The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three cancer patients explain how a psychedelic drug eased their fears


New research finds that psilocybin, the long-banned active compound in “magic mushrooms,” helps cancer patients deal with the anxiety, depression and fear of death that often accompanies the disease.

Two studies published Thursday found that a single dose of psilocybin reduced negative feelings for months at a time while increasing optimism, feelings of connection with other people, and mystical and spiritual experiences. The findings, which appeared in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, are from clinical trials at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and New York University Langone Medical Center.

Here is how some participants described their experiences:

Petra, a Seattle resident who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used for privacy, had ovarian cancer and was worried about its return. She was diagnosed in late 2009 and had surgery and chemo; her odds of longtime survival were 70 percent, a statistic that didn't comfort her. She had insomnia and was struggling to care for her ailing mother. She volunteered for the Hopkins trial. She received a placebo in May 2012 and psilocybin several weeks later.

The first experience was wonderful, but the second one was quite different, by orders of magnitude . . . I started to experience the onset of the medication, and things really got interesting. They (the monitors) were completely covered with eyes, so I thought, “They'll certainly be able to watch over me. . . .”

At one point, I felt I had turned into a tree, and that was amazing. I was solid and rooted, yet I could move my arms. I was in tears a lot of the time out of sheer shock, once I realized all of this was inside me . . . It made me feel that I was more than I thought I was. It made me feel strong and more confident . . .

The anxiety disappeared, and I felt total joy. I felt an acceptance of the world as it is and myself as I am . . . I learned to live in a new way, not governed by fear. The drug gave me time to recover and learn some new life skills . . . The main one was meditating every day.

Key ingredient in 'magic mushrooms' eased cancer patients' fear of death

Patrick Mettes, a TV news director who lived in Brooklyn, was diagnosed with cancer of the bile ducts at 52. His wife, Lisa Callaghan, said Mettes volunteered for the NYU trial and was given psilocybin in January 2011. He died in 2012. As part of his psilocybin treatment, he was asked to write about his experience. The following are excerpts:  

I wasn’t prepared for how physical the experience of psilocybin would be. Aside from nausea (which was unpleasant), the tremors, shutters and convulsions, which were considerable, were never troubling. They went on for quite some time but for the most part seemed as natural as breathing.

More than once, I felt as if my journey and the overall experience of psilocybin contained the elements of a classic story arc (exposition, climax, resolution). In talking with Lisa on my way home, I said the experience felt metaphorically like a space shuttle launch … a physically violent and rather clunky liftoff which eventually gave way to the blissful serenity of weightlessness . . .

Early on I met Ruth … my brother's wife who passed away from cancer in the mid-1980s. She acted as my tour guide. She didn’t seem surprised to see me. She was pleasant but not overly loving … sort of matter-of-fact about my being there.

There were examples of other religions around me. American Indians (mother earth), Hindus, Christians, and others … not necessarily people, just the thought or understanding of other religions … all “circling” around the same source of energy … all focused on one thing … there was an understanding and respect for each others challenges and efforts to get to the same place. Circles and triangles were powerful shapes here . . .

From here on, love was the only consideration. Everything that happened, anything and everything that was seen or heard centered on love. It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light … sometimes it was red, sometimes blue. It was so pure. And it vibrated …

I was beginning to wonder if man spent too much time and effort at things unimportant … trying to accomplish so much … when really, it was all so simple. No matter the subject, it all came down to the same thing. Love.

Sunday (two days after dosing) the afterglow of psilocybin had vanished. I felt … normal. Undoubtedly, my life has changed in ways I may never fully comprehend. But I now have an understanding … an awareness that goes beyond intellect … that my life, that every life, and all that is the universe, equals one thing … love.

And it is good!

Dinah Bazer was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in May 2010. She had surgery and chemotherapy, and a good prognosis. But “I really went nuts with anxiety,” she said, worrying about a recurrence. The Brooklyn resident, who is now 69, enrolled in the NYU trial and got psilocybin in the fall of 2012.   

I met the therapists in what looked like a small living room with sofas and chairs, beautifully decorated with an abstract painting on the wall. They told me to lie down, put on the sleep mask and put on the headphones with music . . . In a short while, I started to experience the drug, and I was terrified. I felt lost in space or in the dark hold of a ship on stormy seas. I thought, “I'm having a bad trip . . .”

I saw my fear — it was a black mass under my rib cage, like a giant lump of coal. I erupted in extreme anger and said, “Get the f--- out of here. I won't be eaten alive!” I yelled it out loud. As soon as I did that, it was gone, and that fear has never come back . . .

After a while, I started to fell an all-encompassing love. I'm still an atheist, but feel like I was bathed in God's love. If I weren't an atheist, I would say I felt like part of God . . . This love I felt was so amazing, what stayed with me was the feeling that I belong, that I have a right to be here and that I am loved and that I love . . .

I became able to reach out to other people more . . . and I'm not such an aggressive driver. I can't say I'm not in a hurry but I don't want to be in a hurry any more.”

Psilocybin may help cancer patients with anxiety (Video: New York University Langone Medical Center)

Read more:

Canine cancer research might help humans, too

Many Medicare cancer patients hit by out-of-cancer costs

A consumer's guide to the hottest field in cancer treatments