Psychedelics are entering the mainstream with potent potential to ease cancer side effects of the existential variety.
Recreational users of psychedelics like MDMA, acid, LSD and DMT have often described their experiences as transformational. Whether psychedelics help people release trauma from their past or unleash new truths about their present, they can often provide an experience beyond a means of temporary escape from reality. It’s no surprise then that the use of psychedelics has migrated to the scientific research world, especially as it relates to the new cancer community.
According to a 2018 report published in the International Review of Psychiatry, “promising early-phase clinical research (1960s to 1970s) suggested a therapeutic signal for serotonergic psychedelics (e.g. psilocybin, LSD) in treating cancer-related psychiatric distress.” Furthermore, “psychedelic-assisted treatment can produce rapid, robust, and sustained improvements in cancer-related psychological and existential distress.”
One 2016 report from the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that “high-dose psilocybin produced large decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism” among 51 cancer patients in a randomized, double-blind, cross-over trial.
Alli Feduccia, a neuropharmacologist and the executive director of Project New Day, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization helping people overcome addiction through the use of psychedelics, worked at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) for five years. During her time at MAPS, she also participated in a different research trial looking at MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for people with anxiety and life-threatening illnesses, primarily cancer. This multi-year, randomized study was the basis for a 2020 report published in the scientific journal Nature highlighting the effectiveness of psychedelics as a treatment for the psychological side effects of active cancer treatment.
Although the sample size was small (out of only 18 participants, five were randomized to receive the placebo), their research utilized a number of study measures, from anxiety and depression to quality of life.
“[For many] people that receive these diagnoses, there’s a lot of focus on treating the physical symptoms of the illness [or] eliminat[ing] the cancer in the body, but there’s a lot less attention and focus put on a person’s mental well-being or how they are coping or processing with the illness,” says Feduccia. “And what can also happen is that the treatments themselves can be really difficult or psychologically stressful and demanding. It’s hard on the body itself, but then the mental parts of that can also be really hard.”
A cancer diagnosis adds an additional layer of anxiety by often forcing individuals to face their own mortality. In some ways, a cancer diagnosis is as much a physical illness as it is an existential crisis that spreads beyond a warrior’s body to the livelihoods of their loved ones. What is unresolved from one’s life? Will one leave behind missed opportunities? That sort of reflection can be daunting for even someone who has lived a long and rich life. What can it do to someone who feels their life is getting cut short?
MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may offer a solution by helping warriors embrace acceptance of their illness. According to Feduccia, participants in the study tolerated treatment “very well,” meaning there were not any significant or serious adverse outcomes that came from using the psychedelic. More importantly, researchers saw a significant improvement in anxiety, depression, outlook on life and post-traumatic use with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy compared to baseline. “They just conveyed that they felt a lot of resolution around their illness, approaching death, leaving behind family,” Feduccia says.
Feduccia emphasizes that this type of treatment is not about just taking psychedelics every single day to control symptoms. No, it is more about helping warriors process their experience through a guided form of psychotherapy. “It’s got to really be about combining the MDMA with psychotherapy,” she says. “What we’ve observed is that people are more [open] under the influence of MDMA to maybe talk about things that are really difficult or painful. It can also bring in new insights, or different perspectives on a situation like their life.”
In some ways, a cancer diagnosis is as much a physical illness as it is an existential crisis that spreads beyond a warrior’s body
Participants often feel more connected to their therapy team and the MDMA facilitates a level of trust and bonding that might not have existed without the medicine. Although the exact mechanisms aren’t completely understood, Feduccia believes it may be tied to the serotonin and oxytocin effects of the MDMA itself.
Through their research, Feduccia hopes that warriors may soon “get to a place where they can accept and feel okay with where they are and have their focus be on how they can make the most of their life and their time here on Earth.” In the future, researchers would likely develop a larger study with a placebo control for a greater number of warriors.
A future study may broaden the scope. Most of their participants were white and came from higher income brackets. People with different illnesses or within different age groups or stemming from different racial, ethnic and/or socioeconomic backgrounds deserve to feel the same effects from this type of treatment.
End-of-life care is still very medically oriented, resulting in warriors spending an excess amount on their health. In the future, psychedelics may also play a role in helping people achieve acceptance of their reality, rather than avoiding it by any means.
“With substances like psilocybin or LSD, a lot of times people do feel what’s called “ego dissolution” or this expansive feeling of connecting with the universe [and] something beyond their own self,” adds Feduccia. “This may be a whole new way that people can manage better at the end, and maybe also gives their families some comfort cues to see a person really have dignity and grace as they approach the next big chapter.”
To find clinical trials in your area that may be researching therapeutic psychedelics usage, visit clinicaltrials.gov. You can also explore psychedelic therapies through Field Trip Health, a company that blends legal psychedelic-enhanced therapy, mindfulness and self-care in its sessions, at fieldtriphealth.com.