Survivor Legend Ethan Zohn Discusses His Journey Through Cancer and Back to the Island – Parade

Ethan Zohn
(Timothy Kuratek/CBS Entertainment)

This past Wednesday, millions of Survivor fans got to see 20 previous winners from the reality show’s storied past return for another shot at victory and a $2 million prize. And while each of them had a journey to getting back to the island, season 3 winner Ethan Zohn may have the most inspirational story of them all. Because up until seven years ago, not only was it up in the air whether Ethan would be playing Survivor again in 2020, it was unlikely he would even be alive to see season 40.

In 2009, five years after his last Survivor appearance, Ethan was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called CD20-positive Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He underwent several treatments since his diagnosis and was declared cancer-free in late April 2010. Then, after nearly 20 months of remission, cancer returned in his chest. Not to be deterred, Ethan continued to undergo stem-cell transplants, all the while doing charity work to promote his cause, as well as his charity Grassroot Soccer, which uses soccer to raise money and awareness to fight HIV/AIDS. In March 2013, Ethan officially declared he was cancer-free once more and has been in remission ever since. With a clean bill of health, he’s now ready to return to the game that changed him forever, with a new outlook on life.

Ethan talks with Parade.com about the experience of engaging with both Survivor and the fandom after more than a decade away, the struggles he underwent after becoming cancer-free, and his decision to use his time in the spotlight to give back.

Related: Survivor Season 40: Everything We Know So Far (Including Who Was Voted Out)!

This time last week, you got to watch your return with a special screening of the premiere on the big screen in LA What was that experience like, the culmination of everything you went through to this point?
Watching myself, I can’t believe they make us run around in our underwear! I’ll just put that out there. I’m like, “Jeff, they know we’re not shipwrecked. We get it. Give us some bathing suits, buddy! Nobody wants to watch anyone’s junk flop around.” (Laughs.)

But watching myself on TV was a rush. It’s a snapshot of my life. It’s my highlight reel, and this is my song. Being here is just another chapter in this incredibly blessed life that Survivor has given me. I’ve never watched the show with such a live audience, with fans cheering for different people and moves. It heightens the excitement for me. I realize how lucky I am and the moment we have right here. I’m just trying to drink it all in and have so much fun.

What’s it been like to engage with the fan community, considering how different it looks between now and when you first played?
When we played the game, it was like we were playing underwater compared to now. We had no idols, no clues, no ways to get back into the game, nothing. To take that one step further, we had no social media. We had printed media, radio, maybe some television spots. The way in which information is passed around is like light speed. That is indicative of the way the world works and how the game’s played. We delved deep into personal relationships, honor, integrity, trust, teamwork, and survival. We depended on each other to survive daily out there in Africa. Now it’s like “boom, boom, blindsides, backstabs, idol clues.” It’s fast-paced, rocket fuel injected into the game of Survivor both inside and outside the show.

For me, just trying to keep up with social media is a thing in and of itself! (Laughs.) I’m trying to figure out what’s going on right now. But it’s been fun to interact with it because, surprisingly, a lot of fans I’ve been connecting with are young. They were either extremely young or not alive when I was on the show. So to see a new generation of fans getting excited about the greatest show on earth is pretty exciting.

You’ve been considered one of the most well-liked and revered players in Survivor history. What has been your reaction to that label?
It feels wonderful, to be honest. (Laughs.) It lets me reminisce about my past in a way that’s really fun and exciting for my family and me. I definitely didn’t drop off the face of the earth, but I’ve been in the public eye recently more as a cancer survivor than a Survivor player. So it’s really fun and exciting. I’m very appreciative of what this show has enabled me to do in my life. So coming back on was wonderful. It’s also paying tribute to the life the show has given me, to everyone who has come before and after me who made this show what it is today.

I specifically remember the first second of the game, when we lined up on the beach. I looked down and saw $21 million–because Sandra’s won twice–as well as a history lesson. You’re looking at each person and seeing 20 years of my life, of Jeff’s life, of everyone’s lives. It’s rare that any TV show has the shelf life Survivor has. I remember in season 3, people say, “Oh, this is the last season. There’s no way this is going to go another season.” (Laughs.) September 11th happened, and nobody wanted to see a show called Survivor and see people suffer. Now look at us, 20 years later!

Though you’ve been away from Survivor for a while, you certainly haven’t strayed away from reality television at large. What drove you to want to appear on other shows, even if they weren’t on an island?
Right place, right time. It was the start of reality television as a genre. All these new shows were coming out, and having been on Survivor, most of the time, they were “celebrity” reality shows. I just said yes to everything. I never thought it would last that long. So I thought, “I’m going to get in and have as much fun as I possibly can. Because I never know when this is going to end.” So I said yes to every single opportunity possible. Why not?! (Laughs.) Plus, it’s always a good opportunity for me. I could wear a Grassroot Soocer t-shirt, or talk about my experience with cancer.

It’s good to have something valuable in your life that isn’t reality TV. I went on reality TV because it was a crazy adventure. I wanted to compete at the highest level in front of millions of people. You’re never going to get that anywhere. I didn’t grow up watching Survivor dreaming of being on, like an Adam Klein. People like him, Michele, Wendell, and Ben grew up on when I was on the show, and here they are coming out to play again because it’s been their lifelong dream to be on Surivor. My lifelong dream was to be a professional soccer player. Once I accomplished that, this was the icing on the cake.

It’s interesting you talk about never knowing when your reality TV career would end, given the way your life went. I can’t imagine what your first thought was when you received your initial cancer diagnosis
Getting diagnosed as a young adult at 35 years with a rare form of blood cancer was completely shocking to me. My only connection to cancer was through my father, who passed away when I was 14. So I only thought, “Cancer = death.” I was completely frightened and confused, as you can imagine. At that point, all my other friends were just starting their lives. They were beginning jobs and families, moving to new homes and towns. I was forced to press pause on my life, while everyone else was starting theirs. That was difficult for me. But coming out of the cancer diagnosis was more difficult for me personally.

Related: Survivor Winners at War: Lex van den Berghe on Amber Mariano and Old School Tactics

Can you elaborate on that?
When you get diagnosed, and the doctor tells you to do something or you’ll die, you do it. There’s no choice; it’s not that hard. But then, when you’re deemed healthy and in remission, all the doctors and nurses go away. And your friends start to pull away. That’s when it really got hard. Dealing with the anxiety and the fear of relapse, the dump trucks full of uncertainty, the scars that need healing. Now I’m a young adult with no job. I’m infertile; who’s going to marry me? Is it going to come back? There’s all this stuff in your mind as a young man that an older adult doesn’t face. I had to get to a point in my life where I was mentally clear, physically strong enough, and spiritually open to having an experience like Survivor. That’s the win for me. Just getting to the starting line is probably harder than anything I’ll have to do for the rest of my life.

Obviously Survivor and fighting cancer are like apples and orange. But is there anything you pulled from that experience mentally or emotionally that helped you during your treatments?
I do think my time on Survivor enabled me to learn how far I can push my body. Mentally, physically, spiritually, environmentally, socially. On Survivor, you push yourself to the max, and then you have to go even further. Coming into cancer, I’m like, “Okay, I’ve suffered before. I know this is going to suck, but I’ve been here before. You’ve just got to take it day by day and minute by minute.” You never know what’s around the corner, whether it be an Immunity Challenge or a clinical trial.

Survivor is a game of relationships. You’ve got to make friends with these people, but friendship is based on trust, and you can’t really trust anyone. With cancer, you are surrounded by so many people who love you. But it is a lonely feeling. No one knows what it’s like to have cancer unless you’ve been through it yourself. Even then, everyone’s experience is different based on who you are. There is loneliness out there on Survivor. Even though you have a tribe and alliances, the result is having fewer and fewer people around you. The concept of community exists at a level. But in the back of everyone’s minds, they want you dead. (Laughs.) So does cancer. There are surprisingly some parallels.

When you get the call to go out for season 40, what went through your head, considering how much your life has changed from the last time you played?
The game has changed, and so have I. (Laughs.) It’s not better or worse now; it’s just different. Any good player in any sport has to adapt and be open to playing with the rules that exist for that specific game at that moment. I had gotten to a point where I was comfortable in life, with my wife and my two cats in New Hampshire. I’m not the 27-year-old who doesn’t care what happens to him anymore. I’m now playing with the fact that I’ve had to go through cancer and stem cell treatment twice. No one else has brought that kind of baggage into the game. Yes, everyone out there has a story and challenges we’ve overcome to get to where we are. I don’t think anyone has had the health challenges that I’ve had going out there. I was a little nervous about leaving the world I lived in to play that game, to be honest.

Once you made that decision, how did you make sure you were ready to go back into the game?
I knew I had to do some catching up! I knew I had to get off the couch and stop smoking weed; cannabis and CBD have been huge in helping my post-cancer anxiety medically speaking. I left New Hampshire, because they called me in January and I knew I couldn’t swim in a frozen lake. My wife and I moved down to Atlanta and I started training outside. I was swimming, doing puzzles, reading body language and lip reading books. I met with my shrink; my wife hid idols in the forest for me to find every day. I thought, “If I’m going to do this, to ease my fears that I’m an old-schooler who has no place in the modern game, I want to get ready.”

Related: Survivor Winners at War: Reed Kelly Talks Natalie Anderson and the Power of Partnerships

What role has the show served in your life, especially as the years passed between appearances? I know you’ve told the story about receiving a stem cell treatment while you were watching the Heroes vs. Villains premiere.
“Survivor” is a wonderful word to describe me for a lot of different reasons. It’s been a constant in my life. I’m still known as the “Survivor guy.” I do a lot of speaking engagements, and my notoriety comes from the fact that I was on Survivor. I’m not trying to hide that fact. Survivor changed my life. It sent me on a trajectory and enabled me to do so many things I would have dreamed of doing. I am incredibly grateful and appreciative of what this show has offered me.

Not only is the show creating fans around the world, but they are also saving lives. This show is completely responsible for the fact that I was able to co-found Grassroot Soccer. I played professional soccer in Zimbabwe leading up to my time on Survivor: Africa. During the show, I played hackeysack with the children in a local village. It was a real-life moment in the middle of this cutthroat game. When I won the money, I wanted to do something great with that. I met up with some buddies of mine, and we co-founded Grassroot Soccer. We’re an adolescent health organization that has programs running in 63 countries and graduated 2.3 million kids, all because of Survivor.

Let me take that one step further for you. When I got cancer, we had just lost [Palau contestant] Jennifer Lyon. We were battling at the same time, and she didn’t make it, unfortunately. In response to that, I created “Survivor Stand Up to Cancer,” which was a partnership between the show and the cancer research organization. Every year, props are auctioned off, and the proceeds go to cancer research. Some of the money raised from 2009 to 2012 was used to fund an experimental new drug that saved my life. Talk about full circle! This show is so much bigger than people imagine, especially in my life.

You get the chance to come back to the show that has meant so much to you. Your feet hit the sands of Fiji, and you realize you’re playing Survivor again. Describe that feeling for me.
Just thinking about it gives me chills. There’s so much emotion. My heart was pumping; my brain was going crazy. There’s a lot of pressure that I’m putting on myself, the pressure to perform well, make alliances, not look stupid, and win. All this stuff is going through your head at that exact moment. The game’s about to start; Jeff Probst’s waiting for you. You’re just walking into one of the most uncomfortable comfortable situations. I’ve dreamed of this moment, hoping it unfolds positively. It was emotional. It’s a perfect little bow on this amazing life that Survivor has given me.

Source: https://parade.com/996584/mikebloom/survivor-legend-ethan-zohn-discusses-his-journey-through-cancer-and-back-to-the-island/


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