New Research: Psychedelics & Cancer-Related Stress
- A lot of research is currently underway looking into how psychedelics — like psilocybin and MDMA — can be used to help people with cancer-related anxiety and depression.
- Humans have been using psychedelics for religious and spiritual experiences for years. Some historians even believe it’s been centuries.
- Current research is indicating this may be a more sustainable approach to treating mental health than many popular options available today for certain patients.
- While psychedelics are not a “miracle cure” by any means, research has indicated that psilocybin (a compound naturally found in psychedelic mushrooms) can have a significant and long-lasting impact on treating depression after just one or two doses (whereas antidepressants must be taken daily).
Much of the recent press around this topic has focused on stories about drugs, like psilocybin, a compound naturally found in psychedelic mushrooms, and MDMA, a synthetic drug frequently called ecstasy or Molly, being used to treat mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).Read More
Psychedelic use in the cancer spaceDr. Xiaojue Hu, a psychiatrist and researcher at NYU’s Center for Psychedelic Medicine, told SurvivorNet that psilocybin in particular is being heavily studied to relieve cancer-related stress, anxiety, and demoralization — as well as to address pain.
“The Center for Psychedelic Medicine at the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine, where I work, recently launched a clinical trial using psilocybin-assisted therapy to treat existential distress in patients with advanced stage cancer in collaboration with the University of Colorado,” Dr. Hu explained.
“This is building on the same work in this area originally done at NYU in the 2010s … Now, there are many other studies using psilocybin in cancer patients, including a study using psilocybin in combination with multidisciplinary palliative care to treat demoralized cancer survivors with chronic pain going on at Emory University,” she added.
A study at the University of Washington is looking into psilocybin-assisted therapy for metastatic cancer patients with anxiety, while another still is looking into using this sort of therapy to help patients receiving hospice care cope with demoralization.
Palliative care refers to specialized treatment and care people living with serious illnesses, like cancer, receive. It focuses on improving quality of life for the patient and their family.
“It’s really important to recognize that palliative care can be introduced really at any time of anyone’s cancer diagnosis,” Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous chat. “Palliative care teams can be introduced whether or not they have a curable disease.”
How do psychedelics help with anxiety/depression?
Humans have been using magic mushrooms and other psychedelics for religious and spiritual experiences for years — some historians believe it’s been centuries. So, why all the recent attention on these substances to treat mental health conditions?
Dr. Hu explained that, while much is still unknown, research is indicating that for certain patients, this may be a more sustainable approach to treating mental health than many popular options available today — like antidepressants.
“From the psilocybin research on depression alone, we’ve seen clinically significant impact from just one or two doses of psilocybin in conjunction with therapeutic support that can last up to 14 months for some patients,” she explained.
“This is in contrast to antidepressants, which people have to take on a daily basis for potentially years, with a risk of relapse when the meds are tapered off.”
What is psychedelic-assisted therapy like?
“Psychedelics aren’t a panacea or miracle cure for anxiety and depression, as there’s still much that’s unknown about them and there’s always the potential for adverse effects, like with any treatment,” Dr. Hu warned.
When using a psychedelic substance, there is the potential to evoke symptoms typically associated with a “bad trip.” According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this could include delirium, panic attacks, depersonalization, extreme distress, and other issues.
The NIH reports a few other potential symptoms associated with psilocybin-assisted therapy, including:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Eliciting the onset of schizophrenia
While these substances have the potential to be life-changing for some — and to treat very serious mental health issues — Dr. Hu stressed that they do not work for everyone, and more research is certainly needed.
“Most of the research is also done when psychedelics, such as psilocybin, are used in the context of therapeutic support with usually two therapists, which can include up to three sessions of preparation and three sessions of integration afterwards,” she added.
“So the results are not completely due to the physiologic effects of psilocybin alone, in my opinion, but must be taken into context with the therapeutic and environmental support that’s also offered.”
The clinical trials looking into the use of drugs like psilocybin are highly-controlled environments and unlike many other drugs created to treat things like anxiety and depression, how someone reacts to a psychedelic can vary a great deal depending on the environment they are in.
“We typically don’t expect different results if someone took their Lexapro [an antidepressant] in different moods, with different people, or in different environments, but we definitely can when it involves psychedelics,” Dr. Hu noted.
What’s the future look like for psychedelics?
This type of therapy is already legalized in parts of the U.S. — and ongoing research, and promising results, do indicate that we may be seeing more legalizations in the near future.
“MDMA and psilocybin have the most clinical research and legal momentum behind them right now, with psilocybin already being legalized in Oregon and Colorado and MDMA phase III trials recently being completed,” Dr. Hu said.
Phase III trials look into whether a new treatment is better than what’s already on the market. If a trial shows positive results, this is normally when a new drug application is submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval.
“MDMA is the closest to becoming potentially approved by the FDA,” Dr. Hu added. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) predicted that an application to use MDMA to treat PTSD would be submitted to the FDA at some point in 2023, and approval could come as early as 2024.