From chemo to cannabis: Beloved longtime local uses marijuana to battle leukemia |

From chemo to cannabis: Beloved longtime local uses marijuana to battle leukemia

Community members are holding a benefit concert, dinner and silent auction for local musician Leon Joseph Littlebird, who is suffering from a rare form of leukemia for the third time.
Special to the Daily |

Follow your bliss.

This mantra by writer Joseph Campbell has guided Leon Joseph Littlebird throughout his 67 years on Earth. Littlebird is fortunate in the fact that he has always known what his bliss is and has had the passion to let it guide him through life.

“For me, it’s my music,” he said.

He is a well-known Summit County musician, playing gigs around town, weddings and benefits. He recently retired as a ski instructor at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, where he had worked for over 10 years and skied for the last 64. Now he supports himself with music — which, along with skiing, is his ultimate passion in life. But he admits that he’s fortunate in the fact that he’s always known exactly what he has wanted to do.

“To have the opportunity to follow your bliss is phenomenal, but you first have to know what your bliss is,” he said. “So I’ve tried to make my life an inspiration to other people to find your bliss.”

To know him is to know his incredible enthusiasm for life, even as he struggled with a rare form of leukemia off and on over the past two decades. A bout with pneumonia in November 2015 landed him in the hospital for 21 days — to also find out that on top of that his leukemia had relapsed. But that never changed his incredible outlook on life. In fact, it has only strengthened it.

“I’ve had to learn a lot about healing in the last 20 years, not because it was my bliss or because I set out to do it, but because I got really sick. When I was first diagnosed with leukemia 20 years ago, it was so —,” he pauses, thinking. “I have a completely different relationship with leukemia now then I did 20 years ago.”



Littlebird is the definition of a local, born and raised in Summit County with a Navajo heritage from this area that goes back several generations. His great grandparents were the original settlers of Black Hawk and Central City, he said. His grandfather was born in Central City in 1863, and his father was born in Silver Plume in 1899. So what does it take to be a local?

“It helps to be born here,” he said, his robust laugh filling the room.

Twenty years ago, he was a competitive athlete in extreme skiing, training every day and also running a successful consulting business.

Suddenly, he got sick, and doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. He was misdiagnosed for a year, given steroids which “really made me sicker,” before he was told he had a rare form of leukemia called hairy cell leukemia. Doctors then started him on an aggressive chemotherapy regimen that pumped the drugs straight into his heart 24/7 for a week straight.

“Holistic treatments and alternative treatments 20 years ago were so strange they were like witchcraft or voodoo,” Littlebird said. “They were not mainstream at all, and it was so out there that the little research I could do didn’t give me any confidence that I should go that way.”

The chemo destroyed his immune system, and he said his body never recovered from it.

About seven years ago, he relapsed. This time, however, he refused to get the recommended chemotherapy treatments. On a two-week Grand Canyon trip, he met a holistic healer from Boulder who did extensive work with him using alternative therapies and healing work, and he was able to put the leukemia in remission.

“I can’t stress enough how much work it was; it took a year and a half to put it in remission,” Littlebird said.

After he relapsed, the doctors wanted to continue to give him chemo treatments every four years, but he refused, believing it would kill him before his illness would. He later found out from a doctor that other patients who had been given the same chemotherapy he had 20 years ago had all relapsed, which just reaffirmed to him his reasoning for not wanting to undergo those treatments again.

“The community rallied and did a huge benefit for me and got me through the whole thing,” he said. “It was amazing. I talked a lot about how the energy of the community and the love of people is the silver bullet. Even though the protocols and procedures I do are extensive, they take you all day just to do your treatments — it’s a 24/7 thing. Even at that, the most important thing is the love of the people around you and to be able to receive that. That energy is what gets you through; really heals you.”



Fast forward to summer 2015, when Littlebird was in the best shape of his life, he said, “65 years old and going strong, feeling like 40.”

On Nov. 14, 2015, he went to bed feeling great. But when he woke up the next morning, he was having trouble breathing, continuing to get sicker and ending up in the emergency room seven days later. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and spent a total of 21 days in the hospital.

“The pneumonia was so severe, and the treatments were so severe, that my immune system got weakened, and the leukemia came back,” he said.

Pneumonia and leukemia together can be fatal, and he was so scared at one point that he considered chemo again. It wasn’t until he left the hospital and returned to Summit, where he could see his sacred mountains, that he realized once again that, for him, it was not the way.

Being a man of faith, he said, who believes in the spirit and the divine origin of all things, he asked himself, “What is my responsibility? What am I supposed to learn from this?”

“I have a really strong knowledge that this happened to me again, so I could make it a more public healing,” he said.



He began using the same holistic treatments he had used several years ago, adding cannabis oil to the mix after spending a lot of time researching the science behind it. The doctors had told him kicking the pneumonia would take six months, but, after three months, he was completely clear. He attributes it to the work he did every day with his homeopath from Breckenridge.

His cannabis treatment included a 30-day intensive plan that had him taking 800 milligrams of Rick Simpson cannabis oil every day following a 10-day ramp up to get his body adjusted to the high levels of THC. He said he realizes that the research on using cannabis oil as treatment is still in its early stages, but that he has found, in his own research, that CBD and THC cannabinols isolate and starve irregular blood cells.

“I’m absolutely positive if I had done the chemo I’d be dead,” he said. “One could say that cannabis oil saved my life.”

He’s quick to add that cannabis oil alone isn’t enough. He spent 45 days detoxing and cleansing his body before he started with the cannabis treatment. He followed The Gerson Therapy as a whole-body approach to healing, which combines a plant-based diet with raw juices, coffee enemas and natural supplements, a natural treatment that boosts the body’s own immune system. This process gives your body what it needs to heal itself, he said, and the body is clean before introducing the cannabis oil into it.

The amount of oil Littlebird was consuming was intense — even for someone who had been smoking dope since 1963 when he toured with rock bands. He worked himself up to a gram a day, or 1,000 milligrams — a typical serving for edibles sold in dispensaries is around 10 milligrams.

He used a large syringe to measure out the dose, and then mixed it with warm coconut oil so he could consume it orally. He used his oncologist to track his progress and document how his chosen therapy was working.

“I had to get my head around thinking of it as a medicine, rather than getting high or to make you feel good,” he said. Part of that was a lot of research, a lot of study on what he was doing.

He never regrets his decision to not use chemotherapy treatments, believing that if he had, he would either be dead or still sick.

“If you compare chemo to cannabis, chemo made me really sick,” he said. “I would look in the mirror and I felt like a stranger, a prisoner in my own sick body. It’s not good for you mentally.”

He stresses that anyone who is looking into cannabis oil as a treatment needs to do the research themselves, to get educated.

“Find out the reality of how it works,” he said. “Don’t just try it because some goofball like me is a success story.”

The path he took, he said, requires a huge commitment of the mind, body and soul.

“You’ve got to love yourself. That’s a big lesson I learned in this — in order to truly heal, you need to love yourself.

“Two years later and I am healthier than a horse. I’m 67 and I’m skiing stronger than I’ve ever skied in my life. I ski with people half my age and they can’t keep up.”

This story originally published April 7, 2016. It was rewritten with updated information and interviews in April 2018, and appeared in the 2018 Rocky Mountain Marijuana magazine.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Now more than ever, your financial support is critical to help us keep our communities informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having on our residents and businesses. Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.

Your donation will be used exclusively to support quality, local journalism.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User