Kerry Pappas was a study participant who took psilocybin, more commonly known as “magic mushrooms,” in a clinical trial led by Roland Griffiths studying the effects of the drug in reducing death anxiety in cancer patients.
Pappas had an experience that completely changed her perspective on life, which she is sharing on 60 Minutes Sunday, October 13, 2019. The show airs at 7:30 p.m. EST. Now 61, Pappas has had an ongoing struggle with cancer, but her reaction to the prognosis has greatly improved, she told SciPol, a Duke University science and technology publication.
Pappas’ reaction to psilocybin was not an anomaly. More than 80 percent of participants in Johns Hopkins University’s clinical trial said they were experiencing “moderately or higher increased well-being or life satisfaction,” according to the study, and many “attributed to the high-dose experience positive changes in attitudes about life, self, mood, relationships and spirituality.” You can read that study here.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Kerry Pappas Was Diagnosed With Lung Cancer in 2013 & Began Struggling With Death Anxiety
Kerry Pappas was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013, and quickly began struggling with anxiety and depression, according to SciPol.
Death anxiety, or thanatophobia, is anxiety related to dying or the process of dying. It is not a distinct disorder, but is likely linked to other disorders such as anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress, panic disorders and panic attacks or anxiety disorders, which were previously called hypochondriasis, according to Medical News Today.
“Having some anxiety about death is an entirely normal part of the human condition,” the article said. “However, for some people, thinking about their own death or the process of dying can cause intense anxiety and fear.”
Death anxiety is very common in cancer patients, and there is evidence that anxiety and depression have a very real impact on whether the patient will survive cancer, the Johns Hopkins University study said.
“Cancer patients often develop a chronic, clinically significant syndrome of psychosocial distress having depressed mood, anxiety, and reduced quality of life as core features, with up to 40% of cancer patients meeting criteria for a mood disorder (Holland et al., 2013; Mitchell et al., 2011),” the study said. “In cancer patients, depression and anxiety have been associated with decreased treatment adherence (Arrieta et al., 2013; Colleoni et al., 2000), prolonged hospitalization (Prieto et al., 2002), decreased quality of life (Arrieta et al., 2013; Skarstein et al., 2000), and increased suicidality (Shim and Park, 2012). Depression is an independent risk factor of early death in cancer patients (Arrieta et al., 2013; Pinquart and Duberstein, 2010).”
2. Kerry Pappas’ Cancer Has Appeared Twice in her Brain Since Her Psilocybin Session
Following her participation in the clinical trial, Kerry Pappas told SciPol her cancer had reappeared twice, this time in her brain. But her attitude shift since she was diagnosed remains.
“‘Right here, right now’ is integrated in my being,” she told SciPol, referring to her psilocybin treatment. “It’s not just words. And just my joy to live is new, for me.”
Her mental change is not a delusion, she told the publication. She said she knows that, statistically, the cancer will kill her. But the session has enabled her to accept the idea of her own death.
“I hold no delusions that this isn’t going to get me in the end, because statistically it will. But I can live with that,” she said. “Fully. It is amazing.”
Again, those results were not uncommon. In the Johns Hopkins study, participants returned for a session six months after their psilocybin treatments.
“For the clinician-rated measures of depression and anxiety, respectively, the overall rate of clinical response at 6 months was 78% and 83% and the overall rate of symptom remission was 65% and 57%,” she study said.
3. Kerry Pappas Said If She Had Taken the Drug at a Party She May Have Jumped Out a Window
Kerry Pappas told SciPol that if she had taken “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms” at a party, the level of despair she felt for part of her session may have caused her to jump out of a window.
“I often thought after that experience that if I was at a party, let’s say, or in a group of people and said, ‘Oh, let’s do this,’ I cannot tell you I wouldn’t have jumped out of a window because of the despair. So it’s very important to me that it be done the way it was done,” she told the publication.
Because she was in a controlled, living room environment, she simply paused the session and told the facilitator she was having second thoughts. The facilitator calmed her and urged her to continue once she was relaxed.
In her mind, she told SciPol she could see “massive boulders of very bland, earthy colors. Huge, massive rocks with very muscular men with pickaxes, just chipping away at these boulders. In my mind’s eye, it was, like, ‘This is what it really is: This is life. There’s nothing to it. It has no meaning.’ It went on and on and on.”
In the last hour of her session, the scene changed for the better. She also recounted the story to 60 Minutes.
Roland Griffiths acknowledges that there are risks in taking psilocybin, speaking at a TED Talk in 2015. But while the government’s stance is that the risks outweigh any possible benefits, he believes the benefits may outweigh the risks, as long as psilocybin is administered in a controlled environment.
4. Kerry Pappas’ Psilocybin Treatment Taught Her to Focus on the Here and Now
For most of Kerry Pappas’ psilocybin session, she could only see scenes of despair in her mind. She saw “massive boulders of very bland, earthy colors,” she told SciPol. “Huge, massive rocks with very muscular men with pickaxes, just chipping away at these boulders. In my mind’s eye, it was, like, ‘This is what it really is: This is life. There’s nothing to it. It has no meaning.’ It went on and on and on.”
Then, the scene shifted. She described the story to SciPol in 2016, and repeated the story to 60 Minutes.
“They’re chipping away, chipping away. And there’s — it was a jewel. A single jewel sparkling amongst all this despair,” she told SciPol. “It was almost like an ancient scene. In my mind I’m like, ‘Look at this beautiful stone coming forward. And I realized that’s what I represent and loud and clear like you wouldn’t believe were the words, ‘Right here, right now. Right here, right now.’ It was totally audible. It was a voice. I don’t know whose voice. It was a man’s voice. And it was like, ‘You need to listen to this. Identify with the beautiful stone.’ And it has changed my life.”
5. She Heard About the Study from her Son & Traveled From Houston to Become One of 51 Participants
Kerry Pappas heard about the clinical trial that would ultimately prove life-changing from her son, she told SciPol. Once she was accepted into the program, she drove to Johns Hopkins University from Houston, Texas to participate.
Pappas was one of 51 participants in the study at Johns Hopkins. A similar study was conducted around the same time at New York University, using niacin instead of psilocybin, according to SciPol.
Johns Hopkins University researcher and professor Roland Griffiths told SciPol that Pappas was a part of the Phase 2 study. While the results were promising, the small number of participants can only produce preliminary data, he explained in his TED Talk.
Griffiths hopes to conduct a much larger study, with many participants at locations throughout the country. However, that would cost $20 to $40 million, he said. The study was funded by non-profit organizations.