February 27, 2020

Cancer Survivor Returns to Compete in ‘Survivor: Winners at War’

Ethan Zohn; Photo by Robert Voets/CBS

In 2001, Ethan Zohn won $1million on “Survivor: Africa.” Nearly two decades later, he’s back for “Survivor: Winners at War,” competing against 20 other champions for a $2 million prize. Whether he wins or not, Zohn is celebrating a real-life victory. Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called CD20-positive Hodgkin lymphoma in 2009, he went through stem cell treatments and chemotherapy, and survived a relapse two years later. He received more stem cells from his brother in 2013 and is now cancer-free.

“I was 26 the first time I played,” Zohn told the Journal. “This was a really fun opportunity to tap back into that innocence and go on a crazy adventure. CBS put together an incredible cast of the most popular schemers of all time, so I couldn’t turn it down.”

He took part again in 2004’s “Survivor: All Stars,” where he was the 11th person voted out in the 18-player season. Zohn said he knew from his previous experience on the show that he wasn’t a lying, backstabbing, win-at-all-costs type of player. 

“I accepted who I was as a person and tried to play the game as I play my life,” he said. “I didn’t need to be front and center. How you interact with the other players determines how far you’ll go in the game. Empathy and compassion and kindness is an incredible strategy in life, and that’s what I went with. I didn’t need to prove anything to myself or to the world. For me, this was a chance to be a kid again for a while and relive what it was like before I had cancer.”

Zohn was approached in 2010 for the “Heroes vs. Villains” season but was undergoing cancer treatment at the time. “Ever since then, I’ve been working hard to get healthy physically, mentally and spiritually to prepare to play this crazy game of ‘Survivor,’ ” he said.

Nevertheless, he had concerns about participating in the upcoming season. “Will I be able to take it? What will the stress do to my body? That’s normal for anybody, but the fact that I’m a two-time cancer survivor and a bone marrow transplant recipient put a different spin on it,” he said. “Once I got the green light from my doctor, I was ready to go.” As for being tired and hungry, he said, “I’m Jewish. I’m good at suffering. It’s in our blood. We wandered the desert escaping persecution.” 

He added, “Going through cancer is easy compared to the aftereffects, the uncertainties and the invisible scars that go along with it. To pick my life up after it was more challenging than surviving it. Being out there and sharing my story allows me to give others some hope.” 

With his winnings from “Survivor: Africa,” he co-founded the charity Grassroot Soccer to prevent HIV and help youth in developing countries. To date, 2.3 million kids have graduated from the program. In partnership with Stand Up to Cancer, “Survivor” donated props for auction to benefit rare cancer research. “The money raised was used to fund smart targeted therapy, which was used to save my life,” Zohn said.

“Going through cancer is easy compared to the aftereffects, the uncertainties and the invisible scars that go along with it. To pick my life up after it was more challenging than surviving it. Being out there and sharing my story allows me to give others some hope.” — Ethan Zohn

Of Russian and Polish Jewish heritage, Zohn grew up in a Conservative home, “very involved in Jewish life. But when I got sick, I lost faith in our religion,” he said. “I was scared, pissed off, confused. When I was 14, cancer took my father at 48 years old. Cancer equaled death. And now I had it. I lost faith, but people around me didn’t. My congregation and ‘Survivor’ fans around the world took the time to pray for me. It was really touching and comforting, and that reignited a bit of faith in me.”

Zohn, who played soccer in Israel’s Maccabiah Games in 1997, returned there after he went into remission with his then-girlfriend, Lisa, whom he met at a charity poker tournament. 

“Israel was a transformational experience,” he said. “I connected with our religion again, went to all the sites, touched the [Western] Wall, talked to rabbis, planted trees. I did it all with a new perspective on life and it brought me back to my roots and made me feel part of our Tribe again.” He plans to play on the age 45-plus team in the 21st Maccabiah Games in 2021.

Lisa converted to Judaism before their wedding in 2016, and they now live in rural New Hampshire with their two cats. A motivational speaker, Zohn often works with the Jewish National Fund, the Schusterman Family Foundation, Maccabi USA and United Jewish Appeal, “giving speeches about being Jewish, living by Jewish values, my connection to Israel, the preservation of Israel. I also work with Jewish youth, encouraging them with regard to tikkun olam, giving back to the world we live in,” he said. 

Zohn is also a cannabis entrepreneur and web series host, having invested in Montkush, an organic CBD farm in Vermont. “I’ve had a positive experience using it to mitigate the side effects of chemo, especially the anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and fear that I was consumed with for about four years, to the point of debilitation,” he said. “It changed my life.” As has “Survivor.” 

“Just being healthy enough to play again is a miracle,” Zohn said. “After surviving cancer twice, this is the icing on the cake.”

“Survivor: Winners at War” premieres at 8 p.m. Feb. 12 on CBS.