The Great Research News About Impact of An Hallucinogen on Cancer Patient Depression and Anxiety Raises a Side Question About Extent of the Problem and the Diagnostic Process

I suspect that the Internet is already abuzz about the study about high impact of careful single intervention use of Psilocybin on cancer patients suffering anxiety and depression (New York Times Report).

Psilocybin has been illegal in the United States for more than 40 years. But Mr. Mihai, who had just finished treatment for Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was participating in a study looking at whether the drug can reduce anxiety and depression in cancer patients. Throughout that eight-hour session, a psychiatrist and a social worker from NYU Langone Medical Center stayed by his side.

Published Thursday, the results from that study, and a similar small, controlled trial, were striking. About 80 percent of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in both psychological disorders, a response sustained some seven months after the single dose. Side effects were minimal.

But what surprises me from the article is the statement that:

Cancer-related psychological distress, which afflicts up to 40 percent of patients, can be resistant to conventional therapy. Mr. Mihai’s anxiety began when doctors finally told him he was in remission.

I went and looked at the abstract of the study linked to, and the relevant language is:

Interview-defined depression and anxiety is less common in patients with cancer than previously thought, although some combination of mood disorders occurs in 30-40% of patients in hospital settings without a significant difference between palliative-care and non-palliative-care settings.

The meta study used DSM or ICD criteria.

Frankly, as a long term patient who spends a lot of time in oncology waiting rooms, I find this low number impossible to believe, or rather it makes me deeply skeptical of the diagnostic process and criteria, at least as applied.

DSM criteria are described in general as follows:

Depressive disorders include disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, major depressive disorder (including major depressive episode), persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia), premenstrual dysphoric disorder, substance/medication-induced depressive disorder, depressive disorder due to another medical condition, other specified depressive disorder, and unspecified depressive disorder. Unlike in DSM-IV, this chapter “Depressive Disorders” has been separated from the previous chapter “Bipolar and Related Disorders.” The common feature of all of these disorders is the presence of sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function. What differs among them are issues of duration, timing, or presumed etiology. (Bold and underline added.)

So, I suppose the key is “significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function.”  It may be, for example that impact on “function[ing] of depression is almost impossible to tease out for cancer patients whose capacity to function is already so impaired.  (One might, I suppose, see what happens by trying to treat it, but you have to have the diagnosis first).  I know that personally having a psychiatrist expert in serious illness and end of life issues has been life changing, precisely because she can help me work out what is from the cancer, what is from my physical and emotional reaction to my cancer and what is from broader issues.

It could also be that clinicians supervising hard-to-take, and hard-to observe interventions underestimate the effect of those interventions on us, or else they could not keep going day after day.  (By the way, I Learned recently that at Hopkins the people who do bone marrow aspirations are “on” for that task maximum a day a week.  More than that is considered too much stress.  I love the attention to the needs of all.)

For anxiety DSM says:

Anxiety disorders include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat. Obviously, these two states overlap, but they also differ, with fear more often associated with surges of autonomic arousal necessary for fight or flight, thoughts of immediate danger, and escape behaviors, and anxiety more often associated with muscle tension and vigilance in preparation for future danger and cautious or avoidant behaviors. (Bold and underline added.)

I suspect that it all too easy for clinicians, consciously or more likely unconsciously, to decide that the patient is suffering rational fear, rather than “irrational” anxiety.

The bottom line is that the overall circumstances of cancer are likely to make diagnosis according to these criteria difficult if not impossible.  It is just all to easy to get the number down to 30 to 40%, when really we should see anxiety disorders and depression as prevalent in our population.

In any event, I would urge careful thought to how these issues are looked at in patients, and ultimately not restrict proven treatments to those paralyzed by the emotional impact.

In the long term we might be thinking about specialized criteria and diagnostic processes for those with cancer diagnosis, and rather than dealing with issues of labeling consider thinking about whether treatment would be helpful. (Actually this may be happening anyway.  I wonder what percentage of cancer patients are already getting anxiety or depression medication.)

p.s.  Deeply personal note:  As a patient, I certainly suffer various forms of anxiety and depression (personal health status reports here).  As an advocate and blogger, I feel much less of both when I am engaged, writing, talking, and thinking about this.  I also note that the great thing about blogging is that it gets you online and researching (as hopefully shown by the above.)  I would have been talking about the hallucinogen study anyway , but now maybe I actually have something worth saying. I would certainly prescribe advocacy as part of any treatment, had I prescribing authority.



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  1. Pingback: Launching My New Patient Partnering Blog | Richard Zorza's Access to Justice Blog

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