Psychedelics may ease distress among women with gynecological cancers

HOUSTON — Just a few decades ago, the notion of handing a cancer patient magic mushrooms was laughable to the vast majority of medical practitioners. Times and views have changed, and healthcare professionals today are much more open to the use of psychedelics in a therapeutic manner. Now, doctors from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston have published a new report urging the adoption of psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’) and other psychedelics to help soothe the overwhelming stress regularly reported by women with cancer.

The are five main types of gynecological cancers: ovarian, uterine, vaginal, vulvar, and cervical. There is also a sixth, much rarer type: fallopian tube. Unfortunately, cervical cancer is the only one of those with a known screening method, making detection difficult during early stages when a cancer is at its most vulnerable. Study authors believe conventional “gold standard” psychotherapeutic approaches, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), take too long to incite meaningful change to old habits and require too much stamina for late-stage gynecological cancer patients. Psilocybin, on the other hand, while somewhat controversial, offers a new way to comfort and relieve female cancer patients when time and energy levels are major factors.

“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,” researchers point out in a media release.

Cancer patient receiving chemotherapy

Study authors cite a recent example of a young women with advanced ovarian cancer. Her “fear for her future was real and overwhelming,” they explain, but had neither the time nor the energy/stamina to try the options available to her.

This is just one case of many, researchers stress.

“Up to a quarter of ovarian cancer patients report depression, anxiety, and death anxiety. 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.”

Psychedelics, specifically psilocybin, have shown particular promise in the treatment of various psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and end-of-life distress. Moreover, earlier studies involving people with other types of cancer have been encouraging, researchers explain.

All the evidence collected to date tells us that psilocybin works in similar ways, and is largely as effective as, antidepressants – but also offers few to no side-effects. Perhaps most importantly, it exerts its beneficial effects when combined with psychotherapy in just one or two sessions. The study highlights a recent pooled data analysis of 10 clinical trials that concluded one or two doses of psilocybin offers rapid and sustained antidepressant effects lasting up to six months.

“Concerns regarding psilocybin’s potential for recreational abuse or mental illness have not materialized, and data suggest psilocybin use may actually be protective against psychological distress and suicidality,” the study notes.

“Considering the prevalence of existential distress among ovarian and other gynecologic cancer patients and the potential benefits and safety of psychedelics, there is a clear need for more well-designed protocols prioritizing safety and exploring psilocybin, and other psychedelics, in this vulnerable population,” researchers conclude.

Moving forward, study authors plan to begin a trial next year assessing the impact of psilocybin on patients with advanced cancer experiencing anxiety and depression associated with their diagnosis.

The study is published in the International Journal of Gynecological Cancer.

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