Using mind-altering drugs in clinical settings isn’t a new phenomenon. Medical marijuana is now available across the country, while researchers continue to study the psychological effects of other psychedelic drugs, including magic mushrooms and even ecstasy.
A new study from New York University’s Langone Medical Center shows that the same ingredient found in magic mushrooms can help relieve depression and anxiety in cancer patients nearing the end of their life. The doctors behind the study want to make it clear these drugs should only be used in clinical settings, and more research is needed, but the initial results are extremely promising.
Cancer Patients and Depression, Anxiety
We know that a cancer diagnosis can increase a person’s risk of anxiety and depression. According to a study from the National Institute of Health on the relationship between cancer and mental health, 29.3% of cancer patients had mild anxiety, and 16.7% had symptomatic anxiety. However, mild and symptomatic depression were seen in 26.7% and 21.3% patients, respectively.
Older individuals tend to be more prone to anxiety and depression. The type of cancer and treatment can also have an effect on mental health. Breast and stomach cancer patients had the highest prevalence of anxiety and depression, and the higher prevalence was observed in the patients who received chemotherapy as the single treatment.
Studies also show that depression and anxiety can hinder cancer treatment and recovery, as well as quality of life and survival rates. Some patients may lose faith in their ability to fight off the disease, unable to escape the idea that they’re going to die.
For cancer survivors, the trauma of facing death and going through chemotherapy can come back to haunt them if the cancer reappears.
Bringing Hope to LTC Patients
That was certainly true of Gale Cowan. As a 73-year-old New York adult literacy teacher, she’s been struggling with breast cancer on and off since 2003 and believes it will likely kill her.
Talking about her disease, she said, “It was sort of like this deep sense of dread, that this cancer was stalking me. And every time I think I beat it back, it would catch up with me again. It was coming back every two or three years.”
Dr. Stephen Ross, director of addiction psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, who co-authored the study, believes this is somewhat normal in cancer patients. He says between 40-50% of cancer patients will have some diagnosable anxiety or depressive disorder.
Cowan was open to the idea of taking magic mushrooms as part of the clinical trial, considering she had experimented with LSD in her 20s.
Along with several other patients dealing with cancer, Cowan was exposed to psilocybin, which is often found in magic mushrooms, in a controlled setting. Researchers played soothing music for patients as they relaxed in a safe environment.
For Cowan, the experience was transformative. She recalls, “It starts off more like the things that I was seeing were heightened. Even like that lamp — all of a sudden you know the texture of the shade. I felt this connection with everything.”
She held onto the feeling for several hours, but it changed her outlook on her disease. “There’s something that I go into and become a part of and that’s pretty cool. My experience tells me that it’s not a big nothing after I’m gone.”
The soothing effects of the experience didn’t go away entirely when her “trip” was over. She says, “Every night when I get in bed, and the lights (go) out, I find that I have a smile on my face even if I’ve had a really stressful day,”
Overall, the researchers studied the effects of psilocybin in 29 cancer patients at NYU and 51 at John Hopkins University, and both found similar results. The drug was able to reduce anxiety and depression in 80% of patients, as reported in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Researchers are quick to point out that the drug isn’t for everyone. Cancer patients shouldn’t try taking the drug at home in non-clinical settings. They also want people to know that it’s not a cure-all drug.
Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, was initially afraid that the drug would send patients into a dark spiral as they face an existential void, but that wasn’t the case.
Dinah Bazer, another participant in the clinical trial, says she was initially terrified, but the soothing effects of the drug eventually took root. The experience allowed her to visualize her fear. She recalls, “I saw my fear. The fear was gone.”
The medical community has long experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. When Albert Hoffman first discovered LSD in the 1940s, doctors started administering the drug to patients in clinical trials, but this effort came to an end in the 1970s after so many people started abusing LSD, cannabis, and other drugs. The Reagan Administration started an anti-drug campaign and the federal government quickly abandoned these studies.
The tide now seems to be turning. The FDA recently approved a large clinical trial involving ecstasy as a way of treating veterans suffering from PTSD.
Ross believes studying these drugs could change the way doctors think about death. He started his career in medicine watching people dying horrible deaths. “I saw people getting chemotherapy on their deathbed and doctors really not trained to help patients in the final part of their lives.” But these drugs seem to be having an effect, helping providers reach patients in new ways. Some may forget about their diagnosis for a few hours, while others may change their outlook on life and death.
Stay tuned as we learn more about these innovative studies.