The Potential Role of Psychedelics in Cancer Treatment

Psilocybin shown to aid in cancer-related mental health conditions

Cancer is a modern chronic disease characterized by abnormal cells dividing uncontrollably. There are over 200 types of cancer, some of which may spread into other body tissues. 

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada, responsible for over 28 percent of all deaths. Researchers estimated there would be over 229,000 new cancer cases and almost 85,000 cancer deaths in Canada in 2021.

To date, there is no cure for cancer, but there are ways to prevent and treat it. Current treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, stem cell transplants, bisphosphonate drugs, supportive drugs, and vaccines. The treatment recommended depends on the type of cancer, its stage, personal preferences, and age of the patient. 

A person’s mental health is rarely prioritized in the treatment plan, likely because of the stigma surrounding mental health, preventing doctors from being proactive about it during cancer treatment. Peer-to-peer support groups are a big part of the Canadian Cancer Society’s approach to mental health care.

Children who have survived cancer usually function well in daily life, but new health problems can discourage or frighten them. Anniversaries of significant dates may bring up painful memories and feelings. It’s important to help people of all ages cope with their emotions and find support.

In 2021, the Mental Health Commission of Canada developed several resources in collaboration with the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, including a report on Mental Health and Cancer.

Psychedelics Studies of Patients With Cancer

During the early decades of psychedelic medicine in the mid-20th century, researchers administered hallucinogens to patients with end-stage cancers. Their results included improved mood and reduced anxiety, even in those with profound psychological demoralization.

The first published study in over 35 years explored the potential of psilocybin treatment for patients with reactive anxiety associated with advanced-stage cancer. The study showed that the controlled use of psilocybin may provide an alternative model for treating conditions that are not as responsive to conventional therapies, including the anxiety and despair that often accompanies advanced-stage cancers.

Subjects reported a powerful empathic energy to friends and family members, and examined how they wished to address their limited life expectancy. In monthly follow-up discussions, they reflected on insights and new perspectives gained during their psilocybin treatment, though the frequency of these reports was not quantified.

A similar study published in 2016 using a single dose of psilocybin involved 51 cancer patients with life-threatening diagnoses and symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. Results indicated increases in quality of life and decreases in death-related anxiety. Ratings by patients, clinicians, and community observers suggested the effects endured for at least six months. At this time, the rate of clinical response on depression and anxiety ranged from 78 to 83 percent.

Huntsman Cancer Institue. Source: healthcare.utah.edu

A team of researchers including Dr. Anna Beck, oncologist and the director of end-of-life care at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, is exploring group psychedelic therapy as an experimental treatment for the demoralization and anxiety that often accompanies cancer. They’re exploring whether group psychotherapy combined with psilocybin can safely help people confront the sense of their own mortality.

“Psychedelic medicine is the only thing that has been shown to make a difference to alleviate some of the existential distress [felt by cancer patients],” Beck said in an interview

The first group of participants passed through the study in fall 2021. Researchers gave each participant 25 mg of psilocybin, who sat with a therapist at individual stations in a large room where they also received cancer treatments. Music was played on speakers and participants wore eye shades. Lead therapist Paul Thielking and researchers are still gathering and analyzing data from the first study cohort.

“This study is helping us explore the idea of: is it feasible to offer [psychedelic psychotherapy] in a group format, where you have several people at once taking the medicine together in the same room at the same time,” said Thielking. 

Pradeep Bansal, a gastroenterologist in New York, shared about taking a synthetic form of psilocybin as part of an FDA-approved clinical study on mental health therapy for people with cancer. Diagnosed with stage IV cancer in his lung and bladder after undergoing surgery to remove cancer in his kidney, he wasn’t sure he would live for very long.

Bansal was initially afraid of what he might experience under psilocybin and that it would be a misguided waste of time. He said the eight-hour experience gave him something more important than ease: a sense of meaning. He wrote in his journal: “I died, and I was reborn. If I survived this, then I can face anything and anybody in the cosmic scheme. I can become part of it…My cancer is nothing. Life does not end with the end of life. What was will be again. Eternally.”

Bansal met with a group of three other people in the trial who had their dosing the same day, and continues to meet regularly with them even though it’s long since past the requirements of the study.

Immunotherapy treatment for his bladder has still caused pain, bleeding, fever and chills, but he said, “It’s as if there is a part of me that is watching myself objectively, going through the painful process of treatments saying, ‘It’s all right. I will be with you through this journey, through this experience. Don’t worry.’”

He continued: “I understood that I still had cancer and that it could kill me in a few weeks, or months, or years. But my perspective had shifted.”

Researchers at Huntsman are recruiting participants for the second of three groups in their study. They hope to provide results later this year.

Cancer’s impact on one’s physical, mental, and emotional health is undeniable, including the effects on one’s family and community. While psychedelics cannot cure this disease, research shows its potential to become a valid treatment for those experiencing effects of severe forms of cancer.

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