Psilocybin Study Promises Relief for Cancer-related Anxiety

Two small studies show the now-illegal hallucinogen provides long-term relief of psychological distress
Psilocybe semilanceata mushrooms contain psilocybin

The mushroom “silocybe semilanceata” contains natural psilocybin.
(Credit: wikipedia)

For people living with cancer, anxiety and depression are often a fact of life. Simply knowing that they have a potentially life-limiting disease is a difficult burden to bear. Then the side effects of treatment often leave them too sick and exhausted to cope effectively with their fears. As a result, some patients become overwhelmed with negative emotions, such as anxiety, sadness and despair.

Now the results of two small clinical trials point to a new treatment that may help cancer patients with severe psychological symptoms enjoy a better quality of life. A synthetic form of the drug psilocybin — the active compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms — has effectively reduced or eliminated symptoms of anxiety and depression in a handful of patients for whom conventional therapy provided no relief.

Researchers at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and Johns Hopkins University completed the studies. At NYU, 29 patients randomly received either a dose of psilocybin or a placebo. Then, several weeks later, they received the opposite compound (placebo or the active drug.) At Johns Hopkins, the study involved 51 patients who received either a high dose of psilocybin or a very low dose. After a few weeks, the doses were switched.

The results were remarkable. After a single high dose of psilocybin, 80 percent of patients had a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. (The lower dose had no effect.) What’s more, that effect persisted for at least six months. The results echo a 2011 study out of UCLA, which tested psilocybin’s effects on 12 cancer patients with similar results. 

The drug also helped patients who were terminally ill cope more effectively with the knowledge of their impending deaths.

Psilocybin induces mystical experiences as depicted in this drawing of a face

Patients who took psilocybin described mystical experiences that brought on feelings of calm and peace.
(Credit utne.com)

How Psilocybin Works

Doctors don’t know exactly how or why psilocybin works, but they have some clues. The drug binds to the same receptors as serotonin, an important brain chemical that affects many different pathways in the brain, including those for mood and sleep. They theorize that the drug somehow allows parts of the brain that normally function independently to communicate. This, in turn, may facilitate the kind of breakthroughs and “epiphanies” that patients report.

The fact that patients who had strong mystical experiences while taking psilocybin had the best clinical effect supports this theory, the researchers explained. 

Many in the psychiatric community hailed the studies as a breakthrough for cancer patients, 40 percent of whom suffer significant psychological distress. In a commentary accompanying the article, Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, and Dr. Daniel Shalev of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, called the studies “a model for revisiting criminalized compounds of interest in a safe, ethical way.” In all, 19 scientists and doctors contributed comments in support of the work.

In fact, psilocybin is not the only hallucinogen currently being studied as a treatment for psychological distress. The FDA recently approved a clinical trial of the drug MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. MDMA is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, the illegal “party drug” commonly called ecstasy.

If the trial goes well, MDMA may be commercially available by 2021.

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Book Review: “At the End of Life: True Stories of How We Die” Edited by Lee Gutkind

An enlightening book takes us into the hearts of people touched by death

Cover of At the End of Life Lee Gutkind’s “At the End of Life: True Stories of How We Die” is not an an easy read. True stories about death and suffering rarely are. Nor is it what most of us would think of as an entertaining book. A compilation of essays about death and loss cannot accurately be called entertainment, I suspect.

But it is a powerful book, and an enlightening one. Many of the essays are written by doctors, who graphically describe the conflicting mandates of saving lives and easing death. Others are penned by “ordinary” laypersons: a hospice worker, an award-winning author, a grief counselor, an attorney. All are heart-rending, and all are woven with a common thread: the understanding that death is inevitable, and grief and loss are burdens we all share.

The essays are as diverse as they are similar. Dr. Diana Flescher writes about her patient, Mr. Stone, a man with an incurable lung disease who doctors coerce — more than once — to undergo intubation and mechanical ventilation against his will. There is Lucy, a teenager who dies a painful death after undergoing a bone marrow transplant and developing a devastating condition known as chronic graft-versus-host disease. Then there’s Maya, a young girl who rides a wild horse on a dare and winds up in the ICU, brain dead.

There are fathers, daughters, wives and sons — lives and deaths chronicled in beautiful and sometimes excruciating detail.

Published in 2008, “At the End of Life” is one of a series of books sponsored by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, whose mission is to promote advances in healthcare services, research and education, particularly among vulnerable populations. Although many of the stories it tells occurred decades ago, they could just as easily have happened yesterday. The medicalization of death; the intractable ignorance of a healthcare system that sees death as the enemy to be defeated at any price; the callous disregard for the needs of the elderly who languish in our nation’s nursing homes — all of these things still exist in 2016. And they still cause untold suffering for those approaching the end of life.

Person in an ICU on a ventilator at the end of life

Far too many people still receive care they do not want at the end of life.
(Credit: ask.blogs.lalibre.be)

In his essay about his growing dissatisfaction with the profession he chose nearly four decades ago, Dr. Larry D. Cripe sums up the failures of the American healthcare system’s approach to death and dying in a way that only someone who has seen it up-close-and-personal can. He writes:

“We will move away from the belief that the time of death is negotiable only if we — physicians, patients, and families — seek the shared values and language that celebrate the sanctity of life both in seeking to prolong it and in honoring its end with compassion and kindness. And that will first require an acceptance of the ambiguity and uncertainty that surround the end of life….Physicians are trusted to do the right thing. What is missing is the dialogue with our patients and the public that will lead to a shared understanding of the right thing to do when there are no remedies, when the good fight fails.”

“At the End of Life” helps us see how essential these discussions are. As desperately sad as many of the stories are, its ultimate message is one of hope. As I read essay after essay, I saw how incredibly resilient people are, and came away with the understanding that, through the bond of our shared suffering, we can work together to get this right. 

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The Spirit of The Dead According To Ojibwe Beliefs

Lee Staples, Ojibwe spiritual leader, facilitates traditional funerals on the Mille Lacs and Fond du Lac Reservations
ojibwe death customs

Credit: classroom.synonym.com

Lee Staples, a spiritual leader for the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation in Central Minnesota, says that one must understand Ojibwe beliefs about life in order to understand Ojibwe beliefs about death. “We have within us Anishinaabe spirit, and we just occupy this physical body during that lifetime,” he says. “There is…a reason for us existing on this earth, a reason that the creator put us down…I always think it must be wonderful to know when you go down the path, that you accomplished what Manidoo (creator) wanted you to do on this earth.”

Staples performs traditional burials for the Ojibwe at both the Mille Lacs and Fond du Lac Indian Reservations. His job is to send the spirits to another world and protect those who remain behind. According to traditional Ojibwe beliefs, after the body dies, the individual’s spirit spends four days walking westward to the place where the soul dwells after death. Dan Jones, Ojibwe language instructor at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, speaks of the spirit this way: “He doesn’t know it, but if he gets lonely, he may take someone with him.”

ojibwe burial

Credit: rightojibwe.blogspot.com

Small children and babies are particularly vulnerable. This is the origin of the Ojibwe practice of smudging charcoal on the foreheads of infants and children before bedtime. They believe that the charcoal protects the children from those wandering spirits. As Jones says, “When the spirit sees the charcoal, [the face] is blurred, and he can’t see who it is.”

Ojibwe Mourning and Burial 

When a person dies on the Fond du Lac Reservation, the family lights a fire in their home. Relatives of the dead tend to the fire, keeping it continuously lit until the fifth day after death, when they bury the body. During the first four nights, the family offers food to the spirit. They also offer tobacco, one of the four sacred medicines the Ojibwe traditionally use. (The others are sage, sweet grass and cedar.) They place birch bark matches inside the casket with the body, so that the spirit can use the matches to make fires along its journey to the other world. “The land is called Gaagige Minawaanigozigiwining—the land of everlasting happiness,” says Staples.

On the final night, the relatives hold a feast. During the meal, they offer food to the spirit of the person who died for the last time. At the end of the meal, they smoke a final offering of tobacco or place it in the fire. Then Staples speaks directly to the spirit, laying out the details of the journey the spirit will undertake in its passage to Gaagige Minawaanigozigiwining.

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Social Media Offers New Ways to Express Grief

Websites like Twitter and Facebook have changed how people deal with the death of a loved one

Grief over the death of a loved one is a very personal experience. Everyone grieves in their own way, and the amount of time required to come to terms with what has happened also varies considerably. With that said, the introduction of social media into popular culture presents people with new ways to express grief.

Tree with social media ornaments shows many new ways to express grief

Credit: pixabay.com

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook offer a public space where people dealing with the death of a loved one can instantly express their thoughts and emotions. For many, the internet veil offers a comfortable buffer between themselves and their audience.

Furthermore, unlike in-the-moment conversations, social media posts give people an opportunity to reflect on what they want to say. They can construct their posts very carefully, so the posts accurately reflect how they feel. People can be as detailed or as pithy as they’d like to be, yet still communicate their thoughts and feelings.

A few new ways to express grief on social media include:

  • Posting a simple notice that your loved one has died
  • Creating and sharing a photo album that chronicles your loved one’s life
  • Recording and sharing a video of the memorial service for those who couldn’t attend.

In this sense, social media is often beneficial for those who may be shy or reluctant to verbally express themselves. Social media also makes it possible for them to share information regarding their loved one to a much wider audience.

Woman posting on social media new ways to express grief

Credit: pixabay.com

Potential For Misunderstanding

As Claire Wilmot writes in her personal piece, “The Space Between Mourning and Grief,” social media may also have an unintended negative effect on people dealing with grief. After her sister died, Wilmot writes, “It was as though an online community felt the need to claim a stake in her death, through syrupy posts that profoundly misrepresented who she was and sanitized what had happened to her.”

Clearly, social media offers us a public window in which we can display our emotions. However, this window also offers others a chance to share their feelings and sympathies, which may make our pain worse. Your friends on social media (some of whom you probably haven’t seen in years) may try to be supportive in offering their condolences and well wishes. Yet, these may come across as flippant or insincere.

If you have lost a loved one, use discretion in deciding whether you’d like to post something about them on social media. While social media offers new ways to express grief, it can potentially cause you more pain. When you post, be prepared for an outpouring of support and condolences, some of which may be in the form of clichés and platitudes. These may serve to undermine the seriousness of your loss.

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“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

- Winnie the Pooh
Credit: pinterest.com

Credit: pinterest.com

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Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates beautiful hearts as an ongoing celebration of love
Handmade Hearts for Madalene

Your Love Keeps Me Warm on Cold Winter Nights

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of love in the midst of death.The project’s origins take us to 2005: the moment Page Hodel encountered Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” The couple’s first meeting was electric, and Page felt inspired to do something unique for the woman who captured her heart. So, she began leaving handmade hearts – made from flowers, leaves, and other materials – on Madalene’s doorstep.  The hearts became a ritual, and they were there to greet Madalene as she left for work every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.” Page Hodel

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away on June 20th, 2006. But Page’s love for her hasn’t ceased, and she continues to make a heart for her every Monday in celebration of her life.

If you would like, you can also receive Page’s “Monday Hearts for Madalene” by emailing her at page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” written as the subject. Images of the hearts can also be purchased  in her beautifully compiled book, Monday Hearts for Madelene. Please also visit her website and Facebook  page. A portion of all sales will go to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, California (www.wcrc.org). See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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