There is not just one way to cure a disease. Fifty-six-year-old Israeli patient and activist Hagit Yagoda is living proof that cannabis saves lives – but that you also have to fight for what you believe in. If she had given up without a fight, she would have died of cancer twenty years ago. Hear her story, which also features world-renowned scientists such as Raphael Mechoulam and Lumir Hanus.
At about age seventeen I felt very bad, but without particularly noticeable signs. I went to a doctor, who referred me to another doctor, who referred me to another doctor, who prescribed me medicines that didn’t help, and more medicines that didn’t help, until I found myself hospitalized one time and a second time and a third time and a fourth time – without diagnoses. No one knew what I had.
The truth is I also didn’t know what I have. I felt that something is happening inside me, and I didn’t know what. I suffered unexplained fatigue, I lost weight, I suffered from many pains and other tough phenomena – until I found out that I have cancer of a type called Hodgkin’s Disease Stage 4.
Hodgkin’s is a cancer of a type that many doctors call “good cancer”. Why good? Because as opposed to brain or lung cancer, this cancer has a pretty high recovery rate which today is over ninety percent.
Cannabis isn’t just something you smoke, but a medicine, and it can help even situations in which the doctors using conventional medicine give up and have no solutions for patients.
Of course, there is no good cancer and there is no easy cancer. The treatment for cancer – any cancer – is hard, painful, frustrating and has many medical consequences. And that’s how it was for me too. And what made matters worse, my dad died at that time. And his death destroyed me. My mental state declined, just like my physical state, and if that isn’t enough, I was let go from the Israeli Defence Force, because I was a cancer patient.
Essentially at age twenty-one I looked into the future and saw nothing. Darkness over an abyss.
Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hospice
Chemotherapy treatments took apart my body. Chemotherapy is poison that kills cancer cells, but it also kills you along the way. However, I was told I didn’t really have a choice or another alternative.
The cancer spread to certain parts of the body, and the chemotherapy made me cry from pain. I suffered from insomnia, weight loss, hair loss, chronic weakness.
After chemotherapy came the radiation stage.
As opposed to chemotherapy which affects the whole body, the radiation is meant to pinpoint a certain part of the body in which metastases are spotted. It’s approximately like sending a guided bomb from a jet to one of the rooms, hoping it won’t bring down the whole house.
And when that didn’t help either, I underwent stem cell transplants. In the end, after a year and a half of different treatments I reached a weight of thirty kilograms. And on the way I was given a few shocks of electrotherapy, until I reached a hospice. The hospice is like the lobby of Hell.
People in critical condition end up there, teeter-tottering between this world and the next. But I really wanted to stay in this world. I was always a life-loving girl, one that wanted to conquer the world, to taste everything, to dance, to laugh, to love. Instead, I sat for hours on the bed in the hospital and watched how the drops of poison enter my body drop after drop.
Mechoulam’s THC experiment
The next thing I know is that I became a participant in an experiment wherein they injected synthetic THC through the chemo treatment, to help avoid the vomiting and all the nausea that chemo causes. The experiment was conducted by Professor Mechoulam who developed this synthetic form of THC, and they wanted to check if it indeed eases the pains and nausea of various patients. I was the youngest patient in the group – but as it turned out, my body rejected this chemical extract and developed an allergy.
When I heard that my body had received cannabis, I immediately jumped and said – wait, why through the chemo? Let me smoke it. I smoked hashish anyway; in the eighties, it was a common thing among hippies, sailors, and all kinds of delinquents.
We have a lot more fighting to do to pass on the knowledge of how important it is to use cannabis in its full spectrum and to find the exact cannabis use that is best for each individual patient.
My requests worked and a few days later I brought a bong with me to the hospital and started smoking in front of everyone. I wore pink shoes, brought good music, and filled the corridors with thick, sweet smoke. I even received permission from the hospital to smoke, so that the police wouldn’t arrest me. We’re still in the late eighties, and I already had medical permission to smoke cannabis, probably being one of the first medical users in the world. I received a medical cannabis license and felt like someone who received an aviation license!
And then the cancer left. Although, frankly, cancer never leaves. It always stays in the body, it just takes a small break and goes into remission.
Looking for hashish
I continued with my life, or maybe you could say I started my life, and continued to smoke hashish even after I left the hospital. But it was really hard to acquire. It wasn’t like today where you can just send a Whatsapp message to some number on Telegrass and within an hour a deliveryman arrives at your home with a bag of cannabis, garlic bread, and a bottle of coke. Then it was considered a dangerous drug that criminals smoke on their way to become heroin addicts. So where was I supposed to get hashish? Where everyone got it from – drug dealers.
I found myself strolling through all sorts of streets in the middle of the night, this time truly like a junkie, in order to get the only thing that relieved my pain. It was a terrible feeling. Because I lost weight from the treatments and I looked sick, people thought I really was a junkie. And I just wanted to yell – hey, I’m not a junkie, I’m just a cancer patient!
Sometimes I’d go to the police station and ask them to give me some of the hashish they caught at all sorts of drug stop arrests.
Three and a half years later, in 1994, I heard knocking at the door. Knock-knock. Who’s there? It’s me, your cancer has returned. Oh, hey buddy, welcome back and go to Hell.
Cancer for the second time: Cannabis is a medicine
Everything started all over again – chemotherapy, radiation, hard medicines, weight loss, hair loss. Vomiting, anxieties, depression, and more. Except that this time I wasn’t willing to sit on the hospital bed like a sheep and I started to study the subject. Instead of sitting at pubs with friends, I decided I would study the topic of cannabis. But how do you study a topic that almost no one knew about, especially in Israel?
After my dad passed away, my mom flew to the USA with her husband. I flew to her and started researching the world of cannabis. How cannabis oil extracts are made, what is in the material, what is the difference between different types and more. The mind-set there was more open to this subject. A cannabis culture started developing there while in Israel we were in a serious delay.
The internet wasn’t developed enough to reach the information so I went to every source I could find – libraries, books, articles in English, until I reached the conclusion that in essence this was a plant that was actually a medicine.
The second visit from cancer also lasted almost two years. Immediately after finishing treatment I became pregnant. The years was 1995 and I gave birth to my eldest son Or. It was a very difficult pregnancy but I managed to survive and have a natural birth. I saw the light, thus I named him Or, which means light in Hebrew.
Becoming an activist
I continued my life and worked temporary jobs and raised my oldest son who wouldn’t stop nagging me, “Mom I want a younger brother like everyone else!” until my second son Yaniv was born in 2005. My body started declining again, and my condition was serious. This time I decided not to undergo any treatment, except cannabis. Simultaneously the Israeli government started promoting the process of cannabis medicalization. A company called Tikun Olam was established, the first cannabis farm in Israel was opened, the “Green Leaf” political party was established, and the medical system in Israel started talking about cannabis in terms of – hey maybe there’s something to this. But it still wasn’t public. The general public didn’t know about it, only a small group of researchers and doctors dealt with it, plus an annoying girl from a small suburb who had been shouting about it being a medicine for years.
So I became an activist in the field. I found a job in a communications company and succeeded greatly in the sales department. Simultaneously I continued researching the cannabis world and helped many other patients. Loved ones, friends and family, who suffered medical conditions, received a recommendation from me to smoke cannabis or take cannabis oil. It wasn’t easy because most of them didn’t even believe it was something that could help, but the few who did agree – usually those who were fed up with every other medical treatment – started understanding that this thing actually works.
Cancer for the third time: Different treatment
The year 2011. Knocking at the door again. Who’s there? Right, cancer again. Third time’s the charm?
The fact that I only smoked cannabis in the previous years and the cancer still returned a third time broke me. How could it be? Why, it’s a side-effect-free medicine unlike chemotherapy, so what was going on here?
I told my doctor that this time I wasn’t willing to receive any more chemotherapy and that I was only willing to use cannabis. He told me, “No problem, I respect your desire to die.”
During experimentation, it was discovered that patients who were treated with chemotherapy with cannabis survived a longer time than those who were solely treated with chemotherapy. It’s not that they became healthy people and turned into Colgate models, but they saw clearly that cannabis-treated oncology patients had better outcomes.
In Israel the condition to receive medical cannabis for oncological treatment was to take a year of pain medicines of all kinds. This law was the first thing that I wanted to change in order to alleviate people who were forced to take hard drugs such as opiates.
What is equally important is being there for cannabis patients during the changes they experience with usage.
The effort to change the law worked and now in Israel cancer patients can receive cannabis for pain or appetite or sleep without being required to take opiates first.
Changes in Israel were always accompanied by sorts of wars and I knew that if I wanted to achieve my goals I need to wage war. I acquired the address of our Minister of Health and went on a hunger strike in front of her private home so she could see with her own eyes how cannabis patients looked because the stigma was that those who use cannabis are sorts of criminals. In the course of days, other patients joined me. It was important to show her that we the patients are comprised of all sorts of people, including children and youths.
It was indeed an interesting encounter, and thanks to it the Medical Cannabis Unit of Israel was established, which started to organize the whole topic of treatments with cannabis (teaching doctors, nurses, and pharmacists via universities and other medical personnel in all of Israel). They defined which illnesses will be treated by doctors directly and which ones will be treated after pain examinations and slowly more and more doctors were trained in licensing medical cannabis for patient.
The right to require more
In Israel we use the two main molecules: THC and CBD. The allowed forms of their consumption are smoking, vaping, or oil (extract) mixed with olive oil. Even though we know that in Israel they developed a lot of understanding on how to take care of people with cannabis they still don’t allow us to use edibles or any drugs with more than 30% THC (which in medical treatment you need a lot more than that) or rectal suppositories. Even though in Israel we are almost 200,000 patients whose needs are broader and more varied. I always feel we have a lot more fighting to do to pass on the knowledge of how important it is to use cannabis in its full spectrum and to find the exact cannabis use that is best for each individual patient.
Because of all that, I also went to the university to get a diploma for a medical cannabis pharmacist certificate, so I could help other people via counseling for correct usage and to match each strain for patients under the relevant categories. What is equally important is being there for them during the changes they experience with usage.
Since 2016 I travel the world to talk about how important the inclusion of cannabis in the public and personal health of each person (hospitals and at home). It’s so important to understand that cannabis isn’t just something you smoke, but a medicine, and it can help even situations in which the doctors using conventional medicine give up and have no solutions for patients.
Thanks to those who believe
I went through a lot since I was a teenager that had cancer. I was faced with a close-minded and strict institution, and many doctors who were impatient and unwilling to learn, and many people who didn’t believe me and made fun of me and claimed I was hallucinating and a bit crazy because there is no research or proof that clearly states that cannabis heals cancer.
However, I did meet some professors and people along the way who did believe what I was saying. Professor Rafael Mechoulam was the person who told me not to stop, and I never stopped. The head of the Medical Cannabis Unit in the Ministry of Health, Mr. Yuval Lanshaft, believed me and knew that I would succeed in my fight. Professor Lumir Hanus explained to me how cannabidiol and anandamide work, and my personal doctor, Professor Reuven Or, helped all the oncological patients in Israel receive high doses of cannabis so that they could make their own extracts for treatment. They all deserve my sincere thanks.
Text: Hagit Yagoda
Photo: Hagit Yagoda archives