End-of-life cancer patients in a therapy group in Canada used psilocybin to reduce their fears. It helped some find peace.
January 13, 2024 at 7:00 a.m. EST
But it was sometimes hard to keep his mind off his pain and the reality that life was nearing an end. “It tugs at the heart all the time,” Meyer, from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, said in August. A calm person by nature, he found his anxiety skyrocketing.
By November, though, despite a new, highly aggressive liver cancer that shrank his prognosis to months or weeks, Meyer felt calm much of the time. The prime reason: a 25-milligram dose of the psychedelic drug psilocybin he had taken several months earlier, due to a Canadian program being watched elsewhere for the emotional benefits it may offer people nearing death.
In mid-August, Meyer and nine other people with terminal cancers had gathered in two rooms, and there, lying on plush floor mats with blankets covering their bodies, their eyes covered by sleeping masks and music piped in over headphones, they swallowed the psilocybin capsules. The consciousness-altering drug, administered by the nonprofit Vancouver Island wellness center Roots to Thrive, set Meyer and the others on a six-hour journey of fantastical images and thoughts. The hope was that this “trip” would lead to lasting improvements in mood and lessen their angst around death. It was accompanied by weeks of Zoom group therapy sessions before and after, along with an in-person gathering the evening before for a medical clearance and the opportunity for participants and their spouses to meet in person.
Canadian health-care providers have been able to offer this otherwise illegal drug since 2022 when the country’s national health-care system began a special access program for certain patients with serious or life-threatening diseases. To date, 168 Canadians have been authorized to receive the drug under the program. Similar access is not available in the United States, because a terminal patient’s right to try experimental therapies excludes psychedelics, which are banned by the Controlled Substances Act. Oregon and Colorado are in the early stages of allowing psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy due to ballot initiatives passed in the states, but people who receive the drug there could be charged with a crime under the federal law.
Clinical trials assessing psychedelics for various mental health concerns tend to administer them to patients individually. But Roots to Thrive prefers to do it in groups. “The group process in psychedelic-assisted therapy allows for a shared experience that helps people realize they are not alone in experiencing difficult emotions, symptoms or challenging life circumstances,” said Pam Kryskow, the center’s medical director.
By the time Meyer swallowed the psilocybin capsule, he felt comfortable with his cohort. Some, like Christine “Cat” Parlee, 53, who has Stage 4 melanoma that has spread to her lungs and throat, had become friends. At a restaurant where Parlee, her husband, Cory, and Cheryl gathered before the in-person meeting, Brian and Cat shared their hope that the drug experience would be joyful and that it would subsequently enhance their peace of mind.
The day after taking the psychedelic, however, sprawled on a couch in the resort room Brian and Cheryl had rented for the week, Meyer couldn’t conceal his disappointment. Although he didn’t have a negative trip, two of the other participants were overwhelmed by the drug’s intense effects and spent the hours yelling for it to stop. This repeatedly pulled Meyer away from the intriguing images filling his mind, including sword-fighting in a medieval castle yard and cooking elaborate meals of lobster and lamb in a massive industrial kitchen.
His mental journey was also interrupted by having to urinate regularly, a symptom of his prostate cancer, although he was struck by the intense spiritual connection he felt with one of the facilitators, registered nurse Gail Peekeekoot, as she touched his hands to guide him to the restroom. “It was like she was me, I was her. We were one together,” he marveled.
Psychedelic journeys don’t always proceed as people anticipate, leaving some feeling dissatisfied immediately after, said Barb Fehlau, a palliative care practitioner on Vancouver Island and the medical facilitator in the room, who herself has pancreatic cancer. Regardless of the experience while the drug is active, though, psychological healing often follows, she said.
That was the case for Meyer. In addition to his enhanced calmness, he remarked in November that taking the drug seemed to have deepened the connection he felt toward the friends and family who had streamed into his and Cheryl’s home following his worsened prognosis. “I have a way more sensitive outlook. I feel more love toward people,” Brian relayed at the time. Three weeks later, in a hospital surrounded by more than a dozen family members, Brian died. “He remained calm, peaceful and joyful” to the end, Cheryl said.
Should psychedelics ever be legalized as medicine — the first, methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, or MDMA, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder was submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December by the MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (now called Lykos Therapeutics) — people who might benefit most are those who have a terminal diagnosis, said Anthony Bossis, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University.
Psychedelics do not alter the course of the person’s disease, but they can help make the remaining time more meaningful, Bossis said. He is co-author of a 2016 study of 29 cancer patients that found that a single dose of psilocybin significantly reduced depression and anxiety and “led to decreases in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual wellbeing, and increased quality of life,” the study reported.
Feeling a sense of connection to something larger than themselves, akin to what Meyer experienced with Peekeekoot, may be especially important, the study found. “After this experience, people often say, ‘I realized I’m not just my cancer. I’m not just this body. I’m something more enduring.’ This is a real gift,” Bossis said.
How psychedelics might change a person’s outlook is under investigation. One study with mice this past summer by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that the drugs reopen “critical learning periods” in the brain for months after their use. Mice studies don’t translate exactly to humans, but this finding suggests that psychedelics may cause people to be especially receptive to new ideas and ways of being.
Still, the research on psilocybin for those at the end of their lives is in the early stage, and whether the drug might prove harmful for some isn’t yet known. Roots to Thrive’s unpublished research surveying 20 people from its prior three psilocybin group sessions found many felt more positive, peaceful, lighter and less stressed. But four felt little to no change.
Cat Parlee, who participated with Meyer in the August session, had taken psilocybin two prior times at Roots to Thrive in the previous 18 months. While some people experience lasting transformation after taking the drug once, Parlee found that after six months her fears and anxiety would return.
Reclining on a comfortable hammock chair on their home’s back patio the day after Parlee’s August session, her husband, Cory, says the two have come to view the psyche as if it were a cookie with pieces bitten off around the edges. “The psychedelics help Cat find the missing pieces that make her more whole,” Cory reflected. “Psychedelics help you answer questions you may not know or give yourself permission to ask.”
Cat Parlee agreed. “Every time I’ve walked out of psychedelic medicine session, I feel like I’ve left weight behind — weight I’ve consciously decided I’m not going to carry anymore,” she said. This included the negative emotions she had felt toward her deceased mother and the people who badgered her to try the cancer “cures” they read about online. “A lot of energy was wasted on a lot of anger, a lot of sadness and a lot of guilt. I realized I don’t have time to waste on that anymore,” she said.
While many people might benefit from addressing psychological issues that impede their lives, the urge to confront such demons often intensifies when a person is given a few months or years to live, according to Shannon Dames, the founder of Roots to Thrive. Most of us operate under the illusion that we have time to change these things, Dames said. “When you’re at a place when you don’t have that perception of time, there’s a calling that’s really potent.”
About a month before his death, Meyer credited the psychedelic with reducing the discomfort he felt about dying. “I don’t want to say I’m excited, but I am very curious now,” he said. He realized the mushrooms had taken him to an unknown, altered world; death would do the same.
In Parlee’s case, her fear “was that there is nothing — just emptiness — after you’re dead.” During her second psilocybin trip, she watched herself swim in brightly lit, vivid waters amid an intense feeling of love. She was soothed by the sense that experience may be similar to the afterlife.
Since her August session, Parlee has also increasingly found pleasure in standing up for her needs, rather than always worrying about other people as she had previously done. “There’s one thing I want to do before I leave this world: It’s to know that I spent my last few years happy. One thing I can say right now is I don’t have any real regrets,” she said.
Then she took a deep breath and smiled. “I don’t know if I would have ever gotten to that place without this psilocybin journey.”
Reporting for this story was supported by a Ferriss-UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowship.
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