Former cancer patient finds deep healing in psilocybin trip

January 5, 2021
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Metchosin’s Mona Strelaeff took a psychedelic trip from deep distress to serenity last month using psilocybin.

“It opened up my spirituality and helped me to start facing things like death — that is the kind of healing I found,” said Strelaeff.

Psilocybin, the naturally occurring ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” works on ­serotonin receptors of the brain to produce mind-altering psychedelic effects for several hours — a sense of euphoria and spirituality, hallucinations and a distorted sense of time. But it can have adverse effects such as nausea and panic.

Although it has not been legal to grow, possess or sell in Canada since 1974, this ­summer, Health Canada approved exemptions under the ­Con­­trolled Drugs and ­Substances Act.

Terminal patients were granted an exemption in August, followed by approval in ­November for Strelaeff, who was the first non-palliative patient.

On Tuesday, 17 therapists, including ­doctors, nurses and psychiatrists, received federal approval to try the drug.

Bruce Tobin, a clinical psychologist in Victoria and founder of TheraPsil, a non-profit coalition that advocates for access to ­psilocybin therapy, said the Canadian government has become a world leader in allowing patients access to psilocybin to treat end-of-life distress. “Health Canada now rightfully acknowledges that clinician experience with psychedelic ­medicines is an important part of their training.”

Strelaeff, 67, is a great grandmother who was born in Helsinki, Finland. She ran an accounting firm that her youngest daughter has since taken over. Life for her has been at once generous — “so much joy and happiness” — and cruel.

Strelaeff survived breast cancer with ­surgery, chemotherapy and radiation in 2002, but ­psychologically never got past a followup diagnosis that it was metastatic and ­terminal, which was later viewed as either a miraculous recovery or a misdiagnosis.

Her first year in remission, Strelaeff lived with the abundant gratitude of a survivor brought back from the brink of death. She ­volunteered for the B.C. Cancer Foundation for years.

But that elation plummeted.

Strelaeff took a “terrible journey,” treating her subsequent depression with alcohol when medications and therapy failed.

She recovered, but two years ago, her 46-year-old daughter — a university dean — was killed in a car crash and that brought back her original pain.

On Nov. 4, she had her first federally approved ­psilocybin-assisted psycho­ther­­­apy session. In her home, she mixed a psilocybin concoction and drank it. After about 20 minutes, therapists blindfolded her to limit outside stimulation. While music played, she began to dive into her mind.

Strelaeff said she explored an even deeper pain from ­childhood, yet she emerged with a deeply satisfying sense of spirituality and peace.

“I just felt like the space was filled with ­everybody and we were all free and I was able to let go of my daughter because I know she was safe in that space, that was the spiritual ­experience that opened up the healing part of my journey.”

Spencer Hawkswell, CEO of TheraPsil, said therapists wanted access to psilocybin for training, so that they could have an altered state of ­consciousness and understand their patients’ experience.

In psycho-pharmacology, a doctor doesn’t need to take an anti-depressant to understand how it works, and if one day, doctors are allowed to prescribe it, they wouldn’t need to try psilocybin, said Hawkswell.

But to use it in psychotherapy, like cognitive behavioural therapy or hypnotherapy, the therapist must become a master of it to understand how it works, said Hawkswell. “That’s just the way it’s done since Freud’s time.” The exception would be a psychotherapist experienced in other altered states of ­consciousness.

Hawkswell hopes Canada will one day follow the lead of ­Oregon, the first U.S. state to legalize psilocybin for ­therapeutic use.

“My hope is that Canada is moving in that same direction, that we’re finding options for people who are failing with ­normal treatments for depression or anxiety,” said Hawks­well.

For now, the inclusion ­criteria in the original ­application from TheraPsil to Health Canada was patients who are terminal or palliative, or in remission from a palliative condition.

Hawkswell said Strelaeff was the first non-palliative patient treated for distress and it was “hugely successful.”

There is no plan, however, to expand the inclusion criteria to depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, said Hawkswell.

Strelaeff doesn’t expect she will use psilocybin again — “not for a very long time.”

She recently had a CT scan where a “small shadow” was seen on her lung. She went for a PET scan on Friday.

“I’m in this space not knowing what’s happening,” she said. “I usually feel extreme anxiety with these tests, because they are pretty scary, but I’m feeling totally calm and I’m not afraid. I feel absolute peace. I am ­feeling the lasting benefits of the therapy.”

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