'Survivor' winner Ethan Zohn opens up about his cancer battle: ‘I was a healthy, young guy. You never expect it to be you.’

·6-min read
Ethan Zohn details his cancer battle to Yahoo Life.  (Photo: Ethan Zohn)
Ethan Zohn details his cancer battle to Yahoo Life. (Photo: Ethan Zohn)

Ethan Zohn is a survivor — in more ways than one. The former professional soccer player rose to fame after taking home the ultimate prize on Survivor: Africa in 2001, going on to compete on the long-running reality show twice more, as well as on programs like The Amazing Race and Fear Factor. It was in 2009, however, that he faced his most personal challenge yet: a lymphoma diagnosis.

Now, Zohn — who used some of his Survivor prize money to co-found Grassroot Soccer, an organization in support of HIV-AIDS prevention in Africa — is an ambassador for the Lymphoma Research Foundation, the nation’s largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to funding innovative lymphoma research and serving the lymphoma community with education programs, outreach initiatives and support services. Thus far, LRF has raised more than $67 million for the cause, which is close to Zohn’s heart — he credits lymphoma research with saving his life following the failure of several cancer treatments.

The reality star, who returned to Survivor last year for its 20th anniversary Winners at War season, spoke to Yahoo Life about what he’s learned from beating cancer and how Survivor changed the trajectory of his life.

What would you tell yourself looking back on your reality TV experience?

I would probably tell myself, "Dude, don’t take everything so seriously." The whole reason I tried out for Survivor was because of a series of epic failures in my life. I was cut from my soccer team, I was unemployed, I got an advertising job in New York I was fired from. I told my mom, "Everything is okay, I’ll get a job, I’m just between life choices." I signed up for Survivor on a whim, and I got on. Back then, I was just a dude looking for an adventure, so when Survivor ended it was so crazy — I was in the public eye, giving speeches and appearances, and it just got so overwhelming. I thought everything meant so much. Every single thing I said in a magazine. But fast forward a bunch of years, and cancer hit, and all that little stuff means nothing in the grand scheme of things. With cancer, things got pretty clear pretty quickly, so I wish I didn’t spend so much time stressing out about every little thing — how my hair looked. Stuff like that.

Ethan Zohn details his cancer battle to Yahoo Life.  (Photo: Ethan Zohn)
Ethan Zohn, a three-time Survivor contestant, details his cancer battle to Yahoo Life. (Photo: Ethan Zohn)

What was your cancer diagnosis experience?

In 2008, I was working with Grassroot Soccer, which is the charity that I started using the money from Survivor to start. I did this big campaign where I dribbled a soccer ball from Boston to Washington, D.C. I started getting really itchy skin, and I tried every pill, cream and lotion known to man but it didn’t help. Eventually, I was diagnosed with CD20-positive Hodgkin's lymphoma. The shock of getting that diagnosis was magnified as the only connection I had to cancer was through my dad. When I was 14, cancer came and took my dad away from me. Cancer, to me, equaled death, so when I was diagnosed, I was petrified. I was 35, I was training for the New York City Marathon. I was a healthy, young guy. You never expect it to be you. When all my friends were starting their life, I had to press pause on mine.

I went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, 22 blasts of radiation, stem cell therapy, which worked for a little while but 20 months later the cancer returned. Getting the news that the cancer had returned was deflating, because I had already had treatment and I was running out of options. Fortunately, at that exact moment in time, just when I needed it most, there was a new targeted therapy. I was then able to then get another stem cell treatment, using my brother as a donor.

Now, I’m heavily involved with the Lymphoma Research Foundation. They do an incredible amount of work for cancer research, especially blood cancer research. Personally, I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for cancer research, and for organizations like the LRF. I often think to myself, ‘How cool is it that there are complete strangers running marathons, selling cookies, donating money for a drug that helped save my life?’ That’s inspiring, and one of my roles as an ambassador is to show how incredible this organization is.

What is something that you wish more people knew about cancer?

Every 10 minutes, someone is diagnosed with lymphoma in the United States. To me, that’s not okay, and it is a disease that affects young adults. If you’re a young adult living in the United States and you’re diagnosed with cancer, most likely it is going to be lymphoma. What’s been really interesting since I returned to Survivor is that I’ve connected with fans over social media. Since I’m so accessible now, I’ve gotten many emails and DMs from fans who are like, "I saw your symptoms and because of that I went to the doctor and got diagnosed." It’s been worthwhile to share my story, to work with LRF, and to help amplify that story.

Ethan Zohn details his cancer battle to Yahoo Life.  (Photo: Ethan Zohn)
Ethan Zohn is sharing details of being a lymphoma survivor. (Photo: Ethan Zohn)

What was your most meaningful reality TV experience?

I’ve been on a lot of reality shows, some I’m proud of and some I’m not. You can guess from IMDb which ones those are. [Laughs] But on Survivor: Africa, I won a reward challenge where I received two goats. I had to take these little goats to an African village, and before I went into town I was hanging out with these kids in the parking lot of a hospital. They were touching my skin, my hair — they had never seen someone who looked like me before. I took out my luxury item, a hacky sack, and we started playing. We were having an incredible time playing and laughing — speaking the same language through the game of soccer. Before I left, I asked a nurse why all the kids were hanging out by the hospital? And she said, "These are the kids who are HIV positive."

Here I was, in the middle of this cutthroat game of Survivor, and I had that real-life experience. It was the first time I saw how this disease was really affecting the community. That’s when I decided to start a charity to help kids. Now, Grassroot Soccer is in 60 countries and we’ve graduated 13 million kids from the program — all from a silly little reality show! People often look at reality TV a certain way, but if I didn’t win Survivor and that money, in that moment in the center of the AIDS pandemic, who knows what would have happened.

Who would you love to compete with in your ideal game of Survivor?

I wouldn’t necessarily want to compete with these people, but I’d like to hang out with them on an island. I’d like to play against [Portuguese soccer player] Cristiano Ronaldo. I’d like to bring my dad back and play with him. And Bob Marley, because I’m a huge Bob Marley fan. I’ve always wanted Survivor to do a global version of Survivor. Take the winner from each country playing Survivor, and we’ll all play against each other. I think there are 23, 24 different countries playing Survivor.

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