Magic Mushrooms Can Ease Anxiety of Late-Stage Cancer

PHOTO Sakuda was part of a UCLA study on the use of psychedelics for anxiety and end-stage cancer.PlayCourtesy Norbert Litzinger
WATCH Psilocybin in Cancer Research

When 55-year-old California software developer Pam Sakuda was diagnosed with metastic colon cancer and given six to 14 months to live, she took antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to help her cope with the fear and uncertainty of such a diagnosis.

By the time Sakuda underwent surgery in 2002, her cancer had spread throughout her body. She embarked on grueling nonstop chemotherapy as she continued to live beyond doctors' expectations.

"There was a tremendous amount of stress, and we were getting more nervous," said Sakuda's husband, Norbert Litzinger, a retired operations manager. "When you have a death sentence and it doesn't come, it puts even more pressure on. What is the future? It's pervasive and it overcomes you."

VIDEO: Cancer Research and HallucinogensPlay
Psilocybin in Cancer Research

But all that changed in January 2005 when Sakuda participated with 12 other adults who had advanced-stage cancer in a UCLA study on the use of hallucinogens to treat end-of-life anxiety. They were all given psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in "magic mushrooms."

The pilot study was the first of three others -- one at New York University and one at Johns Hopkins University -- undertaken to evaluate the safety and efficacy of psilocybin in palliative care.

The results were published today in the journal General Psychiatry. Sponsored by the Heffter Research Institute and the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, the research found that psilocyn had a positive effect on mood and anxiety.

Sakuda died Nov. 10, 2006, but for nearly two years after her psilocybin treatment, she lived life fully, exercising with weights, going to music concerts, even hiking the north rim of the Grand Canyon, according to her husband.

"It was an absolutely tragic situation," said Litzinger. "But the treatment allowed her to have 22 months filled with joy. She died at our home in my arms with her cat. The Saturday before her death she was at a fundraiser giving a speech, and had hiked 15 miles three weeks before that."

Cancer Patients Get Relief From Anxiety in Psilocybin Studies

Psilocybin, an alkaloid compound in the tryptamine family, is produced by hundreds of species of fungi and acts on the serotonin receptors in the part of the brain responsible for nonverbal imagery and emotion.

Its mind-altering effects have been used by indigenous cultures, including Native American culture, for centuries, but research using hallucinogens was stopped in the early 1970s after the drugs had been popularized by Dr. Timothy Leary.

"Everything was shut down after the tremendous cultural and political upheaval associated with the counterculture, and there were some legitimate public concerns about disseminating drugs to society and the large number of young people who got themselves into trouble," said Dr. Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

"But now, 40 years later, society has reached a point where it is sufficiently mature to handle these compounds in a safe and structured manner," said Grob.

Grob said the UCLA study has helped demonstrate the safety and efficacy of psilocybin in palliative treatments for the "psychological, spiritual and existential crises" brought on by a terminal illness.

The researchers hope to get funding for more studies.

"We have demonstrated good safety parameters in using moderate doses [of psilocybin,]" said Grob. "We have safeguards, extensive screening of patients, and we are trying to make it as optimally safe as possible."

UCLA's double-blind study was conducted from 2004 to 2008 on mentally stable patients who were 18 to 70 years old. Grob and his team met with each patient beforehand to establish a good rapport and to examine each patient's goals and psychological difficulties.

"We essentially screen out people who have an unstable disposition and try to create an optimal therapeutic setting with trusting rapport," Grob explained.

Doctors administered treatment in two separate six-hour sessions, each spaced a few weeks apart. In one, patients were given placebos and the other, psilocybin. Neither the researchers nor the patients knew what pill they were taking.

The "trip" took place under full medical supervision in a warm, living room-style setting, with art books and soothing music. Patients hunkered down on a cozy sofa with eyeshades and headphones.

Therapists monitored physical reactions, such as blood pressure, and were there to offer support.

"We told them to go as deeply as possible," he said.

Afterward, patients deconstructed the trip with therapists. According to Grob, no patients experienced anxiety or adverse medical reactions.

Magic Mushrooms Help Patients Face Death

Before treatment, Grob had asked Sakuda what she wanted to accomplish, and she told him her two goals. She wanted to get over the guilt she felt about leaving her husband -- to whom she'd been married for 28 years -- and she wanted to "go forward" with her life in the time she had left.

"She knew I was going to take it hard," said Litzinger, "but she was able to let go of the guilt about dying."

In her first session, it was obvious Sakuda received the psilocybin. Her husband was called in after three hours had elapsed.

"She had tears running down her face, tears of joy," said Litzinger. "She had an angelic glow around her and said, 'Oh, Norbie, I love you.' It was the first time I had seen joy in her face for two years. An incredible weight was lifted."

Another woman whose "trip" was slow to start told Grob she had been thinking about her father who had died many years before.

"She was crying that she had never been able to tell him how much she loved him," he said. "[Many patients] are doing the healing of old relationship injuries."

Grob said the therapy may work for several reasons, one of them "the sense that the soul will continue even beyond the demise of the physical."

As for Sakuda, she was actually able to "internalize" the change in attitude about her disease, according to her husband. "She realized it was not just a sentence with words. She felt it."

"She was truly joyous," he said. "She realized that she was allowing the fear of the future to destroy the present: Now, I am healthy, now I am happy and now I feel good."

As for Litzinger, the loss of his wife, his closest friend, whom he had known for 40 years, was, as she predicted, devastating.

"I have had tough time since Pam left," said Litzinger. "I am very busy with my work for the Heffter and I am building a house and putting one foot forward each morning."

But he said, "I would love to meet someone again. I had such a fabulous experience [with Pam], not to replace her. I am just lonely."