Pradeep Bansal considered the five capsules he was about to swallow. Together they made up a 25-mg dose of a substance that, in another setting, could have landed him in federal prison.
The substance was psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. To be more exact, it was a synthetic form of psilocybin called COMP360, made to pharmaceutical standards by a company called COMPASS Pathways. He was taking it as part of an Food and Drug Administration–approved clinical study on mental health therapy for people with cancer.
Dr. Bansal, a New York gastroenterologist, was far more comfortable giving medical treatment than receiving it. But he was getting used to it.
He had already been through surgery and a number of other treatments to address the physical aspects of his cancer. The psilocybin was to address the mental aspects – the crushing anxiety and depression that had stuck with him after his diagnosis.
Dr. Bansal did not arrive at this moment lightly.
“I was extremely skeptical going into this process,” said Dr. Bansal, who during a long medical career had looked with distrust and even disdain at alternative therapies.
“I don’t have much patience for holistic medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, or alternative medicines with claims of spiritual upliftment or altered states of mind.”
But Bansal had done his homework on psilocybin and was impressed.
according to studies published in 2011, 2014, and 2016.
One study from Johns Hopkins University tracked the effects of a single guided dose of psilocybin in terminal cancer patients with anxiety and depression. More than 80% had a “significant decrease” in symptoms – even 6 months after treatment – with more than 60% of the group remaining in the normal mood range.
For the study Dr. Bansal joined, there had been weeks of screening and consultation and preparation in a strictly controlled scientific trial.
And yet, even with all that he had learned, even with his psychiatrist-guide by his side, he was afraid. Afraid of what he might experience under the powerful effects of psilocybin. And afraid that this was all a misguided waste of time – that his mental angst would still be there when it was all over.
He knew that psilocybin, like other psychedelic substances, could take you on a “trip” – could remove you, at least for a time, from normal conscious experience.
Maybe he would feel “funny,” he thought. Maybe he would have some hallucinations. But how would that change the reality of his cancer? How would it lift the black dread and anxiety he felt about his future?
Stuck in a dark place
Dr. Bansal had first noticed blood in his urine – a lot of it – in September 2019.
Two months later, doctors diagnosed cancer in his right kidney. He would need surgery to remove the kidney and surrounding lymph nodes (an operation called radical nephrectomy).
It was a shock, said Dr. Bansal. But the diagnosis and the surgery happened so quickly that he hardly had time to think. And treatment results seemed good. The cancer was only in stage I and the CT scans showed no signs of cancer after surgery.
“We were so relieved. Everyone was so happy,” Dr. Bansal said. “They didn’t even give me chemotherapy after surgery because it seemed so early.”
But a routine scan in June 2020 revealed more cancer in his lung. Within a couple of months, it was in his bladder too.
“It was devastating,” Dr. Bansal said. “I went from thinking I was healthy again to stage IV cancer.”
As doctors scheduled surgery to remove part of his lung, Dr. Bansal started on painful immunotherapy (BCG therapy) for his bladder.
At this point, from a psychological standpoint, Dr. Bansal was reeling. As a doctor, he knew all too well the meaning of stage IV cancer.
With two adult children and a grandchild on the way, Dr. Bansal had been looking forward to retirement with his wife of almost 40 years. “Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I was going to last that long,” Bansal recalled. “I was in a very dark place. I was very anxious, very depressed from lack of sleep.”
He saw a therapist about his cancer diagnosis and maintained his regular meditation practice at home. He hired a personal trainer and tried to focus on any good news that he got about his treatment.
Those things helped, but not enough.
The basic facts were inescapable. His cancer might end everything. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. And then he couldn’t stop thinking about how he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
If the worst happened, he didn’t want to spend his last days in a state of such relentless existential angst. And it wasn’t just for himself. He wanted to be strong and mentally present for his family and his loved ones and his patients.
As he searched for something to ease his mental anguish, Dr. Bansal recalled some psychedelic research on end-of-life anxiety and depression that he’d read about in Michael Pollan’s book on psychedelics, “How to Change Your Mind” (New York, Penguin Press, 2018).
The studies were small and the research was new, but Dr. Bansal was impressed enough with the results to take a chance. He called a lead researcher of one of the studies, a fellow New York doctor, and eventually found himself accepted into a new study.
Starting the journey
By the time Dr. Bansal arrived at the Bill Richards Center for Healing at the Aquilino Cancer Center in Rockville, Md., he had already been through weeks of screening.
The main requirements for the study were a cancer diagnosis and a measurable level of depression. But study participants also had to be physically fit enough to handle the medication, and psychologically free from a personal or family history of psychosis or schizophrenia. (The study also required participants to slowly wean themselves from medications like SSRIs for depression or antianxiety medications under the strict supervision of a qualified doctor.)
Dr. Bansal’s week of treatment began almost immediately on arrival at Aquilino. Everything was carefully choreographed but not rushed. From Monday to Wednesday, doctors followed his physical health with exams, ECGs, and blood work. And most importantly, they began to prepare him for the “dosing session” on Thursday when he would take the psilocybin.
This is the careful crafting of “set and setting” stressed in so many psychedelic therapies. “Set” refers to your mindset going into the drug experience. “Setting” is the space and people around you when the drug sends you into an altered state of consciousness.
Dr. Bansal met several times with at least three therapists in the days leading up to his dosing. He attended 4-plus hours of therapist-led group sessions with other people who would get a dosing on the same day. Together, they talked about what to expect during the experience and what to do in the face of fear or panic.
He connected with a therapist who would be his personal guide. Dr. Bansal’s therapist was a military psychiatrist with over 30 years’ experience.
“He was there with me from day 1, and so we established a relationship,” Dr. Bansal said.
“He asked me a lot of personal background history – you know, my religious convictions, aspirations, all those things.”
“Trust and let go,” was a kind of mantra for the treatment repeated by his guide and other doctors.
For Dr. Bansal, a doctor and scientist accustomed to using hard facts rather than touchy-feely slogans to navigate the care of patients, it was an adjustment, to say the least.
But he did his best to set aside his doubts and embrace the journey he was about to take.
The day of the trip
Thursday morning finally arrived. The setting of the dosing room was warm and welcoming, more like a cozy home study than a hospital room.
This matters more than you might think. First, because it’s important that you feel safe, open, and comfortable enough to let go and enter into a therapeutic process. But also because though rare, it’s possible – especially with psilocybin – for people to lose track of where they are and what they’re doing and put themselves or others in danger.
The dose, 25 mg, had been carefully calibrated to induce a psychedelic experience sufficient for therapy. Much less than that, say 10 mg, isn’t enough for most people to enter this state. A double dose, 50 mg, though not physically unsafe, may leave you too incoherent to have the useful insights key to therapeutic value.
A doctor, the lead investigator of the study, brought the five capsules into the room in an intricately carved crucible with a small ceremonial cup that held the water with which to take it.
“It was very solemn,” Dr. Bansal said. “He sat down with me in a very calming way.”
The doctor said: “Don’t worry about it. Just trust and let go.”
And that’s just what he did.
Dr. Bansal swallowed the capsules and lay down. The doctor quietly left the room so that Dr. Bansal and his psychiatrist guide could begin their session together.
Special eye shades kept him in the pitch dark whether his eyes were open or closed. Headphones streamed a curated musical playlist – much of it Western classical like Strauss, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven – but also modern electronica and other music from cultures around the globe.
Dr. Bansal would remain here, with his therapist-guide by his side, in largely this same position, for the next 7-and-a-half hours.
It took about 45 minutes for the medication to kick in.