From 'Survivor: Africa' to Surviving Cancer, Ethan Zohn Discusses His Winner's Mentality


Ethan Zohn, "Survivor: Africa" winner, discusses how his winner’s mentality helped him through treatment and how leaning on others has been key in survivorship.

As a former professional soccer player and winner of the reality TV show “Survivor: Africa,” Ethan Zohn was no stranger to overcoming challenges. In 2009, at age 35, he faced one more: a diagnosis of CD20-positive Hodgkin lymphoma.

Zohn underwent chemotherapy, radiation and two stem cell transplants — one from his brother, Lee. In an interview with Heal®, he shares how his winner’s mentality helped him through treatment and how reaching out to others has been key in recovery and survivorship.

Heal®: When you were first diagnosed, what was it like to hear the words, “You have cancer”?

Zohn: My only connection to cancer at that time was through my father, (who) died of colorectal cancer when I was 14 years old. So when I heard those three words, “You have cancer,” I instantly just thought cancer equals death. I was afraid, frustrated, confused.

cancer lymphoma cancer hodgkin's disease Ethan Zohn

How did being a professional soccer player and winning the third season of “Survivor” prepare you for cancer?

(Part of it is) having a winning mentality. On the flip side is understanding how to fail or lose and still be able to pick yourself up to come back as a stronger, better person. I’m a goalkeeper in soccer — it’s a pretty high-pressure position. I understand what it’s like to lose and have to pick yourself up to come back and perform at a high level again.

I took that kind of same attitude into my fight with cancer. (I expected to) have some ups and some downs, but over the long (haul), I’ll be a winner in this thing. And for me, that was a big part of it: to have that mentality going into it.

What was the most difficult part of having cancer?

The hardest part for me was the recovery and the survivorship. Just being a young adult going through cancer was difficult. We have a whole host of problems or concerns that (children with cancer) and older (patients with cancer) don’t necessarily have. For (kids), you have your parents. They’re there, taking care of you. (When you’re) older, maybe you’re married, you’ve got health insurance, you have a job, you have a partner. Things might be a little bit (more) settled.

As a young adult, I was 35 years old. I survived this thing, and now all of a sudden, I’ve got to live the rest of my life. Who’s going to want to date me? Can I have kids? Am I going to lose my job and have bad health insurance? I’m different than all my friends — I pressed the “pause” button on my life.

(My friends have) kids, jobs, marriage, adventures. (But that was) not for me at that time. So those psychosocial issues (I faced) as a young adult going through cancer were just debilitating for me, (as was) the anxiety and the fear of relapse.

How do you combat those challenges?

I moved out of New York City to the middle of the woods in New Hampshire. I got married. I got two therapy cats, as I like to call them. But, you know, I really, really tried to make a change in terms of (being) pumped full of (medications) just to go to bed at night. I was taking anxiety, nausea, pain and sleep medicines, and then in the morning, (I would take an) Adderall just to get up and go to the doctor. Living that cycle just consumed me. I wasn’t living a life I was proud of.

I really tried to take some control over my own well- being. For me that looked like (doing) some meditation (and using) more natural therapies that come from the Earth. I also talked to a (therapist) a lot. I leaned on the community around me and other cancer survivors who had been through a similar situation. I started talking with them and going to focus groups and doing all these incredible programs like First Descents, which (provides) outdoor adventures for young-adult cancer survivors, Epic Experience, Stupid Cancer and Twist Out Cancer. All these things really made me feel like I’m not alone.

When you go through cancer, it’s a really lonely feeling. I was never (more) surrounded by so many people who loved me more than anything in the world. But I (still) felt so alone at that time. And I’ve learned that nothing creates comfort and confidence more than knowing you’re not alone when facing life challenges. So, I encourage anyone out there who is feeling sad or lonely or depressed to reach out to other people and connect with them. And if you’ve got to, call up someone or go (see a counselor) or to organizations like Imerman Angels, which (offers) one-on-one cancer support. (Reaching out) was a game changer for me.

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