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A “Survivor” Champion on Surviving Cancer and Returning to the Game

Photo: Courtesy of Robert Voets/CBS

Ethan Zohn is a survivor in every sense of the word. A former professional soccer player and champion of the third season of “Survivor,” Zohn’s life took a left turn in 2009 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of Hodgkin lymphoma.

“I was 35 years old,” Zohn recalls. “It forced me to hit the pause button on my life.”

The hardest part

Zohn describes the experience of battling cancer in contradictory terms. “During treatment, I have never felt so loved,” he recalls. “However, I’ve never felt so alone. It really was a very isolating situation.”

But Zohn also notes that dealing with the disease directly wasn’t the worst part. “The easy part is being sick,” he says. “It’s after cancer — it’s the dump trucks full of uncertainty, it’s the invisible scars that need healing, it’s being surrounded by doctors and nurses and families and friends the whole time you’re sick, and then you get home and poof! They disappear and you’ve got to take care of yourself — that, for me, was and still is the more difficult part of cancer. It’s hard to manage that anxiety and the fear of your cancer coming back.”

Survivor’s rules

Cancer-free since 2012, Zohn saw an opportunity to join the fight against the disease. “One of my mottos in life is ‛never let a crisis go to waste.’ When I got sick, I made a choice to share my story because maybe the details of my life can help someone else out.”

Zohn hopes others can benefit from his experience, including dealing with anxieties head-on. “I started to obsess about the what-if scenarios — what if I relapse, what if I die? So my wife created a system where if I have a fear, I write that fear down and then write a prescriptive on what to do. The next time I have this thought I pull out the paper and I’ve got that sorted, I can move on.”

Managing cancer

He also urges people to give themselves permission to explore alternative treatments. He himself is coming out of the “cannabis closet.” As a former professional athlete, he feels there is “a lot of stigma associated with cannabis. But when I was sick, I was taking Ativan, Zofran, Percocet, Wellbutrin, Ambien — five pills just to go to bed at night, and then in the morning, I’d have to pop an Adderall just to have enough energy to go to my doctor’s appointment. What’s wrong with eating a little cannabis? Now, all of a sudden, I have an appetite. I can sleep. I’m a lot more fun to be around.”

Zohn also thinks honesty is crucial for both patients and caregivers. “Everyone always said, ‛if there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know.’ I can tell you now I didn’t let anyone know. So my advice is, if you need something, ask for it. As a caregiver, listen, try to keep things as normal as possible. And just do it — don’t wait for the person to reach out and ask for help.”

Zohn’s dedication to making a difference has kept him busy on the speaking circuit, and he’s returned to “Survivor” for season 40 this year.

“I’m a science experiment — there’s no way I should be alive!” he says with a laugh. “I can guarantee you there’s not one person on the planet that’s been through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, 22 blasts of radiation, two bone marrow transplants, and has gotten themselves back to health all to play the game ‘Survivor’ again!”

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