As you might imagine, a diagnosis of terminal cancer can and does produce high levels of depression and/or anxiety in a large number of patients. Not to mention freaking, mind-bending fear.
I have, over the past two months or so, had debilitating attacks of dread that seem to rattle every cell in my body and leave me terrified.
Such responses are so well-known that for some time now there have been research scientists who are working to find ways to relieve these fears and anxieties.
A few years before this cancer predicament presented itself in my life in 2017, I began tracking reports of these studies. Most of them involve a person's ingestion of psilocybin, known colloquially as magic mushrooms.
You might recall that psilocybin, along with marijuana, mescalin and a few other hallucinogens, are among the substances many of our generation who were interested in altering our consciousnesses experimented with in the druggie 1960s.
Besides smoking pot regularly, I took three acid (LSD) trips back in those days. They were fascinating.
One of the most well-known, recent psilocybin studies took place at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. From the medical journal report's introduction (emphasis mine throughout this post):
”Cancer patients often develop a chronic, clinically significant syndrome of psychosocial distress having depressed mood, anxiety, and reduced quality of life as core features...In cancer patients, depression and anxiety have been associated with decreased treatment adherence...prolonged hospitalization...decreased quality of life...and increased suicidality...”
And from the conclusion:
”The data show that psilocybin produced large and significant decreases in clinician-rated and self-rated measures of depression, anxiety or mood disturbance, and increases in measures of quality of life, life meaning, death acceptance, and optimism.
“These effects were sustained at 6 months. For the clinician-rated measures of depression and anxiety, respectively, the overall rate of clinical response at 6 months was 78% and 83% and the overall rate of symptom remission was 65% and 57%.
“Participants attributed to the high-dose experience positive changes in attitudes about life, self, mood, relationships and spirituality, with over 80% endorsing moderately or higher increased well-being or life satisfaction.
“These positive effects were reflected in significant corresponding changes in ratings by community observers (friends, family, work colleagues) of participant attitudes and behavior.”
If you have a tolerance for charts, statistics and scientific jargon, you can read the entire report here.
Another cancer-psilocybin study at New York University (NYU) concluded that a
”...single moderate-dose psilocybin (in conjunction with psychotherapy) was safely administered to a cohort of patients with cancer-related psychological distress (e.g. anxiety, depression).
“It produced rapid and sustained anxiolytic and anti-depressant effects (for at least 7 weeks but potentially as long as 8 months), decreased cancer-related existential distress, increased spiritual wellbeing and quality of life, and was associated with improved attitudes towards death.”
You can read this entire report here (with similar statistics, charts and jargon as the Hopkins study). There have been and are ongoing other studies producing remarkably similar results.
Something big is going on with psilocybin. You may have heard of or even read Michael Pollan's 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind, about what he calls the “new science of psychedelics.” I don't want to bury you in long quotations, but here is part of his response to his psilocybin research, having also tripped on it himself:
In a follow-up to the NYU study, Pollan reports,
”A few key themes emerged. All of the patients interviewed described powerful feelings of connection to loved ones...and, more generally, a shift 'from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness.'
“In most cases, this shift was accompanied by a repertoire of powerful emotions including 'exalted feelings of joy, bliss, and love.' Difficult passages during the journey were typically followed by positive feelings of surrender and acceptance (even of their cancers) as people's fears fell away.”
With evidence of such positive results piling up, you wonder why psilocybin is not made available to terminally ill cancer and other patients. The reason is that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) lists it as a Schedule 1 drug: no prescriptions may be written and limited use is allowed for study.
That may be changing. Efforts are underway in Oregon and Denver to decriminalize magic mushrooms:
”Advocates with the Oregon Psilocybin Society received formal approval last week to move ahead with their language for a 2020 state ballot initiative that would reduce criminal penalties on psilocybin and allow for its use during 'guided sessions' at state-licensed facilities,” reports Vice News.
“Decriminalization efforts have moved a little further in Denver, where advocates have already started gathering signatures to put an initiative of their own on the municipal ballot in May 2019 that would decriminalize personal use, possession, and growth at the local level.”
Okay. Now you've got some background on magic mushrooms. Part 2 is here.