The Best Treatment for My Brain Cancer? Magic Mushrooms
I’ve been prescribed just about every medication to help my condition, but an illicit drug has been the best answer.
“That’s my brain?” I ask.
Somewhere in a vivid memory, 1990s Rachael Leigh Cook holds up an egg.
Back in 2019, in the wake of the posed question, I am in a hospital bed staring at what looks like a black and white Polaroid of a cauliflower with a blotch of mold growing on it.
“Yes,” says the man in the white lab coat. “And that’s a tumor.”
Rachael Leigh Cook then smashes the egg and destroys the surrounding kitchen set with a frying pan, proclaiming, “This is what your family goes through, and your friends, and your self-respect, and your future…”
The gritty details of my diagnosis resembled an episode of a medical drama, but it was my understanding that if I committed to being an A-plus cancer patient, my odds of survival were high. Just stay the course, do what the doctors say, pay no attention to statistics and don’t ask a question if you expect a good answer. When I asked what to expect, my neuro-oncologist told me that most of her patients' suffering was psychological. Now, three years in, I finally understand what she meant.
I’m a 34-year-old woman with brain cancer, treatable but incurable, and to survive, I’ve had to do a lot of drugs. However, the one that has truly saved me is a Schedule I illicit drug, possession of which could send me to jail.
I Used to Be Anti-Drug, but Trying THC Helped My Anxiety
I grew up in the era of MTV and Teen Vogue. In elementary school, I had a three-ring binder holding a prized collection of “Got Milk?” and Absolut Vodka ads. It is no wonder my first underage adult beverage was a white Russian. In fifth grade, like most kids across the U.S., I crossed the cafetorium as a D.A.R.E program graduate. My pure mind had been imprinted with graphic imagery showcasing that doing illicit drugs of any kind meant you would end up a toothless vagrant living on a dirty mattress.
The scare tactics worked. I triple-checked that the black markers said “Mr. Sketch scented” before inhaling their licorice aroma. If marijuana was the gateway drug, I wouldn’t let so much as a Sharpie cause me to lose control of my mind and future. Just drink your milk and say no to drugs!
Into adulthood, I maintained a pretty rigid anti-drug mentality, but once the bad reputation changed, I got my medical marijuana card on the diagnosis of anxiety and crossed through the gateway. I felt a certain level of shame that I used weed to help me sleep and relax, but adulting is hard. Sure enough, using marijuana didn’t inspire me to move on to meth like I was taught in fifth grade. I was just one of the millions of Americans, many of whom are still being judged thanks to archaic legislation, who benefitted from the natural brain balm of THC.
In the three years since diagnosis, I have been prescribed the following drugs: Keppra, Ativan, Ozurdex, Gonal-F, Menopur, Cetrotide, Lupron, Senokot, Zofran, fentanyl, Norco, Temodar, Tibsovo, Imitrex and Enskyce. If most of this looks like Martian to you, that checks out. These are mostly the brand names—they’re not being advertised to us. Temodar showed up at my home in a hazmat package with instructions to flush twice if I vomited it up. It looked so dangerous in its yellow bag that I shoved it all into an empty Lucky Charms box. Packaging changes everything.
Chemicals and Medication Rewired My Brain
Until I had chemotherapy of my very own, I didn’t know that chemo for brain cancer was taken orally and doesn’t make your hair fall out. For 14 months, I looked like myself but felt like a walking lab rat with the shameful feeling that my body had failed me.
I had just enough deadly chemicals surging through my system to threaten the enemy and make me feel like I was dying. Whether or not these Lucky Charms did what they were supposed to do is unclear. The brain is so protected and mysterious, we simply have to wait and hope the bad guys never show up again.
I rode on adrenaline for two-and-a-half years until a powerfully dark void crept into my psyche, eventually becoming the constant theme of my inner monologue. I succumbed to fear and uncertainty. Life’s fragility became so heavy that I frequently collapsed into the fetal position, unable to name the cause of my panic or provide any insight on what could help.
There is no known cause for brain cancer. I did not want this life, and I had nothing to be angry at. I was in a purgatory of self-blame, wondering what I had done to deserve this fate, and of survivor's remorse, judging myself for failing to emerge with a greater sense of purpose. I had lost the self that I had come to know and love before the weight of my circumstances had a chokehold on my life. I didn’t want to make decisions based on fear anymore. I desperately wanted to feel carefree again.
I never looked like the antidepressant ads, staring out at the rain in a blue-gray tinted world. I just felt exhausted. My mind was running through an endless corn maze of dead-end loops. Logically, I understood that I needed to reroute my thoughts and grab hold of the toxic ones, but I didn’t have the tools. The oncology psychiatrist advised an SSRI. I was hesitant. I had seen friends and family struggle with these drugs, experiencing side effects, dosing issues or finding them ineffective. I had also had enough drugs that came with a packet of warnings and an emergency hotline number.
I had survived cancer only to find myself ready to give up on the life I should feel grateful to have. The word “should” was my biggest problem. Surviving now meant not only rewiring my thinking but reexamining everything else I believed. Being a survivor doesn’t look the same for everyone. Maybe doctors don’t always have the answers. Not all drugs are scary.
Microdosing Mushrooms Opened Up My Mind
Being a cancer patient has made me an amateur scientist, seeking out information and gathering my own resources. I had recently watched a documentary and studied research about using magic mushrooms for depression and anxiety. The documentary detailed a Johns Hopkins clinical trial that used guided trips for terminal cancer patients experiencing treatment-resistant depression. As these patients described their inner struggles before the trial, I felt less alone. Eighty percent of the patients in the trial reported improvement for six months after only one psilocybin treatment, with no side effects or dependency issues.
“What about shrooms?” I suggested to the psychiatrist at our follow-up.
I had always thought of magic mushrooms as a party drug with the reputation of making people stare at walls and jump out of windows. Not only are they illegal but they fall into the Schedule I class, along with meth and heroin. The DEA defines these as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. A drug is defined as a medicine or substance that has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced to the body. By this definition, sugar should be on the list.
From my very first day of microdosing psilocybin, I felt the windows open in the attic of my mind. The breeze came through, and I noted the sun shining upon tiny specks of floating dust like glitter. Every sound and color was important. My thoughts were within my reach, and I could guide them safely across the deep waters of my psyche to dry shore. I was not high; I was just here. And simply being here is enough to make me happy.
This is my brain on drugs.
Advertising Has Infiltrated the Way We Think About Illicit Drugs and Their Benefits
We are being advertised to all the time. In my mildly psychedelic state, I am now keenly aware of the influence this has on the way I see the world and myself. The PSAs released by Partnership for a Drug-Free America (now Partnership to End Addiction) were created by ad men in the 1980s who admittedly knew nothing about the drugs they were “unselling” or the young minds who they were targeting. They were just getting paid. Partnership to End Addiction continues to receive donations from big pharmaceutical companies.
Just like marijuana, psilocybin can be found in nature and easily cultivated. There is no financial motivation to campaign for its medical use or legalization, but progress is being made to debunk the reputation of psilocybin and other psychedelics with therapeutic purposes, like MDMA, ketamine and LSD. It makes me wonder what kind of advertising would be necessary to change the narrative. Who would be the face of the campaign? Would they be wearing a lab coat or an American flag pin?
A recent study, using historical insurance records of glioblastoma patients, showed that those who happened to be on Prozac outlived the patients that were not. Prozac is now being researched for brain cancer treatment. Though all of the medical professionals on my team support it, my chart lists my 0.2-gram dose of psilocybe cubensis as “herbal drugs,” so in the future, when I have died, should a medical pioneer choose to study historical brain cancer cases in search of a cure, they would be lacking a vital piece of information.
I am extremely lucky to be here and exercise the use of my most important organ to its utmost capacity but even more lucky to have been forced to face and examine the source of my fears. Every thought that travels through the neural pathways and into a synapse is malleable. Perhaps if I can literally change my own mind, then the organ in control of it can also change.
Or perhaps that’s just a little magical (mushroom) thinking.