Psilocybe semilanceata, magic mushroom, cancer death anxiety

People with life-threatening cancer often feel anxious or depressed. Understandably, many have severe death anxiety. It is not always amenable to standard psychotherapeutic treatment.

A Unique Approach to Easing Cancer Death Anxiety:

Pilot studies conducted at Johns Hopkins University and New York University Langone Medical Center demonstrate that psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms, provides significant relief from debilitating emotional distress. In both of these double-blind studies, patients receiving psilocybin reported less depression and death anxiety and more optimism, quality of life and life satisfaction.

The Johns Hopkins study included 51 individuals, while the New York University study had 29 volunteers. In the NYU study, patients received psilocybin in one session and placebo (niacin) in another session seven weeks later.  For the Johns Hopkins study, the two sessions included a low dose and a high dose of psilocybin. In both studies, neither the patients nor the experimenters knew which medication was given first to which patients. This is called a cross-over design.

What Did the Scientists Measure?

The participants were assessed for mood, attitudes and behaviors as soon as they enrolled in the study, five weeks after each session, and six months after the second session. In addition, a “community observer” (family member or friend) was interviewed regarding each volunteer.

The scientists report that psilocybin reduced depression significantly. The effect lasted through to the final assessment. At six months, 78 percent of the participants had much less depression and 83 percent had significantly lower anxiety. About two-thirds of the volunteers rated the single dose of psilocybin as one of the most meaningful experiences in their lives. Those who reported a profound mystical experience were most likely to have a significant, lasting benefit. The authors of both studies think that psilocybin should be further investigated as a way to help cancer patients manage their death anxiety.

Journal of Psychopharmacology, Dec. 1, 2016

Dissenters Speak Up:

Not all other experts agree. One physician, William Breitbart, MD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering, told The New York Times that he worries psilocybin might follow the route of medical marijuana. In that case, the drug was initially reserved for cancer patients but was then used more widely.

Psilocybin can cause adverse effects, including elevated blood pressure, nausea and vomiting and even anxiety during the session itself. These studies were both carefully designed to maximize the therapeutic effect of the intervention, with monitors, music and a supportive environment. No one is suggesting that cancer patients should tackle this as a do-it-yourself project. Both research teams believe that their positive results warrant further exploration.


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  1. Michael
    Santa Monica

    Dr. Breitbart is apparently one of those in medicine who insist every facet of medicine has to generate corporate profits. You can see where that unscientific notion leads by watching “The Dallas Buyer’s Club”. Clusterheads over age 65 knows where that notion leads when they find out GlaxxoSmithKline which developed the migraine drug Imitrex which also aborts clusters, uses a loophole they helped carve out that permits them to keep their prices high by manufacturing their own generic version of Imitrex while protecting their market share by supporting Medicare’s refusal to reimburse cluster patients for using oxygen. No medications are made for clusters, the cause is unknown, our government does everything it can to keep us from using oxygen, and the only alternative to psilocybin is suicide. We have no option but to use psilocybin, and neither Dr. Breitbart’s cruel and outdated views, nor the DEA will stop us. Walk a mile in my shoes Dr. Breitbart and you’ll start growing mushrooms too!

  2. Kathy L
    New Jersey

    Mushrooms are at least natural, while all the drugs I have been prescribed over the years for refractory depression have raised hell with my metabolism, caused uncontrollable heart beat irregularities and the list goes on.

  3. Judy
    North Carolina

    I don’t understand why there is so much consternation about things like this. So what if a substance makes us have a pleasurable experience. It is as if anything that has any semblance of making one “high” is immediately considered negative. Why? Truly, I think alcohol is far more dangerous than psilocybin mushrooms. Honestly, I don’t know why alcohol gets such a bypass.

    I have had an interesting experience since a doctor put me on the medicine Adderall. It has worked so well and made me feel so much more normal — does it make me a bit “up” sometimes — sure, though not all of the time — some doctors are SO worried about prescribing it for me especially since I have (controlled) high blood pressure — oh my, so alert that I might be abusing it (even though I have NEVER asked for a prescription early or “lost” a prescription) because, you know, it might make me feel GOOD. Yet they were falling all over themselves to put me on drugs like Abilify and Seroquel and other anti-psychotics even though all of them are risk factors for blood pressure, cholesterol and metabolic problems. And all of them made me feel AWFUL!! The doctor who originally prescribed the Adderall also gave me a genetic test that showed I was MORE likely to have the above effects than the average person. It felt to me that they were MORE worried that I would feel good than that I might have those bad effects. Interestingly, I used to take Ambien quite often and took Xanax on occasion, perhaps once a week or so. Since I started the Adderall, I don’t need the Ambien and have only taken HALF a Xanax a few times on business trips when I was concerned I would not sleep.

    Native Americans and many tribes in South America and Mexico have used psilocybin for life-altering experiences for many years — to have vision for the future or to see deeper within themselves. Just because some silly doctor is worried someone might get “high” is no reason not to let this natural substance ease the worries of someone with cancer — same with marijuana — and who CARES if some people use more than they should? Heck, 1 out of 4 Americans abuses alcohol — these substances seem far less physically harmful to me.

  4. Jan
    Lemont IL

    In my youth, more than 40 years ago, I experimented with several hallucinogens (LSD, mescalline and dried psilocybine mushrooms). Of these three, psilocybine was, by far, the best for creating a wonderful mood enhancing and relevatory experience. To this day I remember my experiences with psylocybine with great fondness. It also had the gentlest effect on my body with no physical side effects that I ever noticed. I hope this research continues because I believe it holds great potential for developing new treatments for depression and anxiety.

  5. Laurie

    More people die from the legal drug alcohol than from marijuana. If marijuana or magic mushrooms help people, who is Dr. Breitbart to worry about it?

  6. Mary Jane

    Did somebody need a study to learn that psilocybin can relieve anxiety?

  7. Ron

    I believe that we should do everything possible to ease end of life discomfort and pain. There is no justification to allow the end of life to be anymore difficult than a lifetime has already been. To pass peacefully is but the final blessing.

  8. Karen

    Those of us with chronic illness also struggle with anxiety and depression. I would be interested in this therapy myself, me, someone who last smoked pot in 1979.

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