Timothy Leary's Prostate Cancer Battle & The Advancements That Followed
- Legendary phycologist Timothy Leary a major advocate of psychedelic drugs who popularized LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), passed away at age 68 from inoperable prostate cancer.
- Prior to his death, he would often take to his official website about the disease he was battling and the drugs he took to reduce his pain.
- However, there are limitations to using psychedelic drugs in the medical world. The major limitation is that the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 listed psychedelic drugs as Schedule 1 drugs, which is the most restrictive class of drugs.
- Psychedelic drugs remain a Schedule 1 drug even today. Because of this, psychedelic drugs are illegal to use, except in the clinical trial space. In order to be used in a clinical trial, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration must approve their use.
- Since Leary’s passing, there have been improvements in treating prostate cancer, as therapy for this common cancer becomes more advanced and routine.
As we look back on the inspirational man who obtained his Ph.D. in psychology from Berkeley University before becoming a prominent Harvard lecturer and researcher, it’s enlightening to see what led to his success and the incredible advancements made in prostate cancer treatment since his passing.Read More
Leary, who is also known for the popular phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” later created a spiritual organization dubbed the “League for Spiritual Discovery,” based on is “tune in” mantra.
“You have to go out of your mind to use your head,” Leary is also remembered saying.
Leary passed away at his home in Beverly Hills, California, on May 31, 1996.
According the The Washington Post, the Massachusetts-native was diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer in 1995, a time when he insisted he was “thrilled by the news” and hoped to plan a death day party.
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Leary, who never held an end-of-life celebration, ended up passing away in his sleep. But prior to his death, he would often take to his official website about the disease he was battling and the drugs he took to reduce his pain.
“Just after midnight, in his favorite bed among loving friends, Timothy Leary peacefully passed on. His last words were, ‘Why Not?’ and ‘Yeah,,'” his friend’s reportedly wrote on the website.
Leary isn’t the only example of when researchers have set out to prove that psychedelic drugs could help with health issues. In fact, a study published in 2020 found that psychedelic drug treatment reduced anxiety and depression in a group of cancer patients nearly five years after one dose.
“These findings suggest that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy holds promise in promoting long-term relief from cancer-related psychiatric distress,” the study reads.
However, there are limitations to using psychedelic drugs in the medical world. The major limitation is that the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 listed psychedelic drugs as Schedule 1 drugs, which is the most restrictive class of drugs.
Psychedelic drugs remain a Schedule 1 drug even today. Because of this, psychedelic drugs are illegal to use, except in the clinical trial space. In order to be used in a clinical trial, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration must approve their use.
Advancements in Prostate Cancer Treatment
Since Leary’s passing, there have been improvements in treating prostate cancer, as therapy for this common cancer becomes more advanced and routine.
For example, Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy (SBRT) is a focused form of radiation and is becoming a more common option for prostate cancer. This non-invasive treatment has the potential to treat the cancer in as little as five visits to the oncologist. The difference is huge compared to more traditional radiation approaches which can require 44 visits.
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“There is no question that SBRT has revolutionized the field of prostate cancer treatment for both primary disease and recurrent disease,” Dr. Michael Greenberg, MD Vice Chair of Business Development and Clinical Associate Professor at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University, previously told SurvivorNet.
SBRT delivers very large doses of radiation precisely to tumors using stereotactic image guidance to target tumors while reducing the dose to surrounding tissues and reducing side effects.
Like most treatments, there may be side effects even for SBRT, which may include increased frequency or burning with urination. Changes in bowel habits and erectile dysfunction are also possible; however, not long-lasting.
“With the proper medication the only side effect we really see is some hesitancy with the urine stream that occurs about one week after treatment and tends to resolve by the second week,” Dr. Greenberg said.
Other improvements include the May 2020 approval of the drug olaparib (brand name Lynparza) for certain prostate cancer patients. This drug is a PARP inhibitor, which helps stop the division and growth of cancer cells.
PARP inhibitors target poly ADP ribose polymerase (PARP) enzyme, which normally helps healthy cells repair damaged DNA. But certain cancer cells rely heavily on PARP to grow. Lynparza blocks PARP, thereby preventing cancer cells from multiplying and growing.
This drug is useful for men who do not respond well to therapy with hormones and have been diagnosed with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC).
“This FDA approval will benefit patients by providing a new option that delays progression and prolongs life in a subset of patients,” says Dr. Stephen Freedland of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
“More importantly, for the many men with mCRPC, more active drugs means more hope that it can delay progression and prolong life, allowing them to live longer and better and continue to hope for even more breakthroughs in the future.”
Treating Prostate Cancer
Which risk group your cancer falls into will determine what treatment options are available to you. Your doctor will conduct a few tests to determine your prostate cancer risk.
One of them is PSA test, which is a blood test to help screen for prostate cancer. PSA, or protein-specific antigen, is the name of a protein secreted by the prostate gland. Men have a small amount of PSA in their blood all the time but large amounts may signal that something needs further evaluation.
Elevated PSA test does not always mean you have prostate cancer. It could also reflect that your prostate is enlarged, which is common, or it could signal an infection or inflammation.
A biopsy will help your doctor learn how prominent cancer cells are and if the cancer is aggressive. Based on the results, your doctor will determine your prostate cancer risk by giving it a Gleason Score. The score ranges from 6-10. The higher the score, the more aggressive the cancer.
After all of the information (PSA, Gleason Score, prostate exam, and the results of any imaging scans) has been collected, your doctor will use it to categorize your cancer into one of several groups, called risk groups. These include:
- Low risk
- Intermediate risk
- High risk
In addition to your risk group, your doctor will also consider other factors, including:
- Your age
- Your overall health
- Your life expectancy
- Your goals for treatment
WATCH: The Debate About When to Have Prostate Surgery.
Your doctor will discuss your possible treatment options, which may include:
This is an option for men with any risk group of prostate cancer that hasn’t spread outside of the prostate gland. The type of surgery most often used is called a radical prostatectomy.
During the procedure, the surgeon removes the entire prostate, along with some tissue around it, including the seminal vesicles that release fluid into the semen. Your doctor can perform this through a traditional open procedure with one large incision, or through several small incisions, called laparoscopic surgery.
Surgery side effects may include erectile dysfunction and urinary incontinence. The risk for these depends on the type of surgical approach and factors specific to your cancer.
These issues are typically temporary and most men will regain almost normal function in both areas.
Radiation, like surgery, is an option for men with any risk group. It uses high-energy X-rays to treat cancer.
You might get this treatment alone if your cancer is still early stage and confined to your prostate gland. Radiation therapy can also accompany hormone therapy if your cancer is more advanced or has spread outside your prostate.
It may also be used to relieve symptoms like bone pain and control cancer that has spread more widely.
External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is a radiation treatment method that aims radiation at your body from a machine. You’ll usually get this treatment five days a week for several weeks.
Newer techniques including stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) aim more focused beams of radiation at the tumor, to spare surrounding healthy tissues, and may allow treatment in a shorter time.
Like surgery, radiation also has side effects. EBRT, for example, can also cause erectile dysfunction although it is much less likely to cause issues with urinary incontinence. However, it can cause issues with bowel function and urine flow.
Meanwhile, brachytherapy implants are small seeds containing radiation that are put directly into your prostate. This type of radiation works best in men with smaller prostates.
If your prostate is very large, your doctor might give you hormone therapy first to shrink it. You’ll get brachytherapy in a hospital, while under anesthesia. Usually, the seeds are permanent and continue to release small doses of radiation, ensuring that the cancer is treated.
Some centers now use a form of brachytherapy that does not require permanent seeds. In this procedure, the radiation is put into the prostate and removed while the patient is under anesthesia.
Brachytherapy also has side effects including erectile dysfunction and issues with urine flow.
WATCH: How androgen deprivation therapy is often used in the treatment of advanced prostate cancer, and how it works.
Androgen Deprivation Therapy
Androgens are male hormones that fuel the growth of prostate cancer. Androgen deprivation therapy (ADT), also known as hormone therapy, reduces levels of these hormones your body makes, to slow the cancer’s growth.
You might get this treatment if your cancer has spread or comes back after treatment, or to shrink the tumor before surgery. You’ll get this treatment as injections, implants placed under your skin, or pills.
Side effects associated with ADT can include fat gain, muscle loss, fatigue, and hot flashes in some men.
Often prostate cancer grows very slowly. Some men, especially those who are older or who have low-risk disease, may not need aggressive treatment, making active surveillance a viable choice.
During active surveillance, the doctor watches the cancer carefully, with a PSA blood test every six months and a digital rectal exam about once a year. You may also get prostate biopsies and imaging tests every one to three years.
Depending on the results of these tests, your doctor may decide to start you on treatment. It’s important to remember, active surveillance is not watchful waiting. During watchful waiting, the doctor observes the prostate cancer until it spreads or causes symptoms.
About one-third to half of men who choose active surveillance will eventually require definitive treatment such as surgery or radiation therapy.
Surgery and Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy can be used after surgery, to get rid of any cancer cells that were left behind. Getting radiation along with surgery is called adjuvant therapy. This is sometimes used when the surgeon is unable to remove all of the cancer, tests after surgery show that the cancer is a high risk, or the PSA is at detectable levels after surgery.
SurvivorNet experts believe it is important you understand all of your options and hear from other doctors at different institutions before making a treatment decision.
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff