Stairway to Heaven: Psychedelics Soothe Dying
Easing the path to life's end through hallucinogens.
April 19, 2010— -- For the last eight years, Nicky has struggled with advanced ovarian cancer, and despite repeated rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, it's unclear how long she has to live.
"Ovarian cancer has a very bleak outlook -- less than 30 percent make it to five years," said the 67-year-old former New York City French teacher. "I was diagnosed in 2002, and I was going in to my fourth year and had a recurrence -- which was like the proverbial shoe dropping -- and it frightened me so much."
"For the moment, there is no pain," she said. "The most difficult part is leaving this world early. I wasn't ready to get on that bus."
Coming of age in the drug-infused 1960s, Nicky, who, for privacy reasons, did not want to use her last name, didn't smoke marijuana and avoided the hippie sub-culture. "It never interested me," she said. "It wasn't necessary in my life."
But last May, Nicky volunteered to take a psychedelic "trip" on psilocybin -- the hallucinogenic compound from "magic mushrooms" -- which has been used for thousands of years by indigenous cultures to reach higher levels of spirituality and consciousness.
Today, even after losing seven friends from her cancer support group in 15 months, Nicky said she is less afraid of death and is living her life more "honestly and authentically."
Nicky was one of the first terminally ill participants in an ongoing study at New York University on the use of hallucinogens to help those with terminal illnesses.
"I had a wonderful life, a fabulous child and beautiful grandchildren, and here my life was cut short," she said. "I thought of my two granddaughters and not seeing them growing up and graduating from college -- it made me profoundly sad. I wanted to do something for myself, to be able to live more in the moment, rather than worrying about the future and having all these existential thoughts about what life was all about."
Her "trip" took place under full medical supervision in a warm, living room-like setting with art books, fresh fruit, flowers and soothing music. She was given a pill in an earthenware chalice and a single rose, then hunkered down on a cozy sofa with eyeshades and headphones.
"I was in a dome and it was all bejeweled with colors, mostly striped, like a kaleidoscope, but not turning," she said. "Every once in awhile, the dome would open up at the top and send a luminescence," she said. "I was in awe and could feel myself taking deep breaths. At the same, tears were running down my face, but I was not crying."
"It was incredible," she said. "I wanted to share it. I couldn't believe the world could be so beautiful."
Researchers at New York University say that in a controlled setting, hallucinogens, which alter perception and cognition, can help patients reduce the anxiety, personal isolation and fear of death.
"I am still not ready to die," said Nicky, who just returned from trips to Mexico and Bali and boxes with a trainer several times a week. "It's definitely improved my interactions with those closest to me and figuring out how I want to live my life."
"Has my anxiety of dying gone away? I would say no, I don't ever want to die. Will I be able to walk toward death with a little less fear? Perhaps," she said. "I know it sounds trite, but I live more in the moment," she said.
The three-year study, "Effects of Psilocybin on Anxiety and Psychosocial Distress in Advanced Cancer Patients," is being privately funded by the Zurich-based Heffter Research Institute , which promotes the use of psychedelics for the alleviation of suffering. Fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it adheres to rigorous safety guidelines and protocols.
Researchers hope that it will one day lead to reclassification of Schedule 1 hallucinogens so that doctors may prescribe them to patients for palliative care, depression and even addiction.
"It's daunting working with people in the midst of death," said principal investigator Dr. Stephen Ross, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction. "To help people to have a good death, and not more chemotherapy, to prepare for the final part of life and to die with dignity and do it in a way that they are not frightened, that is one of the most important endeavors as a physician."