“Survivor”-Winner Ethan Zohn on How Cannabis Changed His Life

When I won the reality show competition Survivor: Africa in 2001, I never imagined that a flower would be the basis for the drugs that would help me survive cancer. Nor that plant-based medicine would ultimately save me, both emotionally and physically. But that’s just the way my life has unfolded.

In case you don’t know, here’s a little of my back story: In the early 2000s, I was a professional soccer player who scored a coveted spot on the popular show Survivor. I won the competition, and, post-victory, was afforded the kinds of professional opportunities dreams are made of; I co-founded a charity I believed in, was training for the New York City marathon, and was basically on top of the world. Then, in what felt like an instant, everything changed. One day I was battling reality-show opponents for a million dollars, the next I was battling lymphoma. In 2009, I was diagnosed with a rare type of blood cancer called CD20-positive Hodgkins Lymphoma. Thus began a years-long fight for my life. 

The truth is, I couldn’t have won either fight without having nature on my side. On Survivor, we were expected to live off the land. I learned very early that survival would mean figuring out how to work with, rather than against, nature.

Nature: The World’s Pharmacy?

Post-diagnosis, chemotherapy drugs wracked my body for months. Let me state here that modern medicine is amazing, that the work done by oncologists saves lives every day — and it saved mine. Still, as the cancer meds worked, I found some comfort in learning that one of them, Vincristine, was derived from an African flower, the rosy periwinkle. It turns out that dozens of plants in nature manufacture anti-cancer agents as chemical defenses. Scientists figured this out years ago, and, today, the majority of anti-cancer drugs possess an active ingredient from the natural world. Nature is our world’s pharmacy, of course.

Which leads me to another flower and the reason I’m here today: Cannabis.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer I was open to the idea of using cannabis to help mitigate some of the harsh side effects associated with my cancer treatments. Plus, I’d been prescribed so many synthetic meds, I was hungry to discover effective natural remedies whenever I could. 

Here’s just a small snapshot of the synthetic prescription and over-the-counter drugs I was prescribed:    

SymptomMedication
PainPercocet, Vicodin (Aspirin, Tylenol, Trazodone, Neurontin, Naproxen)
NauseaZofran, Ativan (Tums, Dramamine, Prilosec)
AnxietyXanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin, Lorazepam, Trazodone
InsomniaAmbien, Lunesta (NyQuil, Melatonin, Benadryl, Ativan)
DepressionLexapro, Wellbutrin
Low Energy/MotivationAdderall, Ritalin, Caffeine
Poor AppetiteMarinol (actually a synthetic form of THC)
Sexual DysfunctionViagra

Not only was I prescribed all of these meds, there were times when I consumed ALL of these meds in one day. They were supposed to be helping with the side effects of treatment (which they did) but it was a lot of chemicals, a lot to remember, a lot of pills, a lot of money, and A LOT of side effects. Taking so many drugs for such an extended period of time had a profoundly negative impact on my mental health — it was where my anxiety was born.

Eventually I found myself in remission, sent home with a clean bill of health. But post-cancer, I couldn’t get off the hamster wheel of destructive thoughts: What if I relapse, what if I die, what if the medicine doesn’t work? My fear was dark and all-consuming, my anxiety paralyzing. I self-isolated and felt profoundly lonely. 

Post-treatment, I was supposed to be living a happy cancer-free life, but I was so controlled by my anxiety, by a fear of death (I’d lost my father to cancer when I was 14), that I wasn’t really able to live. I grew tired of wasting days worrying, being controlled by doubts and uncertainty. Being controlled by anything is not living. 

How I Use Cannabis to Control Anxiety

This is where cannabis came to the rescue. I’d heard that CBD oil or cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating extract from the cannabis plant, was a potentially effective treatment for anxiety. And I’d noticed, from my own experience, that cannabis had helped me relax, helped me change my thought patterns and be present in life again. I consulted a doctor who believed in the medicinal properties of cannabis and I started on a daily CBD (plus a bit of THC) regimen that worked best for me. Nearly immediately, the anxiety went away. I felt stable and calm. I was able to live again. 

There is still a little shame associated with using a “drug” to help. Growing up as a competitive athlete — fitness and health was my entire life — there was always a bit of a stigma around using pot or, really, any drugs. Though I was initially afraid to tell my mom (what if she thought her son had become a pothead?) in the end, my family were all so supportive and I was worried for no reason.

And after everything I’ve been through, I can say this definitively: Whenever I can, I would much rather use something that is grown from nature and processed in the healthiest way possible, than all the chemicals. Today, I use a CBD tincture daily. I take it each morning, like a multivitamin. And when I need a little something stronger, I use an oil with a 1:1 ratio CBD to THC. I’ve found a responsible way to use cannabis for my health, and it’s completely transformed my life.  

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to experience a lot of big, life-altering moments: winning at big-league soccer and reality TV, co-founding a charity, overcoming cancer, getting married. I created some of these, some were created for me. All of these events were amazing, but what I’ve learned is life is not usually about the big moments. 

It’s mostly the pleasure and quietness of small moments. A home-cooked meal with my wife. Coffee on my porch. A jog around the lake. Chopping wood. Lighting a fire. Today, I am capable of enjoying these moments without being tormented by endless anxiety. I am living a balanced and peaceful life — and cannabis is a big part of it.

We’re all survivors on this earth for just a short time. It’s not about how or when you leave this world, it’s about what you do to make the most of each day and of each challenge — big or small — while we’re still here.

There are only two things in life that we can be absolutely certain about.

  1. We all have to die.
  2. And we all have to LIVE until we die.

 
How are you going to live?

Ethan Zohn
Ethan Zohn
Ethan Zohn is a former professional soccer player, cancer survivor, winner of the hit reality television show "Survivor: Africa," and co-founder of the charity Grassroot Soccer.

4 Comments

  1. Deloris Raby Smith says:

    A great blog,Ethan!I have been following you,since “Survivor” and you have been an inspiration,to so many.God bless you!
    I have been taking Cannabis oil,for tremors.I was greatly surprised,how it has helped me.We ignore so many plants,that can be of benefit,to us.
    Glad it has helped you!

  2. Chris Hafer says:

    Well said

  3. jimmy kelleher says:

    wow so well said from a man that knows he just keeps spreading the word a powerful piece simple things are important we all should and go slower we all go to fast look what ethan said take it simple watch and explore the moment.

  4. Stephanie says:

    I’m currently going through chemo (4 rounds down!) and I find that THC is the only thing that settles me enough to sleep at night. It’s saved my mental health. Cancer patients and survivors know how hard the chemo drugs can not only be on your body but also on your psyche. If I can’t be positive while recovering from each round, then I’ve already lost. And I don’t lose. 🙏🏼❤️ My family and friends helped me accept that this “drug” was going to help me, and they were right. I’m just trying to live.

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