The mental toll from a cancer diagnosis can be as debilitating as the disease itself. A group of medical doctors from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston will soon explore a psychedelic remedy for the trauma.
The doctors, writing in a commentary published this month by International Journal of Gynecological Cancer, specifically highlighted the experiences of women: “[Women] with gynecologic cancers face various physical and psychological challenges throughout their treatment journey.”
“Late stages associated with poor prognosis, along with chronic side effects of treatment, often leave women with existential uncertainty stemming from unpredictable disease trajectory and continuous fear of death,” they wrote, noting the recent case of a patient in her late-30s (identified in the commentary as “JN”) with end-stage ovarian cancer who was seen at their facility in Houston.
“JN has two children and was diagnosed only a year ago with advanced ovarian cancer, and now has multiple sites of bowel obstruction,” they wrote. “‘Her fear for her future was real and overwhelming. Despite the various successful meaning-based work that has been done to address distress in cancer patients, as well as the more conventional gold standard cognitive behavioral therapy, much of it requires significant time commitment to change old habits, and JN does not have the time or stamina for that kind of work.”
“JN is not alone, as up to a quarter of ovarian cancer patients report depression, anxiety, and death anxiety,” the doctors added. “This is not limited to ovarian cancers, as many gynecologic cancers are unfortunately diagnosed in young women where the burden of anxiety and fear is even greater, often related to the fact that young children may lose their mother.”
Beginning next year, those doctors said they will begin a trial at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center “examining the effects of psilocybin for patients with controlled advanced cancer on maintenance therapy experiencing challenges with mental health.”
“Psychedelics, specifically psilocybin, have shown promise in treating various psychological symptoms including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and end-of-life distress,” the doctors wrote. “Although a study focusing on gynecologic cancers has not yet been completed, the studies with mixed cancer diagnosis are encouraging.”
Although psychedelics “modulate brain activity and have been associated with therapeutic effects such as increased neuroplasticity and modulation of reward pathways, not dissimilar to the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic mechanism of conventional anti-depressants,” they said that research with psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy “suggests lasting benefits from just one to two sessions, compared with the chronic use that is needed with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.”
A recent study published by the Cambridge University Press found that psilocybin-assisted therapy could be a “cost-effective” option relative to other forms of therapy.
“Psilocybin was shown to be cost-effective compared to the other therapies when the cost of therapist support was reduced by 50% and the psilocybin price was reduced from its initial value to £400 to £800 per person. From a societal perspective, psilocybin had improved cost-effectiveness compared to a healthcare perspective,” the researchers wrote.
Another study released in the spring found that psilocybin mushrooms could be an effective treatment for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“There is preliminary evidence from studies in patients that psilocybin can help patients with OCD. But psilocybin induces a psychedelic trip and this requires special management. We think that psilocybin could help patients with OCD without the trip. How do we achieve this?” said Bernard Lerer, a psychiatry professor at Hebrew University and an author of the study. “We have shown in a different study that the medication, buspirone, which is used to treat anxiety, blocks a mouse equivalent of the psychedelic trip and another researcher has shown that it does so in humans. We wanted to find out whether psilocybin would be effective in a mouse model for anti-obsessional effects – marble burying – and whether it would do so even in the presence of buspirone, which blocks the trip.”