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He helped cancer patients find peace through psychedelics. Then came his diagnosis

Roland Griffiths' research showed how psychedelics can alleviate depression in people with terminal diseases.
Andre Chung
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Roland Griffiths' research showed how psychedelics can alleviate depression in people with terminal diseases.

Roland Griffiths is known as the scientist who helped prove that psychedelics can alleviate depression and mental anguish in cancer patients. That pursuit has since become a lot more personal.

Imagine for a moment that everything you built your professional life around – things that motivated you and inspired you and defined you – started to feel irrelevant? Like it no longer fit with who you wanted to be in the world.

Maybe you don't have to imagine it. I don't have to. After 20 years covering news with a capital "N", I found myself craving a different kind of internal exploration: about the human condition, which is what this series is all about.

The same thing happened to Dr. Roland Griffiths. Today he is known as the scientist who helped prove that psychedelics, specifically a drug called psilocybin, can alleviate depression and mental anguish in cancer patients and others facing terminal diseases. Before that, his professional focus was the risks of mood-altering drugs, including various sleep medications.

But after beginning a personal meditation practice, Griffiths started asking different questions – inquiries that felt out of place in the world of science. Questions like, is there a god? Do we have a soul? And, can we use our minds to somehow alleviate our physical suffering?

He started working with a group of researchers and enthusiasts to develop a series of experiments testing the medical value of psychedelics.

Griffiths told me the results were astonishing. Not only did the drug reduce anxiety and depression in patients, for some of them it unlocked a spiritual experience.

Now, Griffiths is looking at all this from the other side. In early 2022, he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Doctors think he only has a few months to live. I had an incredible conversation with this world-renowned scientist and healer about how he is coming to grips with his own mortality, and the mystery of what comes next.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: You started working a lot with psilocybin. Can you describe what that is in layman terms?

Roland Griffiths: It is a classic psychedelic drug. It comes from psilocybin-containing mushrooms and has been used for hundreds to thousands of years with indigenous cultures for ceremonial healings or sacramental religious experiences. It comes on fairly quickly and it doesn't last as long as LSD or mescaline, so it is easier to work with.

Martin: Do you use the expression "trips"?

Griffiths: No, I avoid that because it just has all of the baggage from the 1960s.

Martin: You were running these trials explicitly on cancer patients to see how the psilocybin would affect them.

Griffiths: That was our first therapeutic trial that we ran at Johns Hopkins with psychedelics. I remember feeling very cautious about what an experience of this sort would do to someone who's facing the most significant existential threat that they can.

As it turns out, the effects were nothing short of astonishing. This cohort of people, who met criteria for clinical depression or anxiety, after a single dose of psilocybin under our supported conditions, the anxiety and depression dropped markedly – immediately – and markedly and enduringly. That was the most important feature: We followed people up for six months and they remained with very low symptom profiles.

Martin: What did they say to you about how they lost a sense of fear or anxiety?

Griffiths: I do recall one man, I'm hesitant to give this example but I will, he came to believe in the reality of God. But what was so interesting is that this changed his whole frame of reference.

It wasn't that he was filled with spiritual language like, "God's gonna save me." No, it was an acceptance for his condition and a reassurance to the people he loved most, that everything was OK, everything was as it should be, and they felt uplifted by that.

Martin: If I may ask, why were you reluctant to share that example?

Griffiths: The God language.

Martin: We're all sort of limited by our language, right? Maybe some people use the word God because we don't know what other words to ascribe to these ideas or experiences.

Griffiths: I think that's precisely it. We live in the midst of this astonishing mystery. And we don't have a coherent scientific explanation of what's going on. The thing that we understand best about our experience of sentience, is that we are aware that we're aware. That we have an interiority, and it's only uniquely us as the individual that can affirm that.

Martin: You have found yourself on the other side of this whole thing as someone who is contemplating these very existential questions with new urgency. When were you diagnosed with cancer?

Griffiths: In early 2022, I went in for a screening colonoscopy, thinking myself to be completely healthy, and coming out with a stage four colon cancer diagnosis. And as unlikely as it seems, it has been a call to celebration. My wife and I have been in that mode in spite of multiple surgeries and chemotherapy.

Martin: Do you plan to take psilocybin at any point?

Griffiths: No. Initially, I actually didn't wanna touch a psychedelic, because I was worried it would alter the state I was in.

Martin: You didn't want to sabotage this mental clarity you had.

Griffiths: Yeah. Right. And so there came a point where I thought, I wonder if I'm defending against something here, I wonder if my reason for refusing to take a psychedelic is that I'm masking something. That there's a skeleton in my closet and I'm just saying I'm joyful and everything is beautiful.

So I decided, OK, so I'll take a dose of psychedelic. I took LSD.

Martin: How did it go?

Griffiths: Fantastic. I addressed the cancer as other, and in general I don't think it's wise to reify anything in mind as anything other than an object of mind. But in this case, I addressed the cancer itself and said, "OK, what's going on here?"

Cancer didn't answer. Then I got into a dialogue and said, "You know, I've considered you a blessing. I actually really respect everything that's occurred to me since this diagnosis. I'm truly grateful for the diagnosis, but do you have to kill me?"

Martin: Whoa. Was there an answer to that one?

Griffiths: Yeah, the answer was, "Yeah, you're going to die but this is as it should be. There's a deeper meaning. There's a deeper purpose. And you should continue to do what you're doing."

I felt implied in that was that I should speak out more broadly about what I was going through, because I've been reluctant to do so. So, I have something to say here. And so I asked, "How about giving me more time?"

Martin: I like that you went for the follow up.

Griffiths: I went for the follow up. But I got radio silence. It didn't answer. Was I dialoguing with cancer? No, that doesn't fit within my worldview. Some people would say I was, but it was deeply affirming to what I was doing and it felt like an empowerment to speak up.

My parting invitation is to celebrate. I'm inviting you to celebrate what I'm celebrating and that is this experience of the miracle of where we find ourselves. You need not have a terminal diagnosis to lean in more fully, and I promise you it's worth it.

To ensure that his work continues, Dr. Griffiths has established The Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Professorship Fund dedicated to the study of psychedelics in "the service of human flourishing for generations to come."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.