Survivor Winner Ethan Zohn
on Surviving Hodgkin Lymphoma
by Jessica Webb Errickson
In 2002, Ethan Zohn overcame the elements and pushed his mind and body to the limit, outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting 15 fierce competitors to win the million-dollar prize on Survivor: Africa. Less than a decade later, Ethan would once again have to push his mind and body to the limit in order to survive.
This time, he was facing a one-on-one duel with Hodgkin lymphoma. And in true survivor fashion, Ethan defeated his opponent not just once, but twice.
A life-long athlete, Ethan was 35 years old and training for the New York City Marathon when his cancer battle began. “I had really itchy skin,” Ethan recalls in an interview with Coping®, “and I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
It wasn’t until a lymph node under his left collarbone became visible that Ethan got an answer. Tests revealed that his debilitating itch was a symptom of Hodgkin lymphoma. “It was a little bit of a relief to get that diagnosis,” Ethan admits, “because now we could start treating it.”
Treatment began with chemotherapy, which forced Ethan to shed his famously curly locks. When his cancer continued to grow, radiation was the next step. “There were times I felt like my body had turned against me,” Ethan says. “I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t sleep; I had no energy. It was probably the worst experience of my life, but on the flip side, I knew this was a process that had the ability to cure me of lymphoma forever. So I had to have trust in the process.”
Twenty-two rounds of radiation later, Ethan was in remission. He underwent an autologous stem cell transplant and, once he recovered, began to move on with his life. Naturally, the fear of recurrence was always there. “Every single day, I would wake up and there would be a little bit of a fear that the cancer had returned,” Ethan confesses.
After almost two years of remission, just as life was getting back to normal, Ethan’s symptoms resurfaced. His fears were confirmed when 70 cancerous nodes were found in his chest during a regular PET scan.
“It was much more difficult the second time around,” Ethan says. “When your doctor has tried multiple ways of healing you that don’t work, you panic. You lose hope. You crave survival.”
Ethan was given Adcetris®, a “smart” form of chemotherapy that would target only the cancer cells. With this new drug, Ethan avoided the unpleasant side effects of standard chemotherapy and was even able to run the New York City Marathon.
The drug got Ethan into remission, and he underwent his second stem cell transplant, an allogeneic transplant using his brother Lee’s donor cells. The transplant was successful but left him vulnerable to infections, so with recovery came restrictions. “I couldn’t use public transportation. I couldn’t go to movie theaters or restaurants. I couldn’t be around large crowds or little children,” he says. “New York City is probably the worst place to live if you’re not allowed outside.”
So what kept this former professional soccer player fighting through his two rounds with lymphoma? He turned it into an athletic competition, of course. “I thought of this as the biggest soccer game of my life – the championship match worth all the marbles,” Ethan explains. “I set in my mind that I’m going to play this game. It might be a really long game, but I will win. I will come out on top.”
Ethan has gained a lot of attention from the irony that he was on the television show Survivor and is now a cancer survivor. “I guess I’m happy I wasn’t on that show Six Feet Under or The Walking Dead,” he jokes.
In a way, though, Ethan can relate his cancer experience with his time on Survivor. “The game of Survivor touches on every part of you as a human being – mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, environmental – in a similar way that cancer touches you,” he says. “I think I learned how far I can push my body, and I carried that into my cancer fight.”
Ethan is now in remission and doing well. He is very open about his experience, and he encourages other survivors to follow his example. “I think if you bottle everything up inside, it makes it more difficult to manage the situation,” Ethan explains. “So if you can, find a community or a friend or a stranger, someone you can share with and talk to about your feelings. I think you’ll find by sharing, it’ll make the process a little bit easier.”
Keep up with Ethan at EthanZohn.com and twitter.com/EthanZohn.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2013.