When Laurie Brooks was diagnosed with cancer for the second time in less than a year, the anxiety and depression that she thought she had dealt with came rushing back.
Brooks, who lives in Abbotsford, is one of four Canadian cancer patients who were recently granted an exemption from the Canadian Ministry of Health, allowing her to use psilocybin as a treatment for end-of-life distress. Therapsil, a Victoria-based coalition of health care practitioners helped her get there. The non-profit has been advocating for the therapeutic use of psilocybin – a drug naturally found in magic mushrooms which has a similar effect to LSD and other psychedelic drugs – in small doses for patients in palliative care.
Dr. Bruce Tobin, a psychotherapist who lives in North Saanich, is the founder of the non-profit and became interested in the effects of psilocybin over a decade ago. Tobin began to realize that while conventional therapy worked for some there was a wide range of people suffering from conditions such as clinical depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder and often addiction, who could not be treated through traditional therapy.
Most commonly, psilocybin has been studied in relation to end of life distress, which Tobin calls the “nasty combination” of depression, anxiety and hopelessness that one can feel after receiving a terminal diagnosis.
In January 2017, Tobin filed an application for a section 56 exemption under the Controlled Substances Act on behalf of a class of patients who had terminal cancer, were experiencing end of life distress and had already tried all other forms of treatment. Earlier this year, Health Canada formally denied that application, stating the science around psilocybin was not sufficiently developed to be used this way.
Since that initial application, the non-profit had to change its strategy and began empowering patients like Brooks to file applications for themselves, helping to educate them on the process and other health care practitioners who wanted to be able to offer the treatment.
“People have a right to die in Canada through assisted dying, but what about the living part,” says Brooks. “There’s a lot of space between being given a terminal diagnosis and when you die.”
Brooks says she just wanted to get through her first bout of cancer. She didn’t ask questions about her treatment and her anxiety began to consume her, so much so that eventually it began to manifest physically and she wasn’t able to lift one of her arms up.
Prior to the approval earlier this month, Brooks used her first dose of psilocybin in October 2019. Leading up to her trip, Brooks attended four or five therapy sessions. She had to work through “a lot of stuff” prior to taking the dose, figuring out what she wanted to get out of the experience.
Brooks’ trip lasted six hours and immediately after, she was able to lift her arm again.
“As soon as my trip was over, I said to my therapist – that was amazing, I don’t ever want to do it again,” she says.
She describes feeling these “waves” that would knock her down throughout the trip. At first, the waves were huge, but by the end, Brooks felt like she was being rocked gently in a boat.
“The biggest thing in regards to my cancer, afterwards, I was able to see my cancer in a box on the floor – it wasn’t hanging over me every day anymore. My anxiety was gone.”
According to Tobin, medical professionals are still in the process of understanding the effects of psilocybin on a neurological and biochemical level. “Basically psilocybin allows people to face certain parts of their life or life story that are really difficult to look closely at in normal states of consciousness,” he explains. “It allows a person to kind of come to terms with the truth of their situation and see clearly what’s important to them.”
Brooks wants to see this kind of treatment made more available to people who are struggling with their diagnosis.
“There’s a fair amount of what we call underground therapy going on right now,” says Tobin, adding that he wants to open up legitimate access to the drug.