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Watch: Psilocybin Helps Terminal Cancer Patients Find New Ways Of Coping

by Aaron Kase

on July 13, 2015

Video: Psilocybin “More Helpful than Any Other Treatment”

“People in this country don’t talk about death,” neuropsychologist Annie Levy says in this video. Levy, who suffers from ovarian cancer, says she had lost her faith due to anxiety. Pain and ongoing medical procedures contributed to her misery, and her irritability was affecting her relationship with her husband and caretaker.

Instead of dealing with death openly, she found, people she interacted with clung to optimism to the point of denial. She wasn’t willing to ignore the possibility of death, and signed up for a psilocybin study to help her confront her mortality. “My intention was to learn to control my anxiety so I could enjoy the rest of my life,” Levy says.

“We’re administering psilocybin as a treatment for serious mental suffering,” Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, says in the video.

Grob and a team of researchers conduced a pilot study to see if psilocybin would help ease anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer, the results of which were published in 2011 in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers concluded that the “careful and controlled use of psilocybin may provide an alternative model for the treatment of conditions that are often minimally responsive to conventional therapies, including the profound existential anxiety and despair that often accompany advanced-stage cancers.” To facilitate this, Grob and his team create a safe, comfortable environment for the patients to take the substance under the observation of researchers.

“As soon as it started working I knew I had nothing to be afraid of,” Levy says, “because it connected me with the universe.” She thought of her loved ones and how to spend time with each of them, and learned to appreciate her own aging. “I had an amazing spiritual experience,” she says.

Since her psilocybin journey, Levy has improved her relationship with her husband and says she grew much closer with her mother, who initially opposed the psychedelic therapy.

“I don’t look ahead as far,” Levy says, “but I’m much more focused on this moment right now.” She says the psilocybin felt like the equivalent of years of therapy.

“I would recommend psilocybin treatment for anyone with a terminal or potentially terminal illness,” she says. “It’s more helpful than any other treatment I’ve ever had.”

Video: Learn To Take Care Of Yourself Using Psilocybin

In this video, Dr. Lauri Kershman speaks of her psilocybin experience during the Psychedelic Science 2013 conference. She was diagnosed with leukemia in 2006 and several years later volunteered for a psilocybin study for cancer patients at Johns Hopkins, after facing panic attacks and seeing her relationships fall apart in the wake of her treatment. “The impact that the study had on my life was enormous,” she says. “The safety that I felt to be able to let go and face some demons and go deep into some pretty difficult and sad places.”

She had felt her career and her identity slipping away with her disease, but was able to confront the challenges openly while taking the psychedelic, in addition to coming to terms with some childhood trauma. After one session, she immediately recognized her path forward toward health. “That allowed for me to open up to self-empathy and sort of melt the walls of post-traumatic stress and then turn around and make enormous changes in my life,” Kershman says.

“There’s a part of spiritual healing where you learn to take care of yourself,” she says, admitting that she had ignored her own body’s needs during her medical training and practice.

Kershman responded to a question about combating the stigma around psychedelics by using herself as an example. “I’m a normal subject,” she says, “a productive, credible person in the community who took on this unusual treatment for my post-traumatic stress… this brought me to being alive again.”

She says the experience left her motivated toward service, to help other people find healing the way she has. “Hopefully it will be less of a fear for people, for physicians to suggest to the patients and for patients to actually take the chance and be a part of the study,” she says. “I really feel like my spirit has awakened.”

Video: Psilocybin “Fundamentally Changes the Way Your Approach the World”

“It’s dramatically changed my life from one of struggle and intensity,” says Clark Martin, another participant in the Johns Hopkins study on psilocybin therapy for cancer patients, “to a real spontaneity, and a real sense of freedom… I just have to show up and be myself and let my brain do what it can do when it’s fully functioning.”

Martin was diagnosed with cancer around the same time his daughter was born and soon felt himself falling into depression. “My life got narrower and narrower,” he says. “I got more exclusively focused on the cancer.” He tried antidepressants and counseling to try to find a path back toward a normal life, but neither worked.

Martin had never used psychedelics before, and says the experience was frightening at first. “The induction or beginning of the effects started in about ten minutes, and what happens is things that are normally familiar, both things in the room and feelings, all of a sudden they start feeling unfamiliar,” he recounts. “It’s like your brain is going offline, one part at a time.”

He says he resisted for the first hour and a half and wanted to make things snap back into place, but with the help of the study facilitators he calmed down and accepted the journey. “Mostly there was just an experience of familiarity and tranquility, and just a very comfortable feeling but there were no things of any kind in it,” Martin says. “No other people, no architecture, no ideas, for the most part. There was nothing left over from the everyday reality that was in that space. Just a feeling of presence.”

Since his experience, whenever he has felt a depression coming on he’s been able to shrug it off more quickly. He also says he’s stopped micromanaging and has become more trusting, spontaneous and sociable.

“It’s almost unbelievable that after one day, and not any follow up medications or anything, that this could happen,” he says. “It fundamentally changes the way you approach the world, so then as time goes by and you’re interacting with the world, your interaction with the world is more productive. You’re opening out instead of narrowing down into a negative spiral.”

Video: Psilocybin Experience “Overwhelmingly Beautiful”

“When you get a cancer diagnosis, you’re not just dealing with the reality of that information,” says Janeen Delaney in this video. “It’s almost like there’s a Pandora’s box that opens up. When emotional things start happening, when you’re dealing with one emotion, you can’t close the doors to other emotions that come into it, and it affects the dynamic of your entire life.”

Delaney found herself turning inward after her diagnosis, facing fear and slipping into depression. She worried she wouldn’t find fullness in her life before she died. She signed up for the Johns Hopkins psilocybin study and describes receiving the capsule from the doctor: “There was so much promise,” she says. “You knew once you swallowed that, there was no return.”

“I kept waiting to see if something wild was going to happen, colors, all of these possibilities,” she says. “I didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t know where I was, but I didn’t go anywhere. But it was an amazing, amazing journey.”

During the experience, she found herself holding her breath, and realized that it was okay not to breathe, and that she wouldn’t need to fight for that last breath once it was time to let go. “I emerged from that first session, oddly enough, having an extremely strong sense of self,” Delaney says. “It opened my heart.”

She says that after her psychedelic journey, she knew that everything was going to be okay, describing herself as more patient and thoughtful since her experience. She feels gratitude for each day she does get to continue drawing breath. “I can’t even imagine how it will continue to amplify,” Delaney says. “It was so overwhelmingly incredible and beautiful.”

Video: Psilocybin Gives Sense of Connectedness

Estalyn Walcoff is a psychotherapist, but struggled with her own mental health after she was diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma. “My anxiety shot up,” she says in this video, but she was determined to work on herself. “If I were going to die much sooner than I planned, then I wanted to understand myself better. I wanted to understand spirituality better, I wanted not to have a bitter heart and I wanted to be open.”

Walcoff signed up for a psilocybin trial at New York University. The study was focused inward, different from her psychedelic experiences in from her 20s, which were more geared toward appreciating nature and music. “The whole thing that I was going to be experiencing was my own mind,” she says.

When she took the substance, to her surprise, she started experiencing a layer of anxiety and a layer of pain. “I was actually feeling that I was holding the pain of the world,” Walcoff says. “I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.”

Then, she found herself opening up. “It was a sense of connectedness that runs through all of us that I never knew, and also a sense of the strength of it and the power of it,” she says. “The fear, as it decreased, transformed itself into an open heart.”

Her whole life, Walcoff says, she judged herself critically, but she experienced a moment of grace in her psilocybin journey and learned to feel compassion for herself. She now says she feels wonderful for the first time in her life and has forged a better connection to her family. “I feel that it is such a boon to learning about yourself, seeing your mind and getting in touch with your spirituality,” says Walcoff. “If people could know how connected they really are… so much of their fear would dissipate.”