Mio’s Story: How Psilocybin Therapy For End-Of-Life Anxiety Helps To Treat The Whole Person
Research shows that for patients suffering from life-threatening cancer, complementary therapies ranging from yoga to qigong and psychedelic-assisted therapy can help treat cancer-related side effects like pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. And one option growing in popularity is psilocybin therapy for anxiety.
Yes, Western medicine can treat most symptoms and ailments with precision. But when it comes to holistic therapy, the healthcare system tends to overlook the connection between mind, body, and spirit. This is opening the door for patients to explore other, more natural treatment methods.
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Existential Anxiety ‘Like An Underlying Rumbling’
Mio Yokoi, a therapist in her mid-40s, was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer two years ago. At the time, doctors told her that they weren’t sure how much time she had left to live. She knew then that, in addition to treating the cancer, she would also have to take care of her mind.
“I wanted to make sure to think about my mental and emotional health as well, so I signed up for every resource I could get my hands on in terms of psychosocial support,” Yokoi told Healing Maps.
The resources helped, she said, but she still felt overcome with existential dread and fear. She described the feeling as “an underlying rumbling, a kind of stormy internal sense” that robbed her of the peace she felt before receiving her diagnosis.
“All of a sudden, that finish line seems a lot closer, and it’s really difficult to be able to internally organize all of that and find some kind of peace,” she said. “It was really impacting my quality of life.”
She had heard about the research behind psilocybin therapy for anxiety — specifically for end-of-life distress. However, she wasn’t sure it was something she could access safely.
Then, last fall, Yokoi learned that the Toronto hospital network where her cancer was being treated had received a substantial donation to create a psychedelic research center. Here, psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs would be studied for end-of-life distress and treatment-resistant depression.
She contacted staff at the hospital to inquire about the status of the studies and if she was qualified to participate but learned that it would be several months before research began. “I realized that I didn’t know if I was going to be around long enough to benefit from this thing, and I decided to see whether or not there were private options,” said Yokoi.
Field Trip Health Helps With Access To Psilocybin Therapy For Anxiety
In her search for legal access to psilocybin, she found Field Trip Health, a psychedelic medicine clinic in Toronto that had recently posted some information online about Canada’s Special Access Program (SAP). The SAP allows physicians to request access to restricted drugs, including drugs that have shown promise in clinical trials, on behalf of patients with serious or life-threatening conditions.
Through her interest in mental health and psychedelics, Yokoi was already familiar with Field Trip. “I knew that they were a clinic and a company providing this service, with experience and safety protocols, so that’s something I felt good about,” she said.
She recruited Field Trip’s medical director, Dr. Michael Verbora, to help her apply for special access to psilocybin. While they waited for a response from Health Canada, Yokoi decided to try ketamine-assisted therapy.
“Ketamine already works for treatment-resistant depression, it’s got great evidence in a whole host of mental health conditions, and it’s extremely safe to use — we have tens of thousands of data points, and zero adverse outcomes,” Verbora told Healing Maps in a separate interview.
“They were very different experiences,” Yokoi said. “I know now that different psychedelic substances can have different uses, and very different experiences — they can’t all just be lumped under the same umbrella.”
According to Mio, ketamine makes her feel “warm and floaty, like a hug.” Yokoi says ketamine makes her feel completely dissociated from her body. Still, she feels comfortable and safe during the relatively short experience — effects of sublingual ketamine typically last 90 minutes.
Psilocybin Therapy Goes Deep
“With the psilocybin, it was much deeper and grander… there were a lot of lessons that came out of it,” she said of the four-hour experience. One thing that the session brought to the surface was Yokoi’s relationship with her body.
“My physical self is a necessary partner in life, but somehow I’ve always kind of been unsure, and not quite trusting of what my body is doing, especially now with the diagnosis that I have,” she said. “It didn’t necessarily provide me with answers, but it certainly gave me this gift, like, ‘hey, you’re not looking at this.’”
Throughout her session, Yokoi felt the urge to move her body and to ground herself using practices like stretching and yoga. She adds: “Every nerve in my body felt like it needed to move, so it was a very active session.
Using psilocybin therapy for anxiety also illuminated the nature of her fear towards death.
“[It showed me] as much as I try to educate myself about what end-of-life could look like, I still have no idea what to expect in terms of what’s going to happen to me,” she said. “I’m afraid that I won’t be able to handle it, and I’m also afraid that people, life, the universe, whatever — won’t be there to take care of me.”
Yokoi intends to follow up with a second psilocybin treatment to revisit some of what she learned during her first session. However, since she is participating in a clinical trial for a new cancer treatment, she has yet to schedule time with Dr. Verbora.
“The last experience, as remarkable as it was, was really intense, and I’m still processing quite a bit from it.”
SAP Program ‘Worth Exploring’
When asked what advice she might offer to other patients interested in trying psilocybin therapy for anxiety, Yokoi said people shouldn’t consider trying it without access to the right kind of support.
“It’s crucial to be working with people who understand these substances, the protocols, the dosing, and the therapeutic aspects of treatment,” she said. “That’s a lot of stuff to figure out on one’s own, and could also potentially be quite a traumatic experience.”
Yokoi emphasizes that, for patients like her struggling with a serious cancer diagnosis, psilocybin therapy for anxiety “is worth investigating and exploring.” In her experience, going through SAP allows a person to treat more than just their disease.
“When people have this kind of diagnosis and they are in the situation that I am in, there may be more of a focus on just treating the physical. But the mental, emotional, and spiritual parts of us are just as important,” she said. “Western oncologists aren’t necessarily going to say that survival or longevity have anything to do with taking care of one’s mental health. But it’s part of who we are.”