The doctor who brought the capsules into the dosing room was Manish Agrawal, MD, codirector of clinical research at the Aquilino Cancer Center and lead investigator of the study.
Dr. Agrawal trained at the National Cancer Institute and practiced for many years as an oncologist before developing an interest in psychedelic therapies. It was his work with cancer patients that drew him to psychedelics in the first place.
He had seen too many of his patients mentally wrecked by a cancer diagnosis, and he often felt helpless to comfort them.
“You take care of the physical aspects of the cancer, right? You talk about side effects and recommend another scan to look for recurrence.”
“But what about the psychological effects?”
They can be very serious and too often go ignored, said Dr. Agrawal. Your plans for the future suddenly become moot. You may be concerned about your ability to work or worried about the pain and suffering and financial strain that might be ahead for both you and your family. And to top it all off, you’re staring into the face of your own mortality.
So it’s no wonder, said Dr. Agrawal, that many people develop clinical levels of anxiety and depression after a cancer diagnosis.
Like Dr. Bansal, Dr. Agrawal had been impressed by early studies on psilocybin-assisted therapies for end-of-life anxiety and depression. He had tried other approaches – support groups, one-on-one therapy, religious counselors, psychiatrist-prescribed medication – but he was never really happy with the results.
To Dr. Agrawal, psilocybin-assisted therapy was the first thing that looked like it could really make a difference.
And so after his psychedelic certification at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Dr. Agrawal was determined to change his approach.
The result was the Bill Richards Center for Healing at Aquilino Cancer Center, built specifically to study psychedelic-assisted therapies for psychological distress in people with cancer. The mission of the center is to help develop safe, FDA-approved psychedelic therapies for the mental health of cancer patients, and, once approved, provide a state-of-the-art facility and staff to administer those treatments.
A trip into the unknown
Back in the dosing room, Dr. Bansal was starting to feel the effects of the medication. As the psilocybin kicked in, spectacular images swirled.
“It was as if a million stained glass windows had suddenly come to life and were dancing in front of my vision,” Dr. Bansal said.
There were moving landscapes and intricate swirling patterns and massive stages in the sky where he saw orchestras playing the music he was hearing.
Dr. Bansal saw himself being crushed by a huge machine and buried, dead, in the Earth. He died and returned to life several times, glided over the top of New York City with the skyscrapers just below him, and took in the vision of the entire universe.
“I saw this expanse of the sky that was limitless. And there was this prehistoric reptile creature that spanned galaxies in the sky ahead of me who was dying. I said: ‘My God, the universe is dying,’ but then after a few moments, the universe came to life again in a burst of stars exploding.”
All the while, Dr. Bansal said, he was well aware that it was simply his mind creating these images, thoughts, and ideas. He knew he was in a safe room wearing eyeshades and headphones.
And yet, he says, it felt true. “The images and feelings are so powerful that you cannot help but believe they are in some way a part of reality.”
“At one point, I saw this giant Ferris wheel coming towards me and it was full of giant crabs, clicking and clacking their pincers. And my brain told me: ‘That’s my cancer!’ ”
Dr. Bansal was terrified. But he and his therapist had arranged a system of signals before the session. “If I was feeling afraid, I would hold his hand and if I had other issues, I would raise my hand. If I was feeling good, I would give him a thumbs up.”
Dr. Bansal reached out to his therapist and grasped his hand. “I said, ‘My cancer is coming at me!’ ”
His therapist was clear about what to do: Stand firm and walk toward it.
“That’s what they tell you: If you see anything frightening, you face it. And that’s the whole point of this exercise. And so, I stood and walked forward, and it just blew off in a puff of smoke.”
A state of peace
Around 3 hours into the experience, Dr. Bansal started to feel an immense sense of peace, happiness, and even comfort.
“I felt like I was watching a movie or a multidimensional slideshow. I was also a part of the movie. I felt like I could tell my mind what I wanted to see, and it would show it to me. It’s almost like you can mold your own visions. It was mystical.”
After about 8 hours, as the effects of the drug wore off, Dr. Bansal removed his eyeshades and headphones. He was completely drained.
“Even though I was lying down on my back for 7 hours, I felt like I had been run over by a truck. I was exhausted beyond belief physically and mentally.”
This was partly because of the fact that he hadn’t eaten much during the session. But mostly, said Dr. Bansal, it was because of the searing emotional intensity of the experience.
After the journey
It’s hard to put into words, said Dr. Bansal, what this treatment has done for his life. He feels as if he has stumbled onto something very precious that had been right in front of him all along. He wrote of his change in perspective almost obsessively in his journal in the days and weeks after treatment. One passage reads:
“It seems that, as time is passing on, I’m becoming more relaxed and hopeful, more calm, and at peace. Family has become even more important to me now. Money, politics, material gains, alcohol, seem less important.”
And yet there was nothing “easy” about the experience. In fact, in some ways the experience demanded more from him. “I feel I need to be more compassionate and considerate – less irritable and angry, more understanding of others’ needs. I feel I need to be a better human being, a better patient, a better father, and a better doctor for my patients.”
The experience, he said, gave him something far more important than mere ease. It gave him a sense of meaning.
From his journal:
“I died, and I was reborn. If I survived this, then I can face anything and anybody in the cosmic scheme. I can become part of it.
“How many sorrows in the universe? My cancer is nothing. Life does not end with the end of life. What was will be again. Eternally.”
That’s not an unusual response, according to the namesake of the Bill Richards Center for Healing. Bill Richards, PhD, has worked in the world of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy since 1963.
A psychologist with decades of experience, Dr. Richards and colleagues figure that, with few possible exceptions, he has helped treat more people with psychedelic therapies than anyone alive in Western medicine today. At Aquilino, he works directly with patients and oversees the therapy protocol that goes along with the psilocybin dosing sessions.
“It’s inspiring,” Dr. Richards said.
“You meet someone who’s very depressed and scared and isolating from family and having all kinds of physical complaints. And a few days later, you talk to the same person and they have a whole new lease on life.”
And the positive effects can extend deep into the family system, he said.
After psilocybin treatment, said Dr. Richards, the person with cancer can become a kind of social worker for the family. They’re often far better able to talk about death and loss and even money and family issues than their loved ones. It’s not uncommon after treatment to see the resolution of years-old resentments or grievances that have dogged a family for many years.
Plus, said Dr. Richards, the cancer patient often ends up as a kind model to other family members for how to approach death. “They can demonstrate how to live fully – right to the last breath – which is a real gift because those relatives and loved ones have to die someday too, you know.”
At 80 years old, Dr. Richards is still in active practice and hopes to spend the rest of his days working with people in end-of-life care.
After the experience
Psychedelic-assisted therapy does not end with the dosing session. Integration sessions, where you discuss what happened during the dosing session, are a key part of most treatments.
The goal is to help participants absorb and “integrate” their experience. It typically happens over two or more sessions of 60-90 minutes with a therapist. In some cases, the therapist may invite a significant other to join in the integration process.
Dr. Agrawal’s trial at the Bill Richards center added something new: group therapy. Not only did Dr. Bansal meet with his therapist, he also met with a group of three other people in the trial who had their dosing the same day.
The point, said Dr. Agrawal, is to try and determine the effect of the group on the therapy. After their private dosing sessions, they come back together to discuss their experiences.
“After the psilocybin, they feel like they’ve been to war together,” Dr. Agrawal said. “There is this profound openness and connection. They feel able to share things with each other that they wouldn’t with other people.”
It will take some time to figure out how the group affects the overall outcome, but Dr. Bansal thinks it was integral to the success of his treatment.
In fact, he continues to meet regularly with his therapy group, even though it’s long since past the requirements of the study.
Dr. Bansal still has tough days with his cancer. Recently, immunotherapy treatment for his bladder caused side effects – pain, bleeding, fever, and chills – for most of the night. He felt like he was “passing razor blades” when he peed.
“And yet it was somehow okay,” he said. “It was only pain.”
“It’s as if there is a part of me that is watching myself objectively, going through the painful process of treatments saying: ‘It’s all right. I will be with you through this journey, through this experience. Don’t worry.’”
Months after taking that one dose, Dr. Bansal still calls it as “the single most powerful experience of my life.”
The change in his mental outlook, Dr. Bansal said, was profound, particularly in regard to his cancer.
“I understood that I still had cancer and that it could kill me in a few weeks, or months, or years. But my perspective had shifted.”
Dr. Bansal was as surprised as anyone. “Had somebody told me going into this that I would come out a transformed being or a person with a completely different perspective on life, I would never have believed it.”
He even named his new outlook. “I call it Pradeep 2.0.”
A version of this article first appeared on.