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Ask An Expert: Ketamine for Patients with Cancer

Read Time: 2 minutes
Benjamin R. Lewis, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry (clinical); Kevin Byrne, MD, psychiatry PGY4 resident

Patient and doctor sitting on a couch while doctor points at clipboard

What is ketamine? 

Ketamine was first made to reduce pain and help people feel more comfortable during medical procedures. It continues to serve that purpose today. It is often described as a ‘dissociative anesthetic’ because it can make patients feel detached from their pain and surroundings. It is also studied at lower doses to treat some mental health conditions, such as treatment-resistant depression. 

What is ketamine-assisted psychotherapy?

Recently, ketamine has been studied for its use with therapy to help people with depression and anxiety. In these cases, a small amount of ketamine is given through an IV, a shot in the arm, or placed under the tongue. A licensed psychiatrist or therapist is with the patient for the duration of the ketamine experience itself, which is typically paired with music and eye shades. After this monitored session with ketamine, a therapist works with the patient to explore their experience and associated thoughts and feelings in a safe and supportive environment.  

Ketamine-assisted psychotherapy is an experimental treatment. It is not yet approved by the FDA for treating mental health. However, experts at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) at the University of Utah are now providing this treatment at the HMHI Park City Behavioral Health Clinic. Studies show that about 70% of patients, including those unresponsive to standard treatments and medications, experience positive effects from ketamine treatments.

How does ketamine work?

Ketamine changes the amount of a brain chemical called glutamate, which helps build and maintain new connections between brain cells. These changes may help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by allowing people to break free from 'stuck' thinking patterns and embrace more flexible, adaptive ways of thinking.

How long does it last?

Ketamine effects usually last a few hours. All patients are monitored closely to ensure safety and well-being.

How can ketamine help people with cancer?

Cancer and other serious illnesses can bring up strong emotions such as shock, anxiety, and despair. If a diagnosis is terminal or someone is in the late stages of the disease, they may have fears about the end of life or other forms of existential concerns. To help alleviate some of these distressing feelings, an experimental ketamine treatment is being explored. This treatment can give a sense of calm, relaxation, and relief from pain. It may also provide a shift in perspective or new insights to help patients cope and process life changes.

Cancer touches all of us.