None of us are immune from the transitory nature of human life, which can bring fear and apprehension or conversely a real sense of meaning and preciousness,” Dr. Paul Summergrad, a psychiatrist at Tufts Medical Center, wrote in a commentary published in the Journal of Psychpharmacology.
“Understanding where these experiences fit in healing, well-being, and our understanding of consciousness may challenge many aspects of how we think about mental health,” he added. “These well-designed studies build upon a recent body of work that confronts us squarely with that task.”
Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Spiritual leaders and healers in cultures around the world have long used hallucinogenic plants and substances such as psilocybin as “entheogens,” or “god-revealing” tools.
Dr. Craig Blinderman, director of adult palliative care services at Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, penned a commentary published along with the study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. “A return to entheogens for the treatment of psycho-existential suffering may signal that medicine has come full circle to embrace the earliest known approach to healing our deepest of human agonies—by ‘generating the divine within,’” he wrote.
The Road Ahead For Psychedelic Medicine
The new trials join a growing wave of research into the use of psychedelic drugs, including LSD, MDMA, ibogaine and ayahuasca, to treat a wide range of mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. Due to the overwhelmingly positive results of many of these studies, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy has been hailed as a “paradigm shift” in mental health care.
Psilocybin seems poised to follow closely in the footsteps of MDMA, which got one step closer to becoming a legal medication when it was greenlit by the Food and Drug Administration for Phase 3 trials this week. The FDA must to do the same for psilocybin before it can be legalized as a psychiatric treatment. After these trials, the treatment could be made available to cancer patients who need it by 2021, but it could also take much longer.
Whatever the exact timeline, Griffiths expressed optimism about the many possibilities for cancer treatment and beyond. Currently, his team is also testing psilocybin for its effects on treatment-resistant depression and smoking cessation, and examining its long-term effects on meditators and religious leaders.
“I’m in it for the long run,” Griffiths said. “I think there’s something incredibly important about the nature of these compounds and experiences to provide unique information to us about the nature of the human condition and the science underlying consciousness.”