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Researchers say a single dose of psilocybin helped ease fears and depression for years in people treated for cancer. Getty Images
  • Researchers report a single dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” can help people receiving cancer treatment.
  • The researchers said the psychedelic drug helped a majority of study participants for more than 4 years to ease depression and anxiety.
  • Experts say the fear associated with cancer treatment can cause a number of health issues, including loss of sleep.

A one-time dose of a psychedelic medication could lead to substantial improvements in distress, depression, and anxiety in people receiving cancer treatment.

Researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine said in a study published this week that they found a single dose of the drug psilocybin combined with psychotherapy produced immediate improvements in anxiety and depression in people with cancer.

Participants in the study who took the drug showed decreases in cancer-related feelings of hopelessness and demoralization, the researchers reported.

Between 60 and 80 percent of participants were still experiencing antidepressant benefits more than 4 years after taking a single dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”

“It is nearly unprecedented in psychiatry that a medication taken one time would potentially lead to enduring outcomes years later. Traditional psychotropic medications depend on the persistent presence of the medication in the body. Psychedelics like psilocybin appear to initiate a deeply meaningful and powerful psychological process,” Gabrielle Agin-Liebes, lead investigator of the study and a PhD candidate at Palo Alto University in California, told Healthline.

The study authors note that participants in the study “overwhelmingly (71 percent to 100 percent) attributed positive life changes to the psilocybin-assisted therapy experience and rated it among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”

Agin-Liebes says the findings are good news for people with cancer, and in particular those with cancers that have a high rate of recurrence.

“This could help patients face this possibility of recurrence with more confidence and equipoise. It may also help those struggling with more terminal diagnoses face that process with dignity and enhanced spiritual and psychological well-being,” she said.

Globally, cancer is the second-leading cause of death, with 9.6 million people dying from the disease in 2018.

Although modern medicine and technological advances have resulted in earlier detection and improved treatments, a cancer diagnosis still sparks fear for many.

Researchers say it’s common for people with cancer to experience psychiatric distress, with rates of depression and anxiety in hospital settings as high as 40 percent.

Shanthi Gowrinathan, MD, is a psychiatrist specializing in both women’s psychiatry and psycho-oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

She says it would be useful if doctors had more options to offer people.

“As a psycho-oncologist, any additional tool that may help patients with cancer recover more quickly or prevent further emotional suffering is a wonderful thing. In the case of psilocybin in particular, the really exciting part of this study is how long lasting and deeply transformative a single treatment can be and how it seems to touch all parts of a person’s life, not just their experience with cancer,” Gowrinathan told Healthline.

“There have been many studies over the past 20 years demonstrating that treating anxiety and depression not only improves outcomes in terms of acute recovery, it also actually can decrease the chance of recurrence,” she said.

“Several articles have even demonstrated that depression is an independent risk factor of early death in cancer patients. At this point, it is not a question of whether it is important to treat depression, anxiety, or distress in a cancer patient; it is more a question of how to do it more effectively,” Gowrinathan said.

Currently, treatment options for people with cancer experiencing depression and anxiety include psychopharmacology medications as well as psychotherapy interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

But there can be added complications when treating cancer.

“The treatment within cancer patients specifically can have several additional layers compared to a healthy control group. For example, a breast cancer patient on tamoxifen is not able to take Wellbutrin at the same time, as they go through the same channel in the liver,” Jessica Hamilton, PhD, an assistant professor in the onco-psychology service at the University of Kansas Health System, told Healthline.

The study authors note the field of psycho-oncology is increasingly recognizing the existential challenges that accompany a cancer diagnosis.

Nathan Fairman, MD, MPH, director of supportive oncology and survivorship at the University of California, Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, says access to good oncology services that address psychological as well as physical needs is essential.

“High-quality, comprehensive supportive oncology care is quite good and it’s associated with improvements in quality of life, reduction in distressful symptoms, and possibly, in some cases, improved survival. It’s also quite rare, unfortunately. Most cancer is treated in community settings, often without expert supportive oncology services, including psychosocial oncology,” Fairman told Healthline.

“The disease of cancer is certainly very complicated… You want your oncologist to be able to focus like a laser on treating the disease,” he added.

“But the illness of cancer — how it affects who you are as person, your relationships, your future, all the things that matter to you as an individual — those are very complicated, too, and personal,” Fairman said.

“Supportive oncology services try to assess and manage symptoms in those other domains in order to help patients and families have success in confronting and dealing with cancer,” he said.

Gowrinathan says even with the promising news of the psilocybin study, there’s still much to learn about the impact cancer and cancer treatment has on the minds of patients.

“Cancer patients are surviving much longer than they did 20 years ago. While this is a tremendous accomplishment, it means we have to look more closely at how to help these people survive well and thrive,” she said.

“For those patients who are living with terminal disease, it is all the more imperative that we find an efficacious path to peace of mind. In the end, I think that is what all of us working in this field want for our patients: to help them find a bit of peace,” Gowrinathan said.