A lot has changed since the last time Ethan Zohn, 46, played Survivor in 2004 — in both the game AND the 46-year-old’s personal life (he’s beaten cancer TWICE). Now, Ethan is returning to the show for the historic 40th season, where he’ll compete against 19 other former winners. “It’s one of those things you almost have to say yes to,” Ethan explained to HollywoodLife EXCLUSIVELY, regarding his decision to return to the game after 16 years. “When they called me to come do this, I instantly wanted to be involved. I knew it was looming at some point, and I built myself back up after cancer mentally, physically and spiritually. So to be able to get to a point in my life where I can actually go and play this game was a huge moment for me. Just getting to the starting line was a win.”
Ethan won the third season of Survivor back in 2001. He then returned for Survivor: All Stars in 2004, but, as a former winner, he was quickly targeted, and wound up getting voted out sixth. In 2009, Ethan was diagnosed with CD20-positive Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the cancer returned in his chest in 2011. He confirmed that he was cancer free in 2013 thanks to two stem cell transplants. Of course, everyone who’s playing in Winners At War knows about Ethan’s cancer journey. He admittedly went into the game worrying that that would prevent him from lasting long on the show, as he assumed others would view him as a threat to win because the jury would favor his touching story. However, he decided to turn that around by using his past as part of his strategy.
“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have talked about [the cancer] at all,” Ethan admitted. “That’s not why I’m out there. Everyone goes through challenges in their life. Everyone out there has probably had to battle through something to get where they are today. I’m no different than anyone else. I had cancer a long time ago, I’m fine now, let’s play the game. But everyone else starts talking to me about it, so I had to use it as part of my game.”
Ethan explained that his strategy was to guilt trip the others if they used his cancer as an argument for why they wouldn’t want to go against him at the final tribal council. “I went with the angle of…are you really trying to weaponize my illness against me? How dare you!” he said. “It ended up being an okay thing. It was kind of a bridge to empathy and understanding with these people, and bottom line, Survivor is a game of relationships. So I felt that by developing these personal relationships and using my cancer story as part of that is an okay strategy. Being a little bit vulnerable with people out there was a good strategy.”
Of course, Survivor has evolved drastically since the last time Ethan played, and he said it was a bit “daunting” to come back to a “completely different” game. However, he’s super excited for fans to see how it plays out for him. “I hope people are excited just because of the magnitude of what this show represents,” Ethan concluded. “It’s like a history lesson on Survivor. There’s so many wonderful people out there and incredible players. I really feel like I don’t know where the show can go from here! So tune in because it’s going to be exciting.” Survivor premieres with a two-hour episode on Feb.12 at 8:00 p.m. on CBS.