'My fear of dying was gone': Former cancer patient says psychedelic drugs helped him cope with end of life anxiety

When Rodrigo Nino was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, he turned to psychedelics to ease his anxiety around death. Now, he's helping top scientists to research how hallucinogens helped him, and could help others.

Kashmira Gander
Wednesday 10 May 2017 16:28 BST

As a commercial real-estate developer in New York City, Rodrigo Niño is clear that he is as rational as they come. But when at 41-years-old he was diagnosed with stage three melanoma - the most aggressive form of skin cancer that can quickly spread to the organs - he was consumed by anxiety about dying. The disease taking over his body caused his perception of life to shift, so he did something his former self would have regarded as pretty irrational. Niño headed to the Amazonian jungle to take hallucinogenic drugs.

“I had a near death experience because my chances of surviving were very bad. The cancer had gone into my lymphatic system and it forced me to confront death,” he tells The Independent. As Niño was faced with the fact that he might die, he realised that while he always knew he’d die one way or another, he wasn't prepared in the slightest for losing his life.

Searching online, he found his feelings had a name: end of life anxiety. Like 40 per cent of cancer patients, he was suffering from psychological distress linked to the disease. He then stumbled across theories of how ayahuasca, a psychedelic drug used in religious ceremonies by tribes in the Amazon basin for centuries, could ease it.

“It was like waking up from one nightmare to a nightmare worse than the one before. It was a nightmare come true," recalls Niño, who has been clear of cancer for five years. So, he flew from the Peruvian capital of Lima and took an air taxi into the jungle of Iquitos to the north of the Amazon. There, he visited the Shipibo people to see if ayahuasca could shake his fear of death. What he experienced was so profound that he struggles to articulate it.

“It was scary. It was very scary. After four sessions I had this inner knowing that my fear of dying had gone... Well, not gone but it made me look forward to death. The paradoxical part is that it gets you out of the fear of dying and appreciating life in a much greater way.”

Now, Niño is one of the voices behind what is known as the psychedelic Renaissance, and is pushing for greater research into the potential power of hallucinogenic drugs to treat mental illness. Niño is turning his skills of crowdfunding real estate in NYC to help scientists investigate illegal drugs with psychoactive effects including MDMA, LSD, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca with his non-profit Fundamental.

Rodrigo Niño was diagnosed with skin cancer aged 41

In a recent interview with The Independent, Amanda Feilding, the Executive Director of the Beckley Foundation think-tank which investigates psychoactive substances and drug policy, hailed 2016 as a “great year for psychedelic research”.

As reports emerged of professionals micro-dosing to cope with stress and depression, in April the Beckley Foundation published the first brain-imaging study into the effects of LSD in the journal ‘PNAS’. The results showed that the drug might change blood supply and neuronal activity in a way that scientists hope could unlock the drug as a powerful treatment for depression, anxiety, addiction, and OCD. A separate study by the Beckley Foundation and Imperial Research Programme in London found that psilocybin - the hallucinogenic ingredient in mushrooms - could help people with treatment-resistant depression. Another study published by John Hopkins University and NYU showed that psilocybin can reduce depression in cancer patients. After one dose, around 80 percent of the cancer patients experienced a significant reduction in psychological disorders which lasted up to seven months, with few side effects.

The experience comes with a great deal of forgetting, like waking up from a very vivid dream

Rodrigo Niño

Niño felt his experiences were validated by the findings. “It showed I wasn’t crazy! What I experienced was wasn't a placebo effect.”

But for such drugs to be used widely used on patients the fear surrounding hallucinogenics - which is understandable due to the health and crime risks associated with illegal street drugs - need to be tackled, says Niño. He makes clear that he is pushing for the medicalisation of such drugs, rather than them being legalised for recreational use. He is also throwing financial weight behind the cause, he adds, because research suggests that hallucinogens are effective after one or two doses - meaning larger pharmaceutical firms are put off from investigating their use.

"Once you go to the lab and analyse the data you see the evidence is clear. But it has to be done in a controlled setting under the direct supervision of experts just like with any other medicine," he says.

“I’m was a New Yorker,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m a father of three kids. I’m a real estate developer and I’m very scientific and data driven. To me, hallucinogenics were just another illegal drug just like heroin or cocaine but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Niño says the impact ayahuasca had on him chimes with what psychologist duo Pahnke-Richard defined as a "mystical experience".

“It varies from person to person. The experience comes with a great deal of forgetting, like waking up from a very vivid dream. By the time you're back in bed you don't remember 90 per cent of the dream that’s how it works. There is some recollection but what matters are the long-lasting effects on your health. You are left with hope. That can help a person with anxiety and depression or all sorts of different addictions."

To me, hallucinogenics were just another illegal drug. I couldn't have been more wrong

Rodrigo Niño

“The experience comprises of six different factors. Firstly, there is a sense of unity which is another way of saying you find your soul. There is a feeling that you are one with everything and that everything is interconnected. Then there’s animism where everything around you has a soul and a spirit. The third is the feeling that time and space shifts. The fourth is a paradoxical sense where you can understand that different realities can take place at the same time. You are also given a sense of sacredness of knowing something bigger than yourself, and you also face a truth that is more real than truth itself. Most patients report having these feelings and end up with therapeutic benefits associated with this."

“We need to focus on medication and finding out whether these medicines work or not. Are they addictive are there side effects? Can you contain the trip?"

“I want to help these incredible scientists do their work," he goes on, adding that he invites anyone intrigued by current findings to back his campaign. "I’m doing this on the behalf of everyone I love because I don't want to see the frustration of my family members in other people. We all know someone who has died in fear or will die in fear, or be addicted to cocaine or alcohol or suffered from depression.

“The questions is," he adds, "Are you prepared to accept that your mental health and that of the people you live is less important than generating profit? If you’re not willing to accept that sort of society, then I invite people to cast their vote by crowdfunding and helping scientists to confirm what we believe with these incredible medicines."

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