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Laurie Brooks' cancer diagnosis turned her life upside down.
Like many people diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, the 55-year-old resident of British Columbia was consumed with dread about her imminent death. What would that mean for her husband and four children?
Many cancer patients struggle with depression and end-of-life anxiety while navigating a terminal illness. But for Laurie, it took six hours to turn her anguish into relief and hope.
It was psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, that helped Laurie let go of her overwhelming grief, existential dread, and anger. After one session of psilocybin-assisted therapy, she found a sense of calm, acceptance, and transformative insights about the meaning of life and death. You can Watch Laurie’s story and unexpected journey in the documentary Dosed: The Trip of a Lifetime.
Laurie Brooks is one of many who have found the magic in these mushrooms.
In recent years, the potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin mushrooms have captured scientists’ attention. These naturally occurring fungi have shown great promise in alleviating a range of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.
One particularly intriguing area of research is the use of psilocybin for treating end-of-life anxiety, a profound and often challenging aspect of terminal illness.
The use of psilocybin-assisted therapy in palliative care is creating a paradigm shift in how we approach mental and emotional suffering.
In this article, we delve into everything you need to know about using magic mushrooms to overcome cancer anxiety and the existential dread of terminal illness.
You’ll learn about the effectiveness of psilocybin-assisted therapy for spiritual distress. You’ll see whether it’s safe to undergo psilocybin therapy while receiving treatment. And we’ll compare psilocybin to antidepressants for palliative care patients.
Depression and anxiety in cancer patients or anyone who receives a life-threatening diagnosis is common. These patients suffer from what is known as “total pain.” While doctors focus on offering treatments and managing physical pain, patients also suffer emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
Our modern medical model is detached from its spiritual roots.1 But spiritual distress — or the inability to find meaning, hope, love, connection, and strength in the face of an impending death — is a significant disorder.2
When you’re aware of your impending death, your brain creates a cognitive buffer to keep this knowledge away from your daily functions.3 Some of the coping mechanisms that show up to help with this overwhelming pain are:
Dying patients often struggle with deep existential and practical questions: how much time do I have left? What happens after I die? Are my loved ones going to be OK? These questions can generate anxiety, depression, and agitation for patients and their loved ones.4
Recent research on the effect of psilocybin on existential suffering is generating much-needed hope for terminally ill patients. Let’s delve into the science behind the transformative potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
Psilocybin is a psychoactive chemical naturally present in “magic mushrooms.” For thousands of years, psilocybin mushrooms have been used in religious and spiritual ceremonies for healing and altering human consciousness. The Aztecs called the Psilocybe mushroom Teonanácatl, or “flesh of the gods.”5
Mushrooms can cause dramatic changes in one’s perception of time, space, and sense of self, creating spiritual and mystical experiences and insights. Indigenous cultures continue to use psilocybin in spiritual ceremonies. But there is also growing scientific interest in the effect of psilocybin for treating depression, anxiety, and “total pain.”
Psilocybin can temporarily change our Default Mode Network (DMN) activity patterns. This brain network is associated with thoughts about self or ego, introspection, and memory. When psilocybin changes the activity in this network, it can cause the dissolution of ego boundaries and a sense of unity with the universe.6
At the same time, psilocybin can lead to increased connectivity between different regions of the brain that are usually disconnected. This heightened connection can cause new thoughts and perceptions, altering states of consciousness and improving problem-solving ability.7 These effects lead to improvement in mood that can last for months.
Psilocybin also often leads to the surfacing of repressed emotions. People undergoing psilocybin experiences frequently report profound emotional release. This can contribute to a sense of healing and catharsis.
A group of scientists in the fields of psychiatry, neurology, and pharmacy conducted what is known as a meta-analysis.8 They reviewed all the existing clinical trials that looked into the effectiveness of psilocybin for treating anxiety in patients with life-threatening conditions such as cancer and HIV.
They found that a single treatment session with psilocybin was effective in treating both state anxiety and trait anxiety.
State anxiety is the temporary feelings of dread and apprehension you might feel because of a stressful situation such as a life-threatening diagnosis.
Trait anxiety, on the other hand, is a general tendency to feel anxious, which can become part of your personality. If you suffer from trait anxiety, you are more likely to feel a more intensified dread when a threatening situation comes up.
Thankfully, psilocybin has shown effectiveness in managing trait anxiety one, three, and even six months after a single treatment session.
Another double-blind study by John Hopkins researchers involved 51 patients with cancer-related anxiety and depression. The findings of that research showed that the majority of patients found considerable relief from their depression up to six months after a single treatment with psilocybin.9
Psilocybin-assisted therapy decreased depression and anxiety in cancer patients while increasing their quality of life and optimism. Interestingly, some 67% of participants said that the experience was one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives. And 70% reported their experience as one of the top five spiritually significant events in their lifetime.
These are promising findings for treating total pain. For the first time, we might have a truly effective treatment for the emotional and psychological issues that arise for cancer patients and their families.
For patients undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from complicated health conditions, the safety of psilocybin treatment is an understandable concern.
Research shows that cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or highly active antiretroviral therapy showed no harmful side effects when using psilocybin.
Psilocybin impacts patients’ systolic blood pressure (SBP) and diastolic blood pressure (DBP) — which refer to the pressure in arteries when the heart is beating and resting. However, these effects were temporary and didn’t require medical intervention. Meanwhile, there were no issues with discontinuation, and there were no significant differences in heart rate.
However, it should be noted that these changes in SBP and DBP might cause harmful reactions in some patients with life-threatening illnesses. For instance, in one of the studies, long-term AIDS survivors struggled with cardiovascular disease.10
The decision to participate in psilocybin-assisted therapy for terminally ill patients should be made in consultation with physicians.
Many people worry about having a “bad trip” or experiencing anxiety, panic, or psychosis because of the psilocybin experience. In palliative care, psychedelics are used with a holistic approach. This means that the “set and setting” are curated to avoid a bad trip and ensure the patient can “integrate” the experience.
The set refers to the mindset of the patient. Thinking positively about the drug and its impact can produce a good mental state and generate a positive experience.
The setting refers to the safety and comfort of where the psychedelic experience happens. The presence of a trained therapist or guide is a significant factor that shapes the quality of your experience with psychoactive drugs.
For patients who struggle with end-of-life anxiety, proper “set and setting” determine whether they leave the experience with profound relief or a worsening mental state. A psychedelic therapist or an experienced trip-sitter can help guide your journey.
You can find a comprehensive list of retreats, practitioners, and local groups on Tripsitters. You might also find Psychedelic Support to be a helpful resource for finding licensed practitioners to help you with preparation and integration.
Until recently, the only option for palliative patients who struggle with depression was antidepressants such as SSRIs. These medications reduce the brain’s responsiveness to stress. This can help take the edge off depressive symptoms. But in doing so, they also dampen a person’s emotional depth.
Unlike SSRIs, psilocybin can liberate thoughts and feelings and create a renewed perspective.11
Rather than numbing emotions, psilocybin can heal distressing psychological and neurological patterns that cause our habitual ways of thinking. If you tend to expect a tragedy, feel disconnected, or have a low sense of self-worth, psilocybin allows you to “reset” your brain by generating new neural connections.
Palliative care is about optimizing the quality of life, increasing comfort, and easing pain. End-of-life care shouldn’t be about sedation, numbing patients’ feelings, and depriving them of meaningful connections.
Palliative care should be about honoring and assisting the changes the body and mind undergo in the dying process. Psilocybin has shown the potential to give patients tremendous relief and meaning in the final stage of life.
It’s normal to ruminate about death, worry about loss of control, and search for meaning when you are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
Psilocybin-assisted therapy gives many terminally ill patients the ability to turn worries into a sense of equanimity and fulfillment. It helps them re-engage with life, creativity, and joy once again.
For some, like Laurie Brooks, psilocybin was life-giving. "Now I think, no, I want to squeeze every ounce of life out of this journey that I can. I don't want to know the hour and time of my own death,'' says Laurie, who says psilocybin took away her fear of dying and the grief and anxiety she was feeling.12
If you or a loved one have received a life-threatening diagnosis and are struggling with end-of-life anxiety, let us know if we can support your journey. We can answer your questions and help guide you to spiritual healing. Reach out to us here.