"The word survivor I feel has defined me for so long," says Ethan Zohn. He embodies all definitions of the word, having been a winner on the reality TV show Survivor Africa, having lost his father as a young boy, and having survived cancer (twice!). He carries the weight of knowing just how precious life can be, and he's since dedicated his life to charitable efforts — namely Grassroot Soccer, an organization Zohn co-founded with the $1 million Survivor prize money he received to strengthen communities and empower young people to stop the spread of HIV and make healthier choices in life.
Along his journey of survival, cannabis has played no small role in Zohn's transition from merely surviving to thriving. "Cannabis was incredibly helpful for this in-between phase of my life" he says. "Post-cancer, living with anxiety and fear [of it coming back], cannabis was a way to help me get out of the funk, to help me bridge that gap to where I can be thriving in life."
Before cancer, Zohn had been a "fitness freak" his entire life; he was health-conscious and in what he thought was optimal physical health. He began playing soccer at the age of six and made it as a pro-athlete, moving to Zimbabwe after college to join the premier league. When he retired from that, he tried out for the TV show Survivor at the age of 27.
Being on the show was life-changing, Zohn says. "The way I played the game was a little bit the way I played my life," he adds. "I was kind and compassionate. It's a game of relationships. My strategy was to play based on real loyal and trusting relationships. I feel like my entire time out there, I worked myself into that community [and] made myself a crucial member of it."
When he won Survivor, he used his prize money to give back. Since its inception, Grassroot Soccer has raised about $80 million, trained 11,000 "Caring Mentor Coaches," has programs in 50 countries, and has graduated 2.3 million kids from the program.
So it was an ironic "twist of fate" when Zohn was diagnosed with cancer, finding himself in a position of needing charity, rather than giving it. "My whole life has been serving others and helping others," he says. "I found myself in an interesting position."
Five years following Survivor, Zohn was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer called CD 20+ Hodgkin's Lymphoma. But he beat it, spent 20 months in remission, and went on to compete in the Amazing Race. Then he relapsed just a year later, and although he beat it again, he became ridden with anxiety about the fact that he could relapse yet again.
Throughout this time, Zohn had experimented with cannabis recreationally. "In between off seasons, I may have tried it a little bit, but never saw it as a medicine," he says. "But then I got sick and I was taking a lot of pills, just to get to bed at night and to wake up in the morning." Living in New York, before the state had approved its medical marijuana program, Zohn's doctor wouldn't write him a recommendation. So he recounts that, instead, he would meet up with a dealer down the street to get some cannabis to bring home and make pot brownies in order to mitigate the effects of the cancer treatment.
But it was after he went into remission for the second time that CBD and cannabis really became helpful in treating the anxiety and PTSD that came with the existential weight of life post-cancer, and the absence of the constant care of a doctor to look out for him. Zohn says he felt alone.
"I was so consumed by the fear of [relapse] that I wasn't living my life," he says. "I was just on a hamster wheel of destructive thoughts and decisions, trying to figure out how to live a life of uncertainty. I didn't know where I'd be in five years, or if I'd be alive."
Since cancer, Zohn made some major life changes: He got married, moved away from New York City to a small New Hampshire town out in nature, and slowed down a bit.
"Cancer is weird," he says. "I was surrounded by people who loved me more than anything in the world, but I never felt so alone in my life. No one can know what it's like to go through cancer, unless you have gone through it yourself."
Learning to cope with life after cancer was a feat in and of itself. "It's important for me to share my story," says Zohn. "Maybe the details of my life can help someone else out there. I still live with anxiety and mental health issues, and can show [that] I can use this crisis to go out there and help other people."