In 1998, a man named Donald Topping wrote an article in the Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies entitled Ayahuasca and Cancer: One Man’s Experience. Topper was a retired professor of sociology and linguistics at the University of Hawai’i, a proponent of drug policy reform, an advocate for medical marijuana, and a founder of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i. He had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer and been treated, apparently successfully, with surgery. But, in September 1996, he was told that the cancer had metastasized to his liver; the next month, the right half of his liver was surgically removed. A long-time believer in alternative medicine, he refused follow-up chemotherapy.

The article he wrote two years after this diagnosis tells an extraordinary story. Beginning four months after his surgery, he drank ayahuasca four times — twice in ceremonies of the Santo Daime church, and twice with an unidentified person who claimed to have studied ayahuasca with shamans in Peru. A week after his fourth ayahuasca session, he was given a blood test for carcinoembryonic antigen, a cancer marker, and the following week the oncologist told him that his CEA count was completely normal. “You’re one of the lucky few,” the oncologist told him. Topping attributed his recovery to ayahuasca.

A year later, in 1999, he followed up with another article in the Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies entitled Ayahuasca and Cancer: A Postscript. Here he said that “the metastasized cancer appears to be in complete remission.” He said that he has no scientific understanding of how ayahuasca had the effect it did, but he suspects that it had something to do with ayahuasca realigning his cells.

Topping died of his cancer on June 29, 2003, at the age of 73, apparently having continued to refuse chemotherapy. Fewer than ten percent of patients with metastatic colorectal cancer survive for three years after the initial diagnosis; fewer than four percent survive for five years. There is no question that Topping’s seven-year survival was remarkable. The question is whether it had anything to do with his having drunk ayahuasca four times shortly after his diagnosis, and — this is unclear — at various times after that. There seems to be very little reason to believe that it did.

No scientist or physician ever considered Topping’s ingestion of ayahuasca to have anything to do with his remarkable survival. No study — indeed, as far as I know, not even a case report published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal — has ever associated ayahuasca with cancer remission. No constituent of the ayahuasca drink has ever been associated with anticancer activity.

I have found very few additional claims by cancer patients of having been cured by ayahuasca. In a 1996 interview, a woman named Anna reports having been cured of malignant breast cancer by a Peruvian shaman during a single very intense ayahuasca session, during which she was also given an infusion of the bark of a tree she calls capipa, which she says is a traditional cancer remedy, and which I have been unable to identify. The story has very few medical details. Another story, interestingly, tells of how an increase in the cancer protein marker Ca125 led the writer to fear a recurrence of her earlier — and apparently successfully treated — ovarian cancer. She was reassured by a vision during an ayahuasca session that she had no cancer, and, upon retesting, her Ca125 level had in fact returned to normal. Sadly, the reassurance proved false. A year after her ayahuasca experience, her Ca125 levels again began to rise, several small tumors were discovered, and she began chemotherapy again.

A number of curanderos claim that they can cure cancer, although, for reasons discussed below, it is often not clear that they are claiming to do so by using ayahuasca rather than other traditional healing plants. Ayahuasquero don Juan Tangoa Paima claims, for example, that he can heal cancer, as well as AIDS, epilepsy, heart disease, stomach and intestinal conditions, sexually transmitted diseases, depression, drug addiction, mental disorders, migraines, anxiety, and obesity — indeed, the “complete and total healing of any and all afflictions.” Dr. Roberto Incháustegui Gonzalez , who is the drector of the Hospital de la Luz in Iquitos, or perhaps director of the Instituto de Medicina Tropical de Loreto, has been said to cure cancer with ayahuasca, although elsewhere he claims to cure Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, psoriasis, and various forms of cancer using hierbas de la selva, jungle plants, among which ayahuasca may or may not be included.

Thus, apart from a few anecdotes and apparently inflated claims, I am aware of no scientific basis to believe that ayahuasca can cure cancer. Now this is an entirely different question from the idea that ayahuasca can bring healing in the sense of acceptance, reconciliation, or life-affirming joy. It is an entirely different question from whether any profound spiritual experience can have an effect on cancer survival — a proposition that is itself deeply controversial. And it is an entirely different question from whether some other jungle plants that are traditionally used for the purpose, such as uña de gato, Uncaria tomentosa, might have anticancer properties.

Robert Forte is a scholar of the history and psychology of the ancient and modern use of psychedelic drugs. Over the last thirty years he has worked with Stanislav Grof, Albert Hofmann, Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Claudio Naranjo, and many other figures in the modern psychedelic movement. He edited the collections Entheogens and the Future of Religion and Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In. He holds a master’s degree in the psychology of religion from the University of Chicago Divinity School, was a director of the Albert Hofmann Foundation, and taught at the University of California–Santa Cruz. He is currently adjunct faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and advisor to the Purdue University Library Special Collection on Psychoactive Substances.

On December 11, 2008, Forte posted a notice on the message board of the CancerCompass website, where he says:

There are several very compelling reports of ayahuasca — a medicine used throughout South America — combined with rigorous diet, and a profound spiritual and psychological component, being helpful in treating cancer…. I have been studying ayahuasca for several years and have received a small grant to explore its uses in its native context. I’d like to invite one or two people who have cancer to embark on a journey to Peru, for one month and see if these natural remedies work. I can show you, and perhaps introduce you to people who have done this…. I’ve posted here with the hope to find someone who might be up for an adventurous healing journey.

The message contains only two references. The first is to the second of the two articles by Donald Topping, which we discussed above; and the second is to Forte’s own book, Entheogens and the Future of Religion, whose writings, he says, “reflect my approach to these practices.” Already one person, suffering from angiosarcoma of the breast, has expressed interest.

I think what we are observing here is the slow imposition of a western idea on traditional shamanic practice in the Upper Amazon — the idea that ayahuasca is a particularly powerful healing plant. The power of its healing is then apotheosized as being a cure for cancer, the ultimate disease — intractable, unpredictable, disfiguring, deadly.

But this is not how ayahuasca is thought of in the Upper Amazon. I am aware of no ayahuasca-using culture of the Upper Amazon in which ayahuasca is considered to be autonomously healing of anything, including cancer. Rather it is viewed as a tool for diagnosis and prescription.

Shamans in the Upper Amazon do not drink ayahuasca to heal; they drink ayahuasca to get information — as Cocama shaman don Juan Curico puts it, “to screen the disease and to search the treatment.” Mestizo shaman don Manuel Córdova says the same thing: “Ayahuasca, it tells you how, but by itself it cures nothing.”

If a patient comes to an Upper Amazonian shaman to be healed of, say, cancer, the traditional purpose of drinking ayahuasca is not to heal the cancer, but rather to determine both the etiology and the treatment of the disease. The ayahuasca tells the shaman where to suck, and what healing plants to use after the carcinogenic projectile has been removed. The ayahuasca reveals to the patient the person ultimately responsible for this intrusion and the resulting cancer — the identity of the sorcerer who projected it, the faithless spouse or false business partner or offended stranger who instigated the attack.

Then other medicines, empowered by magic song, are used to heal.

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17 Responses to “Ayahuasca and Cancer”

  1. Robert Forte says:

    i don’t think of what we are trying to do as an imposition at all. more like an open hearted exploration of something vast and mysterious, inspired by a few very compelling anecdotes. i know of a case where a deadly melanoma disappeared after a deep immersion in traditional therapeutics of five different curanderos, and a breast/liver cancer was astonishingly, temporarily, aided by a three week immersion in traditional therapeutics where ayahuasca was only one, minor ingredient.. why, i wonder do you seem to have a rather pendantic response to our inquiry into something that you otherwise appear to appreciate?

  2. Steve Beyer says:

    Robert, I am delighted that you have left this thoughtful comment. You have raised two important questions. The first question has to do with the evidentiary value of anecdotes, even compelling ones, in determining treatment for life-threatening diseases. The question I addressed was whether there was any evidence that ayahuasca could cure cancer, and I found none. I tried very hard to distinguish that question from another — whether there might be other plants in the curandero pharmacopoeia that might have beneficial effects on cancer, which is a question I did not address. And I tied this discussion to the fact that the traditional use of ayahuasca in the Upper Amazon was as a means of getting information, and not as a healing remedy at all. The view that ayahuasca is a healing plant is an idea, I believe, that has been developed by North Americans, not by Amazonian mestizo and indigenous healers.

    Your second question has to do with my pedanticism, and it is a question I take seriously. What is the proper balance between head and heart on the medicine path? I have talked a little about this — here and here, for example — but it is always worth thinking about. Here is what I say in the introduction to my book on Amazonian shamanism, Singing to the Plants:

    “So, too, this book is a result of my own need to make sense of the mestizo shamanism of the Upper Amazon, to place it in context, to understand why and how it works, to think through what it means, and what it has meant for me.”

    That is what I am trying to do on this blog. I am trying to think through shamanism, medicine, and the path, and putting my thoughts out there on this blog means that I am willing to be accountable for them. So I am very pleased that you have come here to engage in this discussion with me. I would like to hear more from you on this issue.

    And please feel free to wander around the rest of the blog. Your thoughts would be very valuable to me.

  3. Robert Forte says:

    We have now returned from our month long journey to a well known ayahuasca healing-retreat center. “We,” being myself, our interpreter, and two cancer patients: a 66 year old man (an MD, with prostate cancer), and a 50 year old woman who suffers from advanced, metastasized ovarian cancer. We were in Peru from May 6 to June 6. We put ourselves in the care of a curandero/ayahuascero who was recommended by two colleagues and friends, one of them Jeremy Narby, whose book, The Cosmic Serpent, I greatly respect. The trip was intense, beautiful and sometimes difficult. We took ayahuasca in small amounts almost every other night, in addition to two primary plant concoctions every day. I will be writing a longer article about this, but just wanted to mention here that our ovarian cancer patient did not improve on any of the physical markers of her cancer. She is not in great shape now and tells me that she will soon begin chemo, again. A disappointment, for sure, to say the least. Our interpreter, a healthy, vigorous, seasoned traveller, and yoga adept, after an especially powerful and interesting ayahuasca session two weeks into the journey, had to be carried out on a stretcher and returned to the US, because of a still undiagnosed illness which brought him high fever, profound physical discomfort and digestive problems. Top medical experts in two countries have been unable to discern what made him sick. Denge, yellow fever, malaria, and all the other usual suspects, have been ruled out. But just this week I received word that the PSA count of our doctor/volunteer, steadily on the rise for five years, dropped to its 2005 level. I don’t know enough yet about the sensitivity of this measure to know if, or how, significant this is. Obviously there are many other factors, other than indigenous medicine, that may have brought about this drop in his antigens. I am a long way from making any claims, and a long way from recommending this particular route to healing. But I am enthused by these latest results which certainly invite and encourage further exploration. The next time I do this I think I will bring the curandero and his or her medicine to the patients in another country that does not include the many challenges that this expedition entailed. Perhaps, I will submit my fuller report to this web site, I don’t know, but I am interested in your comments.

    • Robert Forte says:

      I have to amend my previous summary of our expedition. Above I reported that our ovarian cancer did not improve. I said this because this is what her Canadian doctor reported–a doctor, i should add, who was NOT supportive of her quest for what he called “alternative therapies.” He told her upon return that there was no sign of improvement and recommended she go back on chemotherapy. But just last week she felt moved to request her medical records and discovered in them that her blood test for CA 125, a primary measure of ovarian cancer, actually had PLUMMETED after her immersion in traditional therapeutics from 4000 to 662. Her PCP in Montreal did not tell her. According to other physicians I have consulted, this is a dramatic and significant drop. Now we report that both patients saw significant positive changes in the progress of their cancer.

  4. Steve Beyer says:

    Robert, once again I am grateful to you for sharing this information with readers of this blog. As we have discussed, I am looking forward to your filling in some additional information, and I welcome the opportunity to present your experiences and conclusions, even if preliminarily, here on this blog.

    – Steve

  5. Vee Har O says:

    Hmmm, here is one of the few places where I am not in harmony with your ideas. Two of the instances you site are not clear how long the cancer took to develop after it was in remission after Ayahuasca. It is possible that something brought the cancer back, perhaps something dietary, genetic, we don’t know.

    My first 15 journeys with Ayahuasca were with a lovely tribe of people who did not have any Peruvian training and did not know what they were doing from traditional point of view. It was just aya + good vibes. I had profound healing in my body from this that i can personally attest too. And the healing took place over a number of ceremonies, it directly altered my spine and center line. Part of the experience felt like I was getting ‘rolfed’ from the inside out. Concerns that troubled me for years physically have been gone now for more than a year. I also sit with the medicine once or month, a few ceremonies in a row, now in a traditional setting.

    What came to me via mi momma Aya was that the healing was not her, it was both her and i working together to do the healing. The potential of perfect health is already contained in our being, and with the right guide or medicine, we can unlock it. That is what I believe.

    Other than that, I cannot thank you enough for your work. As a rationalist myself who is confronted head on with a very mysterious other, I appreciate your insight greatly and want to be your Facebook pal :)

  6. Joe says:

    This probably won’t get a reply as this is an old thread but I don’t share the view that Ayahusca is not healing in and of itself, although to say it is would be a misnomer as well. What about, for instance, Pablo Amaringo’s experience of being healed of his heart problem when young? Was not Ayahuasca the plant that opened the gate to the Doctors? The medicine is a tool no matter how you look at it but it seems it can be a key used by itself to access “the Doctorocito’s” on the other side. In this sense, I think to say Ayahuasca heals would be accurate.

  7. Jose Luis says:

    Hola el ayahuasca si cura el cancer por el motivo que trabaja desde adentro desde el alma y como nosotros somos seres espirituales en un 99% el ayahuasca afecta ese 99% y de este manera lo cura es asi de simple saludos desde Peru Jose.

    • Robert Forte says:

      I am revisiting this conversation on the first day of 2011, planning this year to bring some cancer patients together with ayahuasca, and other medicines, and see what results. I think this time we will avoid the rigors of the jungle. I would like to see if we can get similarly positive results as in 09 by organizing a month long residency of the curandero in a more modern environment, with plumbing, and without so many insects, perhaps in Ecuador. My hope is collect enough positive stories to inspire more systematic investigations. Clearly there are dramatic attenuations of cancer evident in some ayahuasca use, but we are very far from knowing how that happens. A complete analysis would take into account the physical-chemical-biological, psychological, and spiritual dimensions that ayahuasca bridges. We’ve learned that harmine and harmaline have been found to be cytotoxic, in research in Iran, and the other ingredients of the curandero’s brew, tamamuri, also. One curandero, Juan Flores, calls ayahuasca a “puertito.” Maybe i am not spelling that right. A “little door,” he calls it, that opens for the spirits of the other plants to enter. Maestro Juan Flores, an extraordinary man, Ashinika tradition, was of the opinion that if you purge, you’ve taken too much ayahuasca. “Poco a poco” was his mantra. He learned the art of healing with plants, he says, from extraterrestrials who took his abroad brightly lit rooms, like hospitals, in ships in the sky… This subject is so vast and with so many variable factors, it is a kind of insanity to have any fixed ideas about it. We are just scratching the surface. The more I tread this esoteric path, the more mysterious it becomes…

      • Steve Beyer says:

        Thank you for bringing us all up to date on your plans. I agree that we are just scratching the surface, and I am pleased that we are keeping this conversation going. The goal, of course, is to keep on learning from the sacred plants, from our teachers, and from each other. I am looking forward to hearing more about your healing work. Warmest personal regards, hermano.

      • Bill Comeau says:

        Robert, after my mother passing last month of melanoma cancer (a four year battle) and my wife just diagnosed with breast cancer I cannot thank you enough for your clinical trials with the curanderos. I have researched and tried ayahuasca for many years and I have come to your work through following my intuition. My thoughts have been about how ayahuasca, plants, diet, and energy healing can aid in the healing of cancer. Knowing what cancer patients go through with their struggle and how it takes its tole on their bodies; I agree it would be best to offer a full service retreat where the patient can relax, work with themselves, and the curanderos. Also, consider the fact that the curanderos most likely with get information on certain plant medicines to give to the patients, so access to these plants should be available. I totally believe there is unequivocal evidence to be found with these trials. Keep up the great work!

      • Heidi says:

        Hi, I am interested in your research..i have stage 2a ep+ her2- luminalb breast cancer. Had double masectomy and will do chemo soon. I would like to do traditional plus add the Iowaska and make myself available financiallt to go to these places and see if it tames the traditioal recurrence rates associated with my staging. Please contact me if u r interested. I would love to aid in a study. I am in the San Diego area. 619-517-4824
        Regards, Heidi

      • Melissa Boothroyd says:

        Wow, the Synchronicity that is happening in my life right now with regards to Natural Therapy is exciting. A few months ago I was told that I have low grade abnormal cells on my cervix, and yesterday at a Dr. App I was told it had progressed to a higher grade and they made an app for me to have surgery to have the tissue removed. I believe that we have the power to heal ourselves and in the assistance of Medicinal Plants
        I have some experience with Ayahuasca and have been to a ceremony with Juan Flores in Winnipeg. I am wondering how you experience was in 2011 and if you had positive results and if you would recommend me going to Peru to Juan Flores’ healing center?

  8. Mon problem was the cancer of testicle and I did not wanted to be castrated or submitted to chemotherapy. After reading about ayahuasca, in 1999, I went to Puerto Misahualli, Ecuador to use it. After drinking many times, during one month, the yage prepared by an old Amerindian woman, the swelling and pain went away… for ever. After, I moved into Amazon jungle to live where sunshine, air, water and food are clean. Also, my mind-body is not subjected to electromagnetic pollution. Western medicine is more dedicated to unscrew the flashing red light (treat symptoms), then to deal with the source of problems. It’s time to eliminate ALL plants from the Schedule 1 drugs list. As long as our governments will spend our resources to moralize and police us, our future will be the culture of ignorance.

  9. Firstly, thanks a million to both Steve and Robert for the work you are doing. It is so greatly appreciated.

    I had a large synovial sarcoma tumor surgically removed from my pleural cavity on November 3, 2011. Unfortunately, I learned yesterday that my latest CT scan showed two new spots in the back of my rib cage. Not sure what path to take, but I certainly do not want to be treated with chemo or radiation.

    Can anyone point me in the direction of any ongoing research in this field? I want to fight the cancer of course, but I also want to prepare mentally and spiritually for the most likely outcome.

  10. Thomas Mastroianni says:

    Most of the cancer research investigating harmine was inspired by the use of Syrian rue to treat it in the Middle East. Its presence in banisteriopsis caapi supports the idea that the brew could be an important physical medicine in fighting the disease.

    Here are links to a few papers on the subject.

  11. Maro says:

    I am 31 and have Hodgkin’s lymphoma stage 4 metastasized to the bones. I had 3 months of chemo but quit 4 months ago when I realized I have to search in a total different direction if I want to heal. Since then I am taking care of my diet have used a few psychedelics and in general I am doing my best to be positive and visualize getting well. 2 years ago I took ayahuasca. A few days after the session I had a vision in which an entity spoke to me about the power each one of us has to make ourself sick and in the end even die and that in the same way we have the power to heal. It warned me and showed me I was on the wrong path. In that moment I realized I had a choice..but unfortunately I soon forgot about it and did exactly what I was warned not to do…so..I have been thinking it must have been the spirit of the plant that spoke to me…and I have decided to go to Peru..I am very interested in the research of Forte and I would like to be in contact with him because I believe more people should search this issue and I am interested in sharing my experience. Thank you…

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