Ayahuasca and Cancer: One Man's Experience
By Donald M. Topping, Ph.D.
After being diagnosed with cancer of the liver, the author was advised by oncologists that his chances of survival were slim. He went to ayahuasca for a second opinion.
A YEAR AGO I NEVER DREAMED that I would be writing about two subjects, both of which are generally considered taboo. One of these is cancer. We avoid talking about cancer - "the Big C" - because it speaks of our fears of mortality and pain. When an office mate is rumored to have cancer, she is viewed differently. We avoid the topic, or speak in whispers about it. We wish it would go away.
For entirely different reasons, ayahuasca is talked about in muzzled tones. The Drug Enforcement Administration - the grand arbiter of all chemicals in America - is responsible for this taboo and has classified DMT, one of its constituents, as a Schedule I drug, thereby rendering it illegal and nearly unavailable for fascinating medical, psychological, neuroscientific, and spiritual research. Like cancer, we tend to talk about it in whispers, too.
Since I now enjoy the privileges of a recently retired person, and a friend of cancer and ayahuasca, I can speak freely about them both. I say "friend" because that is the way I now see the relationship I have with both.
My direct connection with cancer probably started with my birth sixty-eight years ago, which sent me into the world with a genetic structure determined, at least in part, by family members of previous generations on both sides who had died of metastacized colo-rectal cancer. If there is any validity to the genetic predilection theory, I was directly in line for a first hand experience with cells gone amok to form tumors.
Immediate surgery was the order of the day. I begged off in order to experiment with natural healing. The surgeon and I agreed on a four-month timetable, during which I followed a naturopathic regimen: micro-doses of various substances, vegetarian diet, visualization and plenty of rest and exercise. After this period, the second biopsy revealed no cancer cells. I was overjoyed; the surgeon seemed disappointed, and asked for another biopsy in two weeks, to which I agreed.
This time around he was able to dig up some more tissue with cancer cells, and convinced me that I should have the surgery. I did, and was told five years later that I had been "cured" through the wonders of surgery.
Having lost a grandfather and father to metastatic liver cancer, I was seriously concerned over this new development. What to do? A preliminary conference with one of the oncologists said that surgery might be a possibility, provided there were no other tumors in my vital organs or lymph glands. That meant further exams.
"The spread of malignant cells from a primary tumor to the liver and their growth therein carry a grave prognosis for the patient. While these meta-static liver tumors may be the first evidence of the progression of a patient's cancer, and often - especially in colorectal cancer - are the only tumors detected, they almost always signal widespread dissemination of the malignancy. Despite improvements in early detection of liver metastases, new drug development, improved surgical techniques for resection, and innovative targeted therapies, most patients will not survive." (p. 2201)
The remainder of the chapter was devoted to sustaining that dismal prognosis. In a word, the future looked pretty grim. Until, that is, I began to seek information on alternative therapies.
Seeking an alternative
While waiting for my mail-order requests for the maitake and Lerner's book, I had further meetings with surgeons, who were not exactly reassuring. I was told by one that my chances for survival were around 25-30%. Another put it at under 15%, if you factor in the risks of the surgical procedure itself. It appeared that they had read De Vito's cancer bible, too. They also advised me that if surgery was possible, I should follow it up with a year of fairly heavy chemotherapy in order to kill off any remaining cancerous cells (along with the majority of healthy ones) that were undoubtedly floating around in my bloodstream.
When the Lerner book arrived in the mail, I sat down and read through its 621 fascinating pages as rapidly as possible. At the same time, I began taking the maitake mushroom extract, and to prepare myself both physically and mentally for the surgery and the follow- up. During this period I discovered other literature on alternative therapies, including Essiac, macrobiotic diets, reiki and coffee enemas, all of which offered as much or more hope than the oncologist's bible did.
Sometime during this period of painful recovery from the operation, I remembered having read something, somewhere about the healing properties of ayahuasca. I didn't give it much thought at the time, since it seemed unlikely that I would be going to the Amazon, and wasn't particularly interested in a psychedelic experience. Still, it lingered in the recesses of my mind, which was still reeling from the physical and psychic wounds of major surgery, the outcome of which was dubious.
Three weeks after the surgery, I went to my appointment with the oncologist who proposed beginning the chemotherapy treatment immediately. When I told him that I had decided against it, because I did not believe that further assault on my body would be beneficial, he seemed miffed, perhaps even insulted. When I told him of my plan to follow a program of alternative therapies, he snickered, but wished me well.
A few weeks later I learned that there would be a "works" on the Big Island, and that I could join the group. I readily accepted, even though I was still in a weakened condition from the surgery. This was to be my introduction to ayahuasca.
The group met in the late afternoon on an isolated knoll where a devotee of the Santo Daime had built a house, consisting of a large hexagonal room with three or four bedrooms off on the side. (I learned later that the hexagon is an important symbol within the Santo Daime.) About sixty people from all over Hawai'i had gathered for the event, most of whom had done it before. We were all dressed in white (as required), and when the time came to begin we took our seats in chairs that had been arranged in two semi-circles facing each other, men on one side and women on the other. I then began to realize, much to my disappointment, that I was in a very structured, group experience, not at all what I had anticipated from my limited reading on the way ayahuasca is traditionally used in the Amazon. Nevertheless, I entered the experience with hope, as well as apprehension. The residual pain from the surgery was a constant reminder of why I was there.
I will not describe the Santo Daime rituals that I observed during the two successive nights of the "works." They have been described elsewhere. Rather, I will focus on my own experience, for which, as it turns out, I was unprepared. My only frame of reference was limited experiences with LSD, mushrooms and mescaline during the Sixties, none of which were associated with healing. I wanted to discover what it was about ayahuasca that led to the claims of its ability to heal and to teach.
Then, all of a sudden, the plant grabbed hold of me, and led me through a long trip into another reality, one that I was totally unprepared for. When I attempt to describe the ayahuasca experience to others who know something of psychedelics, I tell them that things like LSD and mushrooms distort and give new shapes to the reality that you are familiar with; ayahuasca takes you to another reality that you've never seen nor imagined before.
As I closed my eyes, images - if they can be called such - began racing at an ever-increasing speed before me. Swirls of colors, shapes, forms, textures and sounds simply overpowered me to the point where I became immobile. Like many others before me, no doubt, I became somewhat frightened. What had I let myself in for? When I opened my eyes, the phantasmagoria of forms vanished, and I saw myself in the same room with the others, all dressed in white, most of whom were moving their lips to the songs being sung by the Brazilians from the Santo Daime. I closed my eyes again, and immediately the images returned with surging intensity. They seemed to be trying to enter the deepest recesses of my body and soul. I found myself thinking, hey, this isn't much fun.
During this period of initial disorientation, I was able to regain my focus on what brought me here in the first place. I was a condemned man. The oncologists and their bible told me that my chances of survival were slim. I had come to ayahuasca for a second opinion. That is when I began to let go, and let the plant do its thing. That is when I began to get my first glimpse into the incredible, stunning world of ayahuasca. There was no going back now. There was nothing to do now but let it happen.
After a while (one loses track of time with ayahuasca) the figures began to slow down and fade somewhat in intensity. I was coming down, much against my will. My questions - whatever they were - had not yet been answered. At that moment, the Daime leader gave the signal to line up for the second dose of the brew. I took my place in the line. Needless to say, among the group of sixty people there had already been a lot of purging through vomiting; I was not yet among them.
As the second wave came over me, I felt much more relaxed and ready to talk to the animals if only they would talk to me. As though on cue, the racing figures began to stop by, look at me and smile before darting off into their world again. Then, all of a sudden, I saw a deep, black void. Nothing but darkness, which stayed in place for what seemed like minutes. All of the flashes, colors and forms disappeared while the blackness hovered over me. I sensed that it was death making its statement. It seemed to be saying, "Yes, I'm here too, part of the system; but I'm not so bad, so don't be afraid." In a short while, the darkness began to fade slowly as the kaleidoscopic frenzy returned until the brew and I both were exhausted, and I returned to my friend's house for a long but fitful sleep.
Several months passed before my next experience with ayahuasca. In the interim, I had continued with my vegetarian diet and Chinese herbs. I was gradually regaining weight and strength, while the scars and soreness of the surgery were slowly healing. I wanted to visit with the plant again to see if it had anything new to tell me, and to determine whether my first experience was delusional.
We arrived at our spot in time to arrange ourselves before the moonless nightfall. By candle light we practiced deep breathing and toning in preparation for taking the brew. In ceremonial fashion, including blowing tobacco smoke over the brew, we each took turns drinking. Soon after, our leader extinguished the candles, reminding us to "Remember, the plant knows what it's doing." The isolation, silence and darkness were awesome.
I positioned myself comfortably on the ground, my back against the trunk of a large paper-bark tree. I felt very calm and relaxed, closed my eyes and waited for the plant to go to work. Once again, after about fifteen minutes I began to notice the familiar rippling effect. This time, however, the rippling quickly turned into full-blown turbulence. The plant was loose, and was wildly racing around exploring its new environment. It felt as though a caged animal had been released inside me, and was having the time of its life.
As the images and shapes began to appear, they had an air of joy and exuberance. The serpents were smiling, the jaguars laughing, and the giant birds swooped down over me caressing me with their outstretched wings. A parade of persons, both known and unknown, streamed by, each of them smiling and reaching out to touch me and tell me by look that they loved me. As the serpents and plants twisted and flashed before me, they appeared to be smiling and reassuring me that they had looked everywhere inside me, and that everything was o.k. As the evening went on, this cycle kept repeating. Images would come directly towards me at breakneck speed, smiling and laughing, then veer off for another tour of my entire system. I heard myself chuckling softly under the starlit sky.
Where was the darkness that I had experienced before? Where was Mr. Death, I wondered? Then suddenly, as though the plant heard my question, I saw the void. Only this time it was clearly in the background. It seemed to be peeping through the montage of vibrant colors and forms, as though to say, "I'm still here, don't worry. It's not time for me yet." And then it faded away. As evening turned into night and morning, I saw the images slowing down and gradually fading away, almost reluctantly it seemed. We sure had a good time together that night.
This time it was raining, which restricted our space under a makeshift tent. Again, we followed the procedures of the previous time, breathing, toning and ceremonially ingesting the brew. I lay down and waited for the action to begin. This time the onset was much more gradual, and never reached the intensity of the previous trip. The images were there: birds, serpents, plants, people. But, they were much less energetic, almost blasé. They seemed to be telling me, "We've already been this route, and we told you what we found. Let's try something new." Since I had entered the experience with a fixed agenda, the plant reacted as though it were bound. I now look upon that as my fault for not trusting the plant to take the lead.
If ayahuasca could talk in words, I'm sure it would have told me during that first trip to Pupukea to, "Take this energy that I'm giving you, and run with it. Latch on to one of the animals and go for the ride. There is nothing preventing you from soaring to new heights of consciousness and life." That was the message that I got that first night in the Pupukea highlands.
Return to the doctor
Lucky? Perhaps so. But to dismiss my recovery against the odds as nothing but luck is to ignore centuries of experience by people who have learned to live with plants and understand them when they talk. From my experience thus far, I have learned to respect and listen to the plant, as well as those who know how to interact in the plant world. With more experience, I hope to learn some of that language myself. I will continue to treat my body and my spirit with ayahuasca, and work to teach others to respect it. As a former professor, the teaching part should come easily. In my current role as drug policy reformer, I will do all that I can to free this plant from the strictures that the DEA has so capriciously and arrogantly placed on it. I hope that people who read this article will join me in this effort.
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